Co-operation is a complex thing. Whether between individuals, organisations or nation-states an ability to co-operate is a crucial part of any successful relationship. An inability to co-operate often leads to a downturn in relationships with potential drastic consequences. Today, the promotion of co-operatives is one of the most effective tools used by international policymakers to stimulate economic development.2 Yet, despite the apparent commitment to co-operatives that exists at the highest levels of global politics there remains a popular misunderstanding that these are just another type of business in a crowded marketplace. Yet the contribution made by co-operative experts, practitioners and administrators must surely represent one of most singular and major contributions to the emergence of modern economic behaviour. Getting at the historical dimensions of the practice of co-operation can be a daunting task as it takes in such a broad sweep of human experience. Co-operation defines people's relationships at all levels of social interaction; from the intimate level between partners within the home, or at the highest level of geopolitics in an organisation like the United Nations. From the nineteenth century onwards, a wide range of efforts to formalise the co-operative impulse in the arrangement of social, economic and political relations came to the fore in a response to ameliorate the worst effects released by industrialisation. This book is an attempt to outline a history of one of these formalised efforts attempted in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.
The history of the co-operative movement in Ireland is one that spans an important period in the formation of the modern nation-state. This book charts the movement's progress from the establishment of the first co-operative creamery in 1889 through to the creation of a network of creameries, credit societies and agricultural stores under the umbrella of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). This organisation defined the direction of economic development in the independent Irish Free State. The essence of what constitutes co-operation can be difficult to reach and its parameters often shift, depending on the historical situation. However, at its most general, co-operative movements share the objective that members aim to derive a mutually shared benefit from a transaction. Richard Sennett defined co-operation as ‘an exchange in which the participants benefit from the encounter … [and] co-operate to do what they can't do alone’.3 In Ireland, the form of co-operation analysed in this book occurred in the context of an agrarian economy that contemporaries viewed as losing ground to international competition. A multitude of economic experiments and movements emerged across the globe in this period. Irish co-operators were influenced by, and in turn influenced, co-operative experimenters elsewhere. Co-operative movements sprang up around Europe in the late nineteenth century populated by people who saw advantages in mutual partnership with others to achieve a shared objective. These societies allowed individuals to combine their resources, talents and ideas to effect an economy of scale that granted them advantageous access to the marketplace. The co-operative principle made its greatest inroads within the retail, credit and agricultural sectors during the age of industrialisation with highly influential long-term consequences for societal development in those countries where practised.
Horace Plunkett, the founder of the IAOS, coined the slogan ‘better farming, better business, better living’ to summarise the co-operative movement's objectives. He believed that an improvement in farming and business methods flowed into the third part of the aphorism, and maintained that the impulse to create a better quality of life in rural Ireland formed the true priority of the IAOS. A member of the Anglo-Irish elite, Plunkett came from the paternalist tradition of his class and performed many public roles during his lifetime: Member of Parliament, a Unionist who became a supporter of Home Rule, author and controversialist, and most importantly an agricultural reformer who led the co-operative movement in Ireland in its first decades. The local co-operative society possessed the potential to overhaul farming methods and make agriculture a viable, even desirable, lifestyle. The reform of rural society proposed by Plunkett addressed contentious questions that included how to stem emigration from the countryside; how to create sustainable employment for the rural population; and how to keep Irish agriculture sustainable and competitive within an international marketplace. Plunkett saw the IAOS as an agency that encouraged farmers to reorganise the agrarian economy along mutualist lines, while instilling characteristics of dignity and self-reliance in the rural population.4 From the establishment of the first co-operative creamery in Drumcollogher, County Limerick in 1889, the movement peaked at over 1,000 societies and 150,000 members by 1920.5
Under Plunkett's leadership, the IAOS promoted a distinct and radical form of democratic economics. The co-operative structure of creamery societies meant farmer-members collectively owned this latest technology, but IAOS activists also believed the particular business structure presented a solution to problems of rural life and addressed social anxieties and uncertainties prevalent in the countryside.6 The result of the IAOS's interventions in the rural economy held far-reaching consequences for Irish society. The farmer sat at the centre of the IAOS's radical economic blueprint that advocated their control of all agricultural business. The formation of a co-operative society then would equip agricultural workers with the skills, tools and means to take command of their own economic destiny. Their major success came when they married together the contemporary innovation of the creamery separator to the principle of co-operation and transformed the Irish dairying industry. Co-operative societies worked along the one member, one vote principle. This granted all members an equal say in shaping the direction of the business regardless of the amount of start-up capital contributed or produce they supplied to the creamery. In a context of ongoing land redistribution from landlords to tenants, the promotion of agricultural businesses placed under the joint and equal ownership of its members further empowered farmers.7
Wherever formal attempts to organise economic activity around co-operative principles have been attempted then its outward appearance and effects have taken on a particular character. Historical circumstances and the socio-economic contexts in which co-operatives were promoted produced locally distinctive characteristics. To take the case of Burma/Myanmar, the attempts to establish a successful co-operative movement occurred in a top–down fashion, but failed to embed itself as the state did not provide the necessary structures, resources or legal environment within which these efforts might prosper. The necessary cadre of national experts in co-operation never emerged and the movement never really managed to make a profound impact on the form of development in Burma/Myanmar.8 Another factor that influenced the impact of co-operation upon national development related to the fact that co-operators organised to compete with other types of co-operators. Nowhere was this divergence in co-operative forms starker than the competing versions that originated in Ireland and Britain. The IAOS's concern with organising rural producers marked out the Irish understanding of the co-operative principle from the British co-operative movement that concentrated upon the consumer – with important consequences for the two movements. The Irish and British co-operative movements aggressively competed with one another in a race to control the Irish dairying industry.
