The co-operative movement and its role in the ‘Irish Question’

Co-operatives facilitated the adoption of new technologies throughout Ireland’s rural economy.

Civilising rural Ireland – The co-operative movement, development and the nation-state, 1889–1939, Patrick Doyle, Manchester University Press (£80)

Did the experience of economic freedom coincide with a demand for political freedom in Ireland in the early twentieth century? Patrick Doyle’s book explores the co-operative movement’s role played in conceptualising the Irish nation state.

The book traces 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).

Horace Plunkett, the founder of the IAOS, summarised the co-operative movement’s objectives as “better farming, better business and better living”. In spite of Plunkett being an Anglo-Irish unionist, his co-operative ideals became popular among Sinn Féin ideologues.

At the time the Irish and British co-operative movements aggressively competed with one another in a race to control the Irish dairy industry. Furthermore, widespread emigration in the late 19th century alongside the present spectre of famine led Plunkett to conclude that rural Ireland stood on the precipice of a demographic catastrophe. He believed that only a thorough co-operative reorganisation of the Irish countryside would raise living standards and halt the flow of emigration.

Related: Patrick Doyle on co-ops and the shaping of Ireland

Under Plunkett’s leadership the IAOS promoted a distinct and radical form of democratic economics. Co-ops helped to address common problems that faced farmers such as the need to access new agricultural technologies and to expand the availability of credit. Co-operative societies also facilitated the adoption of new technologies throughout the rural economy. For example, the spread of creamery separators transformed Irish dairy production and provided the means for dairy farmers to remain competitive with their international counterparts.

The book notes that the co-operative movement in Ireland remained confined to the countryside and failed to make significant advances into urban centres. The end of 1950s witnessed a renaissance in the co-operative credit movement, followed by a rapid growth, of the credit union movement.

Doyle argues that the emergence of co-ops in food retail and brewery proves that the model still plays an important part in imagining how the Irish economy might develop once again.