Civilising Rural Ireland examines how modern Ireland emerged out of the social and economic transformation prompted by the rural co-operative movement. The movement emerged in response to systemic economic problems that arose throughout the nineteenth century and coincided with a wide-ranging project of cultural nationalism. Within a short space of time the co-operative movement established a swathe of creameries, agricultural societies and credit societies, leading to a radical reorganisation of rural Ireland and helping to create a distinctive Irish political economy. The work of overlooked co-operative experts is critically examined for the first time and reinserted into the process of state development. The interventions of these organisers, intellectuals and farmers built up key institutions that shaped everyday life across rural communities. The movement weathered war and revolution, to become an indispensable part of an Irish state infrastructure after independence in 1922. The strained relationship and economic rivalry that developed between Irish and British co-operators is also explored in order to illuminate the changing relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom from an economic perspective. Civilising Rural Ireland will appeal to a wide audience interested in modern Irish history and readers are introduced to an eclectic range of personalities who shared an interest in co-operation and whose actions possessed important consequences for the way Ireland developed. The creative use of local and national sources, many of which are examined for the first time, mean the book offers a new perspective on an important period in the making of modern Ireland.
This introduction emphasises the importance of economic issues and debates in the formation of the Irish state and argues for a greater consideration of rural dynamics in understanding the emergence of an Irish modernity. The economic experimentation that occurred in Ireland under the auspices of the co-operative movement reflected a transnational interest of the problem of rural life. While arguing that an understanding of the Irish Question during the late nineteenth century needs to take a fuller account of rural economic change, the chapter contextualises the history of the Irish co-operative movement within wider debates focused on the global uptake of co-operative principles. This chapter introduces key concepts that are used throughout the book such as co-operation and development.
Chapter 1 explains the origins of the Irish co-operative movement and places it within both a national context of a rapidly changing society and economy, but also within an international uptake of co-operative ideas. The co-operative movement’s values and objectives are scrutinised in the context of an increasingly polarised political climate. Irish co-operators tried to respond to social issues such as rural depopulation and perceived economic decline while promoting a particular vision of rural modernisation. Despite attempts to remain apolitical, the movement at the level of local organisations preached robust economic nationalism. The Irish movement’s relationship with the British Co-operative Wholesale Society is analysed to highlight the ways in which co-operative movements competed aggressively with one another. The chapter outlines the ideological underpinnings of the co-operative movement and how its economic mission led employees and members towards a nationalist position.
Chapter 2 focuses on how the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) disseminated co-operative societies and ideas through the rural countryside. At a national level the IAOS built up a broad social coalition that included nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants, landlords and farmers, in its efforts to popularise agricultural co-operation. This alliance proved fragile and the interventions of Horace Plunkett, the co-operative movement’s leader, sometimes threatened to undo this hard work. The IAOS also promoted its mission at a local level through its staff of professional organisers. The second half of the chapter considers the crucial role played by these co-operative organisers in the successful establishment and continued development of co-operative societies throughout the countryside.
Chapter 3 explores the co-operative movement’s changing relationship with the state in Ireland as it attempted to cultivate a co-operative population prior to the First World War. Horace Plunkett used his prominent position to lobby for the establishment of the Department for Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) for Ireland. A subsequent co-ordination of state and co-operative resources briefly shaped agricultural policy in the early years of the twentieth century. The chapter explores the factors that led to a radical reorientation of the relationship between the DATI and the IAOS after 1907 and the financial implications this had on the movement. The split between the state and movement led to an uptake of co-operative ideas by radical nationalists. This had long-term implications for the emergence of a new nationalist political economy in Ireland.
Chapter 4 analyses how the co-operative movement adjusted to a new political and economic environment during the First World War. The movement’s ability to adapt to new circumstances highlighted its importance to the rural population. Increasingly, wartime food controls frustrated the co-operative movement’s attempt to reorganise rural society. The war provided an important watershed, which led to the Irish co-operative movement’s emphatic politicisation and a subsequent loss of confidence in the British state system. The movement emerged from the war critical of government economic intervention in Ireland and asserted its blueprint for social reorganisation with added urgency.
Chapter 5 examines how the movement interacted with, and influenced, the nationalist Sinn Féin Party, which advocated complete political separation from Britain, and the labour movement. In particular, Sinn Féin utilised co-operative ideas to develop a distinctive economic plan for a theoretical Irish Republic. The breakdown of law and order and increased state violence during the Irish War of Independence threatened the existence of the co-operative movement. During 1920–21 reprisal attacks carried out by Crown forces targeted co-operative societies. By using the correspondence of local societies and contemporary news reportage this chapter considers the ways state violence undermined co-operative behaviour among the rural population and how this meant certain aspects of economic development experienced permanent setback of the eve of political independence.
Chapter 6 examines the role of the co-operative movement in the socio-economic construction of the independent Irish Free State. Despite the constraints of an unsettled political atmosphere, achievements made by co-operators before independence were further secured in the postcolonial period as the movement worked with a new Irish political administrators. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the co-operative movement continued to embed its network of societies across rural Ireland. Independent Irish governments utilised this network to promote agricultural development and set in place a series of economic policies that favoured the agricultural sector, and which remained in place until later in the twentieth century. Co-operative societies were relied upon to facilitate and deliver the state’s vision of a functioning Irish economy predicated on agriculture. Having established itself as a permanent fixture in the rural sphere, the IAOS and its network of co-operative societies exerted a highly influential presence in the independent Irish state that helped set the parameters of economic development going forward.
The conclusion summarises the overall arguments presented in previous chapters about the importance of the co-operative movement to rural development in Ireland. The long-term perspective employed throughout the book highlights the way in which the Irish co-operative movement responded to, and shaped, key political events as Ireland moved towards independence. In the years after Irish independence, the IAOS and co-operative societies played a crucial part in delivering economic policies. Finally, a note is made about the state of co-operation in Ireland in recent years.