But the rivalry between the two movements represented a clash between co-operative ideologies as much as a race to gain dominance over the Irish butter market. While Britain can claim the title of home of the modern co-operative movement, the type of co-operatives promoted as a tool for international development bear a more striking resemblance to the form that emerged in Ireland. Irish co-operatives arose to address common problems that faced farmers such as the need to access new agricultural technologies and to expand the availability of credit. These new co-operatives had an immediate effect upon the people's working lives in rural districts. Moreover, a co-operative society also played an important part in framing how the rural economy functioned, created new gender norms, and made decisive contributions to the political culture of the time.
Co-operation and the Irish question
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a great deal of economic and technical experimentation take place across Ireland. The IAOS led the way in this regard, as it outlined and promoted its vision as a new way to structure Ireland's economy and society. The idea that economic modernisation resulted from improvements to agriculture formed an intellectual orthodoxy in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century. On the eve of the Great Famine, the Irish chemist and economist Robert Kane of Queen's College in Cork had argued that ‘it is by improvements in agriculture … that the most rapid and most extensive amelioration in the condition of the people must be effected’.9 The efforts by Plunkett and others to spread economic co-operation and attempt to develop the economy built upon aspirations expressed by Kane. However, the novelty of their intervention prioritised the active participation of the peasantry. Co-operators quickly seized upon the co-operative creamery as a practical and effective institution through which a New Ireland would emerge.
The history of the IAOS highlights the complex ways in which Ireland modernised during the nineteenth century and onwards. In putting forward an economic plan rooted in a political economy of communalism, co-operators worked along a paradigm of modernisation that stressed the importance of social value and sustainable communities as well as that of increased productivity. The historical understanding of modernisation applied to Ireland is a complicated one. However, the historiography stresses how the increased social and economic liberalism that became apparent throughout the twentieth century represents Ireland's embrace of modernity. R.F. Foster argues that ‘a good deal of what characterized the country in the mid-twentieth century was obdurately pre-modern’, and not until 1972, with Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community, were ‘old moulds … broken with apparent decisiveness’.10 This arrival into the modern era strikes one as rather late and sudden. Joseph Lee views modernisation as a cumulative process that emerged out of nineteenth-century peasant-based society due to slow improvements to farming, combined with concurrent processes of depopulation and infrastructural reform. Lee gauged Irish modernity throughout the twentieth century in terms of the state's economic performance.11
Oliver MacDonagh offers a more ambivalent impression of Ireland's social and political progress. He argues how opposing views on time and place held by Irish and English people led to misunderstandings and conflict. The way in which opposing mentalités found expression in the countryside created a situation wherein social conflict over land ownership persisted throughout the nineteenth century. However, the rural Irish economy remained one operated by family units and communalism as demonstrated by the practice of cooring, or informal co-operation at the level of the neighbourhood.12 Co-operative organisers aimed to build its network of democratic businesses within this Gemeinschaft – an attempt to both preserve communal aspects of rural life while simultaneously integrating Irish farmers into a global marketplace.
