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Industrial Co-operation:





Co-operation in Ireland Historical Survey.

IN presenting the following account of the birth and growth of the Co-operative Movement in Ireland, it seems necessary to point out, that the application of the co-operative principle to the main industry of the country appears likely to affect the national life of the Irish people, with a directness and importance quite unlike that exercised by it upon the national life of Great Britain.  In Great Britain the influence of the movement upon national life and character is relatively indirect.  Co-operation ranks amongst several great industrial regenerative forces, powerful and far-reaching in their effects upon the comfort and well-being of the people, but still subordinate to the tendencies of national commerce and political progress.


In Ireland the movement, although comparatively young, has “already passed out of the experimental stage,” and gives hope that it “will some day be seen to have made the last decade of the nineteenth century a fit prelude to a future commensurate with the potentialities of the Irish people.”[1]  The ground for this large and sanguine hope rests chiefly on the past social and political conditions of the country — conditions which towards the middle of the nineteenth century left Ireland depressed, despairing, and almost careless of her future.  It is not within the province of this book to deal with what is called the Irish Question, but we venture to quote the following passages, which seem to epitomise the situation, from Sir Horace Plunkett’s Ireland in the New Century in order that the student may arrive at a sympathetic appreciation of all that co-operation now means to that country:—

“The only historical causes of our present discontents to which I need now particularly refer,” says Sir Horace, “are the commercial restrictions and the land system of the past, which stand out from the long list of Irish grievances as those for which their victims were the last responsible [2] . . . . The commercial restraints imposed by England sapped the industrial instinct of the people  an evil which was intensified in the case of the Catholics by the working of the penal laws.  When these restrictions upon industry had been removed, the Irish, not being trained in industrial habits, were unable to adapt themselves to the altered conditions produced by the Industrial Revolution, as did the people of England.  And as for commerce, the restrictions, which had as little moral sanction as the penal laws, and which invested smuggling with a halo of patriotism, had prevented the development of commercial morality, without which there can be no commercial success.” . . . . “The real grievance lies in the fact that something had been taken from our industrial character which could not be remedied by the mere removal of the restrictions.”[3] . . . . “The industrial revolution . . . . found the Irish people fettered by an industrial past for which they themselves were not chiefly responsible.”[4] . . . . “Thoughtful Englishmen now recognise the righteousness of the claim for reparation, and are willing liberally to apply any stimulus to our industrial life which may place us, so far as possible, on the level we might have occupied had we been left to work out our own economic salvation”[5]

“The Irish land system suffered from the same ills as we all know the political institutions to have suffered from 
a partial and intermittent conquest. Land-holding in Ireland remained largely based on the tribal system of open fields and common tillage for nearly eight hundred years after collective ownership had begun to pass away in England.  The sudden imposition upon the Irish, early in the 17th century, of a land system which was no part of the natural development of the country, ignored, though it could not destroy the old feeling of communistic ownership, and when this vanished, it did not vanish as it did in countries where more normal conditions prevailed.  It did not perish like a piece of outworn tissue pushed off by a new growth from within; on the contrary, it was arbitrarily cut away while yet fresh and vital, with the result that where a bud should have been there was a scar.  This sudden change in the system of land-holding was followed by a century of reprisals and confiscations, and what war began the law continued.  The Celtic race, for the most part impoverished in mind and estate by the penal laws, became rooted to the soil.” . . . “They had, on account of the repression of industries, no alternative occupation, and so became, in fact if not in law, adscripti glebę[6] . . . . “  The Irish question is, then, in that aspect which must be to Irishmen of paramount importance, the problem of a national existence, chiefly an agricultural existence, in Ireland.”[7]

The chief success attained by co-operation in Ireland is in its application to agriculture, and for this reason it has acquired that direct national influence upon which so much hope is founded.

It is interesting to note that the first recorded co-operative experiment in Ireland was in connection with agriculture, and was the direct result of the influence of Robert Owen, and took the form of the community experiment at Ralahine, described in Chapter VII., and for some twenty-five years after the collapse of this experiment there appears to be no record of further attempts at co-operative effort.


