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The Cream Separatist Movement

Luke Gibbons

Civilising Rural Ireland: The Co-operative Movement, Development and the Nation-State, 1889-1939, by Patrick Doyle, Manchester University Press, 232 pp, £80, ISBN:978-1526124562

In a telling incident recounted in Patrick Doyle’s Civilising Rural Ireland, an official of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), the governing body of the co-operative movement, visited Abbeydorney, Co Kerry, in 1913 to address a meeting on expanding membership, only to find it had been cancelled due to two funerals taking place in the village. Robert Anderson, at the IAOS head office in Plunkett House, Dublin, expressed annoyance that “country people do not seem to value time in the slightest degree and they will spend a whole day at a funeral … and attend to nothing else”. Intent as they were on getting on, local people did not look to a version of economic improvement that failed to respect the time-honoured rituals, not to mention the wider social texture, of a community.

Part of the power of the IAOS as outlined in Patrick Doyle’s compelling history of the co-operative movement is that it promoted economic development precisely by allowing people to attend to something else: family life, communal attachments, associational networks, political solidarities, cultural renewal. Economic growth was not an end in itself, and its wider remit under the co-operative movement placed rural life at the forefront of Irish modernity, providing the material conditions for the energies of the cultural revival and the struggle for independence.

In this, Civilizing Rural Ireland can be seen as complicating the perception that post-Famine Ireland gave rise to the ascent of “economic man”, homo economicus, with no strange gods before him, in the countryside. There is no doubt that a flint-hearted mode of economic rationality took hold as the connective tissue of a largely subsistent rural economy withered, like the potato stalk, at the onset of the Great Famine. Aided by depopulation and the puritan rigourism of the devotional revolution in the Catholic church, accumulation and aggrandisement made their presence felt, as witnessed in Breandán Mac Suibhne’s recent The End of Outrage (2018), which exposed the raw nerve ends of neighbours and communities set against each other in Donegal. The figure of the “gombeen man”, memorably depicted as a bloodsucker in Bram Stoker’s first novel, The Snake’s Pass (1890), set in Mayo, came to exemplify the “mercenary ethos” (in JJ Lee’s phrase), and the mediating role of this power-broker in a modernising Ireland was dissected in Peter Gibbon’s and Michael D Higgins’s classic essay on “The Fate of the Irish ‘Gombeenman’” (1974).

Set against these trends, however, were the collective efforts that mobilised around the Land League in the early 1880s, showing that individual interests were tempered by social concerns. Not only was the land issue tied by the New Departure to the national question and Home Rule, but the concept of the “boycott” presupposed a measure of communal solidarity that countered the land-grabber or related self-centred predators. One of the paradoxes of the Land War was that while the campaign invoked communal memory of claims to land before dispossession, linking confiscation to colonial rule and landlordism, it seemed to settle for private property and individual ownership – “peasant proprietorship” of the Bull McCabe mé féin variety – in the end. (Even at that, the Bull McCabe’s value system, as portrayed in the film The Field (1990), is a strange mix of capitalist possessive individualism and ancestral rights, bound up with natal ties to the soil.) AE (George Russell) was to the point when he remarked that “turning tenants into proprietors … set up a barrier against socialism which will last, I fancy, for a couple of hundred years”, but as he later acknowledged, it did not prevent the collective mobilisation that brought about a political revolution in Ireland within a decade of his voicing these sentiments.

Patrick Doyle’s study shows at length how a retreat into private economic calculation was not the sole outcome of the Land War, for the mobilisation of interdependency and collective effort was redirected in the 1890s not just into the William O’Brien-led United Irish League but also into the rapid growth of the co-operative movement: “the organizational ability fostered by the Land League,” as Trevor West observed, “had proved important in the founding of co-operatives”. From its establishment by Horace Plunkett in 1894, the IAOS expanded to over 1,000 societies and 100,000 members by 1914, increasing to 117,000 by 1918. Unlike the co-operative movement in Britain, which served the consumer, aiming at cheaper prices, the movement in Ireland organised around producers, seeking to break the hold exerted by purely commercial interests – privately run creameries, traders, shopkeepers, middlemen, jobbers, and the ubiquitous “gombeen man” – on the community.