With its concentration upon agriculture as the engine-house of economic progress and modernity, the Irish co-operative movement anticipated a wider process of development that grew in prominence on the global stage throughout the twentieth century. The IAOS framed an influential ideal of how development should take place through co-operation. The creation of a vibrant network of co-operative creameries, credit societies and other businesses meant that Irish farmers actively participated in directing how their communities were structured. Interventions made by co-operative organisers to the daily lives of rural people formed a central part of efforts to instigate a programme of modernisation that gained international prominence. The ideas and arguments used to promote such a modernisation project found their way into the later developmental agendas of international agencies such as the League of Nations and the United Nations.13 At present the United Nations views co-operatives as an important part of their global sustainability agenda, estimate that co-operatives comprise a global membership of 1 billion, and employs 12.6 million.14 Akhil Gupta's work has demonstrated that the concept of ‘development’ emerged as the raison d’état in postcolonial states in which agriculture forms a critical link in the forging of the modern nation.15 Ireland, then, provided international observers with a case study where dynamic attempts to solve the crisis of rural existence worked themselves out. Other agrarian nations looked to the example set by Plunkett and the IAOS as they applied a social blueprint across the Irish countryside.16
The co-operator's focus on spreading a form of modernity defined by values such as community ownership and economic democracy meant co-operative businesses viewed development as a wider project than simply one of increased productivity. The co-operative society aimed to promote local democracy in industry, foster an engaged and participatory membership, and educate farmers through practical instruction from co-operative employees. The leadership of the movement demonstrated a large degree of paternalism in the way they viewed farmers as subjects of improvement. The establishment of a co-operative society provided a means by which a modern farmer well versed in scientific business practices might be cultivated. However, Plunkett viewed the co-operative movement's establishment as occurring at a crucial juncture. The unfolding process whereby land ownership changed from landlord to tenant farmer in the late nineteenth century empowered the latter group. At the same time, farmers also faced greater responsibilities over the stewardship of Ireland's most important resource – land. The envisioned educational role to be played by co-operatives prepared farmers to maximise the resources under their control and therefore that they generated wealth to ensure that sustainable, rural communities proliferated across Ireland. In this way, the spread of the co-operative movement anticipated the idea of development as a means to secure freedom from poverty, as articulated by Amartya Sen.17 The fact that this experience of economic freedom coincided with a demand for political freedom in the early twentieth century is also not mere coincidence.
The co-operative movement played a crucial role in conceptualising the Irish nation-state by imagining this entity through its project of agricultural development and early chapters trace how this process unfolded. Yet within the narrative of Ireland's own economic development, the example of the co-operative movement is seldom more than a footnote. The dominant historical narrative suggests that the valorisation of technical and economic expertise only became wedded to national identity in the mid- to late twentieth century.18 The idea that economic nation-building in Ireland was due to a policy shift towards a more liberal, open economy in the late 1950s is now a standard trope of Irish political and historical discourse. However, this narrative downplays other developmental paradigms that existed before that date and instead signalled a story about Irish modernity that policymakers found useful to justify a particular consensus that prioritised economic liberalisation and an opening up of the Irish economy along the lines of foreign direct investment-led growth.19 The flexible developmental state that existed in Ireland by the end of the twentieth century was defined by an ‘uneasy structure of multiple alliances’ across society and between transnational corporations. A growth in socio-economic inequality characterised this type of Irish state arrangement, which continued to spiral after the economic crash of 2007–8 and the implementation of a swathe of austerity policies.20 Although the specific problems that faced the Irish state in recent years were different, there was little new in the scale and nature of these challenges. Irish co-operators at the end of the nineteenth century looked to empower and improve the quality of life for a population integrated within a globalised economy. Irish society back then was porous, responsive to change, and despite having a reputation for being economically backwards until the 1950s, proved an innovative one.
Chapter 1 looks at why Ireland's uneven integration into the nineteenth-century's global economy provided cause for concern and how co-operation provided possible solutions. The country's largest sector, agriculture, faced new challenges from a glut of overseas butter producers, but primarily from the rapid rise of Denmark's well organised dairy industry during the 1880s. However, a globally integrated marketplace also provided a source of inspiration as well as challenges and the introduction of co-operatives illustrate how this situation led to a new path for development; that is, the application of a principle with international antecedents to mitigate the effects of global sources of competition. The role of the flexible developmental state was not to instigate developmental activities per se, but rather provide the correct environment through which corporations and local networks might stimulate their own forms of economic momentum. Economic historians who have utilised a comparative approach to contrast the Irish co-operative movement with continental co-operative movements argue that Irish success fell short of its objectives.21 In Denmark, where questions of land ownership were resolved before the nineteenth century and which enjoyed high levels of educational literacy the results proved far more successful.