Ireland had in the meantime passed through a period of fierce trial and distress.  The vitality of the nation was almost at its lowest ebb when, in 1847, the terrible famine broke down the remaining courage of the people, and allowed to flow that steady tide of emigration which still continues, though not now altogether unchecked.  In its course it has carried away to other lands over four millions of the sturdiest specimens of the Celtic race, leaving the population of Ireland in 1901 scarcely more than half what it was in 1841. [8]

During the twenty years following the great famine the tide of emigration was strongest, and the mind of the people was not in tune for constructive effort. [9]


In 1859 we find a retail store established at Inchicore, near Dublin (which is still in existence), followed by several others in various parts of the country; but so little progress seems to have been made that in 1881 there were in Ireland only seven societies, with a total membership of 500, and total sales in that year amounting to £19,058.  In 1888 these had grown to ten societies, with 1,127 members and nearly £35,000 of trade.

In July, 1888, Mr. Ernest Hart, a director of the Irish Exhibition then being held in London, invited the Southern Section of the Co-operative Union to organise a conference, to be held at the Exhibition, to discuss the possibility of extending the co-operative movement in Ireland.  The invitation was cordially accepted, and on August 1st a large gathering of southern co-operators, with a sprinkling of Irish visitors, was held, under the chairmanship of Lord Aberdeen.  A paper read by Mr. Benjamin Jones, then Hon. Secretary of the Southern Section, urged that steps should be taken to teach the principles of co-operation to the Irish workers as a means of making their labour more productive, and of increasing the amount of labour required, and suggested that co-operative effort in Ireland should begin with production, promising the help of English co-operators in this work.  The proposals were enthusiastically taken up by the conference, and a committee appointed to form a propagandist association.  The following persons were elected to undertake this work:— Messrs. Edward Vansittart Neale, George Jacob Holyoake, Benjamin Jones, Hodgson Pratt, J. J. Dent, Sedley Taylor, W. H. Bullock-Hall, Ernest Hart, and J. B. O’Callaghan.


An “Irish Co-operative Aid Association” was formed, with Mr. Ernest Hart as chairman, B. Jones as treasurer, and J. J. Dent and W. H. Bullock-Hall as hon. secretaries.  Subsequently the committee was strengthened by the addition of Mr. J. T. W. Mitchell as a representative of the Co-operative Union.  Funds were raised and the association at once put itself in communication with every one known to have influence in Ireland, and it circulated by post in every parish in that country papers explanatory of the co-operative movement and its possibilities.


In September, 1888, the Hon. Horace C. Plunkett — now well known as the leader of the Irish co-operative movement and as vice-president of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in Ireland [10] — described in the Nineteenth Century the success of the existing co-operative distributive store at Dunsany, and strongly appealed to men of all parties to assist in multiplying these societies all over Ireland; and subsequently he joined the committee of the Aid Association.


A deputation which visited Ireland on behalf of the Association, after making special inquiries, found that the expense and labour of successful organisation was more than could be continued by a voluntary association of busy men in London, and the Co-operative Union, at the instance of Mr. E. V. Neale, agreed to form an Irish Section, and to provide the necessary funds for active propaganda.  An Irish Sectional Board was accordingly formed, its first chairman being the Hon. H. C. Plunkett, and its secretary Mr. R. A. Anderson; and the London association was dissolved.  Mr. J. C. Gray was sent by the Union to Ireland to make inquiries and to advise local co-operators, and submitted a report to the following Co-operative Congress in 1889, when Mr. Plunkett attended as a delegate from the Dunsany Store and addressed the Congress upon the conditions in Ireland.

By 1891 sixteen dairy societies had been established in Ireland under the auspices of the Union, three others were in process of formation, and a special grant was voted by Congress for the extension of the work.

Thus the work was carried on until 1894, at the end of which year there were 33 dairy societies, 13 retail stores and one agency society, or a total of 47 societies, recording a total trade for that year of £268,333.   