As these interests were the main backers of the Irish Parliamentary Party, it was not surprising, as Doyle’s book shows in detail, that the co-operative movement drew sustained opposition from John Redmond, John Dillon, and others: even Michael Davitt, a supporter of the co-operative principle, kept his distance. Plunkett’s leadership, and the involvement of progressive landlords, encouraged the IPP view that the co-operative movement was little more than an exercise of constructive unionism, attempting to kill Home Rule with kindness. John Dillon was the foremost exponent of this view (also shared on the militant side of nationalism by Fenians such as John O’Leary in relation to the Land War) that concessions on social issues acted as so much “bread and circuses”, diverting attention from larger political and constitutional questions.

In fact, as Patrick Doyle shows, the co-operative movement was Home Rule by other means, or indeed a step beyond Home Rule, putting in place the grounds for elements of self-determination in agricultural policy and practice that extended into the wider public sphere of education, recreation and culture. For this reason, the movement existed in an uneasy relationship with the state, at times thankful for state subsidies from the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction (DATI), especially when Plunkett moved to head up the body (1900-1907), but at other times being cut adrift from state support at the behest of private commercial interests.

That leading lights of the IAOS included Lord Monteagle and Lord Midleton, and that Plunkett himself was elected a Unionist MP in 1892, representing South Dublin for eight years, did not discourage this view, but the appointment of a leading Catholic intellectual such as the economist Fr Thomas Finlay SJ as vice-president of the IAOS, and the support of bishops such as Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin and Bishop Patrick O’Donnell of Raphoe, helped to cross religious and political divides. One of the landlords in the West of Ireland who played a leading, progressive role in the organisation was Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, who established several creameries and agricultural societies in the area, most notably at Drumcliffe. Another prominent supporter was Fr Jeremiah O’Donovan, the driving force in the restoration of Loughrea cathedral using Celtic revivalist decor, and the author, on leaving the priesthood and adopting the name Gerald O’Donovan, of the engaging novel Father Ralph (1913), one the few successful fictional treatments of the often troubled social cross-currents of the era. 

The primary focus of the co-operative movement was on the dairying sector, which had become industrialised following the invention of the cream separator in Scandinavia in the late 1870s. In the 1880s, Irish butter production lost its competitive advantage to the highly efficient Danish dairying sector and the establishment of a network of creameries, pooling resources of individual farmers as shareholders to purchase new technologies, became an economic imperative. But the emphasis was not solely on dairying: poultry, seeds, fertilisers, feeding stuffs, flax, home industries, implements, machinery all came within the brief of the movement, as well as hygiene and sanitation, but central to these was the provision of new modes of credit and finance. Taking a lead from the Raiffeisen system in Germany, which lent to smallholders not considered financially worthwhile by the banks, the founding of credit unions linked to co-operatives undercut reliance on the village usurer, leading eventually, with the backing of the new Irish Free State, to the establishment of the Agricultural Credit Corporation in 1927. Of course, under globalisation in the late twentieth century, corporation became the operative word, taking over from co-operation, but in its founding decades, the search for alternative sources of credit prefigures later large-scale developments such as Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, founded by Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel economics prize for pioneering microcredit which enabled women in particular to lift themselves out of poverty. Even at that, the credit union movement in Ireland today serves almost three million people with savings of €12 billion, employing 3,500 people and drawing on over nine thousand volunteers.

The need for such an initiative in Bangladesh recalls one of the side-effects of the mechanisation of butter production discussed by Doyle: the lessening of arduous physical labour among home producers of butter, mainly women, but also their subsequent unemployment and loss of financial income. The alternatives provided by poultry products and cottage textile industries failed to address this problem, and it is not surprising that a new emphasis was placed on domestic life, modernising the home as well as the farm through good housekeeping and domestic economy. Joining Horace Plunkett at the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, the journalist and novelist Charlotte O’Conor Eccles had recourse to didactic fiction to introduce pride and decorum into the Irish household. Her Domestic Economy Reader for Irish Schools: How Mary Fitzgerald Learned Housekeeping went into several editions, eventually being revised as Making Home Happy: A Practical Reader for Girls. But domestication was far from being accepted as the fate of the modern woman: the need to reclaim women’s role in public life led Ellice Pilkington to propose the founding of United Irishwomen in 1910, numbering among its ranks Louie Bennett, Susan Mitchel, Lily Yeats and Sydney Gifford (better known as Sydney Czira), and changing its name to the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in 1935.