However, the type of state that functioned in Ireland presented more obstacles to the Irish co-operator. Remedial legislation to solve intractable the land question and expand educational provision occurred in the period, but in many ways, what one can see in the IAOS's efforts to build a more co-operative economy is also far-reaching experiment in building up the capabilities of the state. The time taken to offer farmers agricultural instruction by the IAOS's team of organisers anticipated work later conducted by the first Department of Agriculture; another agency founded by Horace Plunkett. The Congested Districts Board also performed some of these functions along Ireland's western seaboard, but the co-operative movement can claim responsibility for an immense amount of theoretical and practical experimentation that occurred in the Irish economy from the late nineteenth century onwards.22
Chapters 2 and 3 examines how the co-operative movement set out to develop the Irish economy and population stood out against the backdrop of political ferment in the years before independence. Before the First World War, the much-debated Irish Question turned on whether legislation for an autonomous Irish parliament might be enacted and what powers such a body might wield. Horace Plunkett approached Ireland's problems from a different starting position. He, and other like-minded individuals sympathetic to his arguments, re-framed the Irish Question as social and economic in nature with the improvement of rural living conditions as the central concern.23 In the late nineteenth century, the phenomenon of widespread emigration alongside the present spectre of famine led Plunkett to conclude that rural Ireland stood on the precipice of a demographic catastrophe. The Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century was a recent catastrophic event and the threat of a repeat food shortage remained a threat. The process of national decline also appeared apparent in the habitual process of emigration from rural Ireland. Plunkett argued that emigration indicated a ‘low national vitality’ with one of the most worrying symptoms shown in ‘the physical and moral effects of the drain … on youth, strength, and energy of the community’.24 Throughout his career, Plunkett argued that only a thorough co-operative reorganisation of the Irish countryside would raise living standards and stem the flow of emigration.
Economic and political cultures are inseparable. A history of co-operation provides detailed insight into the mundane concerns and priorities that mattered to people. Co-operative societies provide an entry point into complex agrarian situations whereby ‘many questions of economy, politics, society, and culture were debated’. Co-operatives provide an insight into the implications of these debates for rural society at a local level, while demonstrating how they instigated monumental change on a national level.25 The potential for historians to use the site of co-operatives to illuminate the complexity of rural society in Ireland remains under-utilised. In contrast, historians of British co-operation, which has received much recent attention, have argued that the Manchester-based Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) made important interventions in British political culture.26 Peter Gurney's seminal study argued that British co-operation constituted ‘a particular mode of consumption [that] generated fierce and protracted social conflicts’. Co-operation represented an alternative paradigm for consumption to that offered by capitalist entrepreneurs. By generating debate and conflict around the sphere of consumption, the co-operative movement shaped modern British society.27 Manu Goswami argues how, in colonial India, a discursive construction of national identity articulated the position of a community unevenly incorporated into an imperial economy. Economic ideas that offered a critique of prevailing socio-political conditions allowed anti-colonial activists to become the ‘authors of the political economy of nationhood’.28 Some of the most effective authors of a national political economy in Ireland emerged from the co-operative movement. Irish co-operators differed from their counterparts in Britain in that they were more concerned with a culture of production over consumption. While the CWS served the interests of its members, which were the working-class consumers from industrial cities, the IAOS focused instead on the interests of rural producers.
This book highlights why it is important to understand the role played by co-operatives in shaping Irish political culture. The Irish co-operative movement occupied an ambiguous, yet formative, governmental position that changed radically across the period covered. The IAOS diffused an ideology of co-operation that emerged interstitially, and which was ‘elaborated along networks distinct from but nevertheless dependent upon the official circuits of power’.29 This study redresses this gap in the historiography of the Irish state, arguing that Irish co-operators co-ordinated a serious developmental effort during the early twentieth century despite existing outside these official circuits of power. For example, the movement's relationship with the Department of Agriculture oscillated between acting as a vital instrument for rural development to an unwanted and alternative source of expertise. The complex and incongruous relationship between the voluntary co-operative movement and the state became a site of political conflict, which left an indelible mark upon Irish institutions. Despite a turbulent relationship with government institutions, the movement remained a legitimate source of authority for farmers as IAOS organisers incorporated new techniques and farming methods into their industry. By following the thread of co-operative modernisation, it is argued that the movement contributed to an Irish form of rule.