It was found at this time that the democratic machinery of the Co-operative Union, with its central office in Manchester, was not sufficiently elastic to meet the requirements of the organisers in Ireland, and in 1894 a new society was formed and registered in Dublin for the purpose of organisation and propaganda, under the name of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, the Hon. Horace Plunkett becoming its president and Mr. R. A. Anderson secretary.  The objects of the society were stated to be:—

To improve the condition of the agricultural population of Ireland by teaching the principles and methods of co-operation as applicable to farming and the allied industries; to promote industrial organisation for any purposes which may appear beneficial; and, generally, to counsel and advise those engaged in agricultural pursuits.

At its first meeting the policy of the new society was laid down by Mr. Plunkett in the following words:—

The keynote of our proposals is the proposition that the Irish farmers must work out their own salvation; and, further, that this can only be done by combination among themselves . . . . It will be pointed out that effective combination for a productive or commercial purpose is not to be accomplished simply by a recognition of the fact that it is necessary to combine.  An association which is not to be a mere debating society, but which is to be capable of joint action, must be organised on certain well-known but rather complicated lines in order to be permanent.  The farmers, from the nature of their occupation, are incapable of evolving for themselves the principle which must be observed in framing such rules as will do justice between man and man, and harmonise the interests of all concerned.  Even when a farmer grasps the idea that he ought to combine with his neighbours he cannot put before them an intelligible and working scheme.  Now here is the point at which, without any interference with his business, without weakening his spirit of independence, without any departure from the principles of political economy, we can do the Irish farmer a great service.  To bring to the help of those whose life is passed in the quiet of the field the experience which belongs to wider opportunities of observation and a larger acquaintance with commercial and industrial affairs.

The society quickly attracted to its service many men of all political and religious opinions who had not hitherto taken part in co-operative work, but who, under the guidance of Mr. Plunkett and Mr. Anderson, soon became able and zealous propagandists.  Several have made themselves experts in all matters relating to the successful management of agricultural industries, and have engaged in the work not only of teaching co-operative principles, but also of giving advice and instruction both in the details of management of a society, and as to the technicalities of dairying and other branches of agricultural industry.

This ability to intelligently discuss and advise upon the technical details of a farmer’s work had doubtless much to do with the success of these organisers in gaining the confidence of the farmers, and in bringing into combinations a class of men notoriously difficult hitherto to bring into any form of co-operation.

Apart from its industrial value to Irishmen, co-operation has proved of enormous value in breaking down the bitter class animosities which have existed in Ireland to an extent almost unknown in Great Britain, and in creating a bond of union amongst men of every shade of opinion.  Many hold that this amelioration of social conditions is the most conspicuous success of the movement.


Before describing in detail the characteristics of the various groups of societies now at work in Ireland, it may be useful to give a summary showing the extent to which the movement had grown by the end in 1902 of 1902, the latest year for which complete figures are available. [11]

Table page 150.

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1. Ireland in the New Century, by Horace Plunkett. Page 60.

2. Ibid. page 17.

3. Ibid, page 18.

Ibid, page 19.

Ibid, page 20.

Ibid, page 21.

Ibid, page 39.

8. In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8,175,124; in 1861, 5,798,564; in 1891, 4,707,750; and in 1901, 4,456,546.

9. The number of native Irish who emigrated in 1852 was 190,322, and in 1902, 40,190.  Emigration Statistics of Ireland
, 1903. [Cd., 20 30.]

10. See Chapter XXIV., page 223.

11. The figures are taken from the
Board of Trade Labour Gazette, April, 1904. NoTE The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society’s Report for 1902 states that there were then in existence 706 societies in Ireland.  Of this number, however, 75 were auxiliaries, e.g., branches of dairy societies; and a large number of other societies although registered had not commenced working.  The Board of Trade figures given in the table may be taken to include practically every society at work in Ireland in 1902.

12. Amount lent to borrowers during the year (see Banking in the table above).