As is clear from these developments, co-operation as envisaged by Horace Plunkett, and particularly by AE, the visionary editor of the movement’s weekly newspaper, The Irish Homestead, this was part of wider social renewal captured in Plunkett’s slogan: “Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living”. As PJ Mathews shows in his cultural history Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, The Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement (2003), the cross-pollination between transformations in agriculture and cultural movements relating to the Irish language and the National Theatre gave the lie to perceptions of a narrow economic sphere cut off from expressive or associational activities. Plunkett drew on the support of the Carnegie Trust to establish village libraries all over Ireland, and Doyle notes how the embrace of the modern is clearly evident in magic lantern and cinematographic presentations in Dromahair, Co Leitrim, as early as 1901: “only the other day,” Aodh de Blácam wrote later in Towards the Republic (1919), “we saw the Enniscorthy society establishing its own cinema.” In a utopian outtake vision in 1912, AE was even led to imagine: “We will yet see the electric light and the telephone in rural districts, and the village hall with a pleasant hum of friendship in it.”

It was these modern spaces outside conservative nationalism that attracted figures like de Blácam to co-operation. Labour and the emergent Sinn Féin movement infused doctrines of self-help and mutual aid with a new radicalism, as trade union organisation and militancy also spread to in the countryside in the aftermath of the Rising and the end of the Great War. Notwithstanding the difference from wage-labour – even rural producers had access to the means of production, however meagre in some cases, and good prices did not translate into cheaper food for wage-earners, as noted above – Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Tom Johnson and others saw in co-operation a rural expression of the collective idea, Johnson considering the “trades councils, the agricultural co-operative societies, and … the local groups of Irish Republican armies” as the “Irish counterpart of the Russian Revolution”. Inspired by AE’s promotion of a “Co-operative Commonwealth”, key Sinn Féin ideologues such as the syndicalist-leaning de Blácam and the leading Volunteer Darrell Figgis, looked to co-operation for their vision of a new Ireland. “The prevailing order under Capitalism is anti-social,” wrote de Blácam: “The Capitalistic state was ever as foreign to the nation as its chains.” For a period, Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins were also carried along by the revolutionary tide, de Valera avowing that co-operative principles were “the best social and economic framework for the nation” and Collins advocating that economic development take place “on co-operative lines rather than on the old commercial capitalist lines”. Constance Markievicz’s social thought may also be considered in this light, converting co-operation beyond the well-meaning but often paternalist initiatives of her brother Josslyn into a rural syndicalism organising from below, outside and against a centralised state: “a sort of feeling for ‘decentralization’ (modern soviets)”, as she wrote in 1919: “The country is now all organized and can do without leaders, but it has learnt that it must act together.”

As the cream separator became increasingly identified with the separatist movement, it is not surprising that creameries, and the co-operative infrastructure in general, proved a primary target of RIC and Black and Tan burnings, murders, and other atrocities during the War of Independence. Given the importance of creameries to an area, it is striking that it was not just rogue Black and Tan units who were involved in state terror but also local RIC members: two men were killed and two injured in a raid by the military and RIC on Ballymacelligot Co-operative society in November 1920. Following an investigative mission by a delegation from the British Labour Party, which confirmed the innocence of the victims, “Crown forces raided the house of the Creamery manager, and killed another two men found there.”

Doyle shows that these years of destruction, followed by Civil War, transformed the movement out of all recognition. When it regrouped in the early years of the new Free State, its reliance on the state in the form of the Dairy Disposal Company, and later the Department of Agriculture, as well as the gradual assumption of control of the movement by better-off, more “respectable” farmers, diverted co-operation to precisely that “commercial capitalist lines” denigrated by Collins, leading, among other things, to an abandonment of the interests of small farmers. The revolution was being laid to rest. In our day, certain strands have evolved into the multinational sector, exemplified by the global food brand Kerry Co-Op: a success story, no doubt, in the eyes of shareholders, but far removed from the founding ideals over a century ago.