The importance of the co-operative movement, then, resided in its ability to conjure up a practical sense of what constituted the nation, while simultaneously organising the resources and ideas that helped assemble the state in Ireland. The co-operator's desire to re-make the countryside produced a reservoir of detailed economic information produced by a sprawling network of local institutions across the country and which informed subsequent legislation. The start of the First World War placed these efforts in jeopardy and in Ireland, the violent aftermath of that conflict led into a violent campaign for independence and eventual civil war. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the ways in which the movement's officials navigated these years of violence and kept the movement afloat. The establishment of an independent Irish Free State in 1922 represented a political compromise that proved unsatisfactory for many nationalists and led to civil war during 1922–23. Nevertheless, by the 1920s, a partitioned, agricultural nation-state is precisely what emerged and having gained prominence during a period of cultural renaissance, co-operative ideas found a receptive audience among the generation of nationalists that took power after independence. The final chapter argues that co-operative societies provided an important source of continuity across rural Ireland. The changing dramatis personae of Irish political administrations mattered less than the organisation of local resources to people who utilised co-operative societies on a frequent basis. As a result, co-operative organisation provided one means of ensuring that the Irish Free State experienced a degree of political and economic stability in the aftermath of revolution.
An overarching argument contained in this book is that the co-operative movement authored a specific type of ‘imagined community’ and ushered it into practical existence across the Irish countryside through its network of societies. By the 1930s, analyses of Irish independence emphasised agriculture's importance to Irish national identity. Leo Kohn, a constitutional expert on Ireland, portrayed agriculture as ‘the principal industry of the country, and it has behind it a tradition of administration which is at once more comprehensive and more Irish than that of any other government service’ (emphasis added).30 The organisation of Irish producers along co-operative lines granted them a platform to influence the development of an emergent nation-state. Co-operative organisation played a fundamental role in shaping Ireland's political culture. The Irish reconfigured co-operation to favour the interests of rural producers and in the process differentiated their version from a British conception of co-operative organisation. The IAOS's reorganisation of rural society helped link Irish political culture to the interests of producers. Moreover, as a result of this practical experimentation, the ideas associated with the co-operative economy promoted by the IAOS, were taken up by separatist nationalists and found eventual legislative expression in the Irish Free State's Agricultural Commission after independence.
Although tempting to write a history that solely concentrates on the attractive and curious personalities of those who led the co-operative movement, close examination is given to the work of the IAOS's team of organisers, employees and local figures who coalesced around the site of the co-operative. Taken together these co-operative experts played a vitally important role in engineering the form taken by the Irish state in the countryside as co-operative creameries, credit societies and other businesses resulted in a new institutional landscape. Although I examine co-operative development in different parts of the country, in later chapters I have focused in particular on the movement's experiences in County Kerry. Located in the south-west of Ireland, Kerry represented an ideal target for IAOS organisers being within the dairying heartlands that made up a region that produced key Irish exports. Many of the changes that affected rural areas in the period covered, such as land ownership reform, emigration and political violence occurred in County Kerry.31 Many of the challenges that faced new co-operative societies played out in Kerry, as did many of the innovations derived from creamery production of butter and distribution. A local analysis highlights the varied forms of resistance to co-operative expansion, which acted as a major frustration to the IAOS's attempts to organise the county's farmers. This resistance ranged from butter traders who viewed the introduction of co-operative creameries as a threat to their living, private creamery owners, and competition from the CWS who targeted the same market as the IAOS. The ways in which IAOS organisers overcame these forces to create a nationwide network of dairying and agricultural societies determined the structure of Ireland's rural economy and helped define the political climate of the early twentieth century.
The IAOS promoted a vision of an idealised community based upon reciprocity and mutual concern. The concentration upon social and economic aspects of rural life did not isolate co-operators from the contemporary debate about Ireland's political future. Rather, such a position formed an important counterpoint. The book's periodisation reflects a decision to take analysis of the co-operative movement from its emergence during the cultural revival in the 1890s through to the end of the first years of independence. This emphasises the importance of co-operation to rural people's everyday lives throughout a period that encompassed the rise of cultural nationalism, world war and revolution. Competing ideologies of nationalism and unionism did not monopolise contemporary debate. The book shows how the sustained advocacy of co-operation by the IAOS through its efforts to reorganise rural society mattered a great deal as it moulded historical understandings of Irish nationhood and identity, which still resonates today.