Though not conceived as such, Patrick Doyle’s book can be considered as a much needed social and economic contribution to the decade of centenaries and deserves that wider readership that would follow its being made available in paperback. It can also be seen as laying to rest one of the cultural myths that sanctioned the conservative turn in rural policy, the idyll of Romantic Ireland. In this, the countryside is the haven of the backward look, “staying quaint and staying put” as Seamus Deane described it, while the city, industry and the white heat of technology proceeded with the business of modernisation. Implicit in the romantic image, as in the case of the noble savage, is what Mike Davis calls the “doomed peasant dogma”, the belief that the days of the rural dweller are numbered, as in frequent announcements of the flight from the land, the death of rural Ireland, the “vanishing Irish” and so on.

As Davis points out, it was a particular deterministic view of history under the Marxism of the Second International that signed the premature death warrant of the countryside, Engels famously pronouncing the “absolutely hopeless” position of “the impotent antiquated system of small production” which large-scale production would run over “as a train runs over a wheelbarrow”. The later Marx did not share this view, as is attested by his notes on the positive contribution which the village commune (mir) could make to revolution in Russia, but clearly Stalin’s uprooting of the countryside had more in common with Engels. Recently, world systems theorists such as Giovanni Arrighi have questioned whether development in the global South need follow the Western path, pointing out that in Africa or Asia the creation of a working class along European/American lines is prohibitive for capitalism: “the southern African experience showed that proletarianization, in and of itself, does not favour capitalist development – all kinds of other circumstances are required.” Participation in a market economy does not automatically subdue producers to capitalist relations of the kind which liquidate all previous forms of life (“all that is solid melts into air”, in the terms of The Communist Manifesto): rather, in cultures with histories of dispossession and conflict, it may also allow for collective action which draws on previous agrarian modes of combination. As the anthropologist James Ferguson argues, citing Marcel Mauss’s sympathetic yet critical analysis of the early years of the Bolshevik revolution, socialism is not founded on abstract notions of solidarity but draws on actually existing practices and history ‑ “a host of mutualities and free associations”, including “things like co-ops, professional associations, friendly societies, and so on that Mauss took to be the most advanced and promising manifestations of socialist transformation”.

It is in this sense that the countryside in Ireland, inspired by the co-operative movement, was the driving force of development, opening up alternative paths to the modern. Instead of crushing the wheelbarrow, the land question was “the engine”, in Michael Davitt’s famous words, “that would drive Home Rule to its destination”. Sinn Féin, which began as “the preserve of an urban bourgeois intelligentsia”, took off as a dynamic national movement when it spread to rural Ireland, the countryside radicalising the city. When the American journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd toured Ireland in the early days of the movement, he concluded that “one now finds Ireland – the lands of famines and evictions – further advanced in the organization of agricultural co-operation than England”. Patrick Doyle shows how the Irish experiment, focusing on producers and wider cultural activities, established a model that attracted widespread international interest, leading to the founding of English, Scottish and American Agricultural Organisational Societies, and inspiring related initiatives the world over.

A century later, the challenge is not just the demise of rural Ireland but also of the heavy industry, based on fossil fuels, and the manufacturing urban working class that was supposed to replace it. One might see, in fact, in the growth of a vital ecological dimension in economic development a reclaiming of the countryside and the environment for a new century. Patrick Doyle shows how, in its original inception, the co-operative movement looked to the Celtic past, and to customs of “cooring” and meitheal to anchor its modernisation project: one hundred years later, we can perhaps look to the energies released by the co-operative movement itself in its heyday for the outlines of a more equitable, environmentally conscious, future.

1/11/2019

Luke Gibbons has taught as professor of Irish Studies at Maynooth University and the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Joyce’s Ghosts: Ireland, Memory, and Modernity (2015).

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