- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


The movement for the reorganisation of Irish agricultural and industrial life, to which I have already frequently referred, must now be described in practical operation. Before I do this, however, there are two lines of criticism which the very mention of a new movement may suggest, and which I must anticipate. Every year has its tale of new movements, launched by estimable persons whose philanthropic zeal is not balanced by the judgment required to discriminate between schemes which possess the elements of permanence, and those which depend upon the enthusiasm or financial support of their promoters, and are in their nature ephemeral. There is, consequently, a widespread and well justified mistrust of novel schemes for the industrial regeneration of Ireland. I confess to having had my ingenuity severely taxed on some occasions to find a sympathetic circumlocution wherewith to show cause for declining to join a new movement, my real reason being an inward conviction that nothing except resolutions would be moved. In the complex problem of building up the economic and social life of a people with such a history as ours, we must resist the temptation to multiply schemes which, however well intended, are but devices for enabling individuals to devolve their responsibilities upon the community or upon the Government, and which owe their bubble reputation and brief popularity to this unconscious humouring of our chief national defect. On the contrary, we must seek to instil into the mind of each individual the too little recognised importance of his own contribution to the sum of national achievement. The building of character must be our paramount object, as it is the condition precedent of all social and economic reform in Ireland. To explain the principles by the observance of which the agency of the association may be utilised as an economic force, while at the same time the industrial character of the individual may be developed, was one of the chief aims I had in view in the foregoing analysis of the Irish mind and character, as they have emerged from history and are stunted in their growth by present influences. The facts about to be recited will, I hope, suffice to prove that the reformer in Ireland, if he has a true insight into the great human problem with which he is dealing, may find in the association not only a healthy stimulus to national activities, but also a means whereby the assistance of the State may be so invoked and applied that it will concentrate, and not dissipate, the energies of the people.

The other criticism which I think it necessary to anticipate would, if ignored, leave room for a wrong impression as to much of the work which is being done both on the self-help and on the State-aid sides of the new movement. Education, it will be said, is the only real solvent to the range of problems discussed in this book, most other agencies of social and economic reform being of doubtful efficacy and, if they tend to postpone educational effort, positively harmful. There is much truth in this view. But it must be remembered that the backward condition of our economic life is due mainly to the fact that our educational systems have had little regard to our history or economic circumstances. We must, therefore, at this stage in our national development give to education a much wider interpretation than that which is usually applied to the term. We cannot wait for a generation to grow up which has been given an education calculated to fit it for the modern economic struggle, even if there were any probability that the necessary reforms would soon be carried against the prejudices which are aroused by any proposal to train the minds, or even the hands and eyes, of the rising generation. In the meantime much of the work, both voluntary and State-aided, now initiated in Ireland, must consist of educating adults to introduce into their business concerns the more advanced economic and scientific methods which the superior education of our rivals in agriculture and industry abroad has enabled them to adopt, and which my experience of Irish work convinces me our people would have adopted long ago if they had had similar educational advantages. And I would further point out that there is no better way of promoting the reform of education in the ordinary, the pedagogic, sense, than by bringing to bear upon the minds of parents those educational influences which are calculated to convince them of the advantage of improved practical education for their children. So to the economist and to the educationist alike I would submit that the new work of economic and social reform should be judged as a whole, and not prejudged by that hypercriticism of details which ignores the fact that the conditions with which it is attempted to deal are wholly unprecedented. I am quite content that the movement which I am about to describe should be ultimately known and judged by its fruits. Meanwhile, I think that to the intelligent critic it will sufficiently justify its existence if it continues to exist.

* * * * *

The story of the new movement, which must now be told, begins in the year 1889, when a few Irishmen, the writer of these pages among them, set themselves the task of bringing home to the rural population of Ireland the fact that their prosperity was in their own hands much more than they were generally led to believe. I have already pointed out that in order to direct the Irish mind towards practical affairs and in order effectively to arouse and apply the latent capacities of the Irish people to their chief industry, agriculture, we must rely upon associative, as distinct from individual effort; or, in other words, we must get the people to do their business together rather than separately as the English do. Fortunately for us, it happened that this course, which was clearly indicated by the character and temperament of the people, was equally prescribed by economic considerations. The population and wealth of Ireland are, I need hardly say, so predominantly agricultural that the welfare of the country must depend upon the welfare of the farming classes. It is notorious that the industry by which these classes live has for the last quarter of a century become less and less profitable. It is also recognised that the prime cause of agricultural depression, foreign competition, is not likely to be removed, while that from the colonies is likely to increase. The extraordinary development of rapid and cheap transit, together with recently invented processes of preservation, have enabled the more favoured producers in the newly developed countries of both hemispheres successfully to enter into competition in the British markets with the farmers of these islands. The agricultural producers in other European countries, although to some extent protected by tariffs, have had to face similar conditions; but in most of these countries, though not in the United Kingdom, the farmers have so changed their methods, to meet the altered circumstances, that they seem to have gained by improvement at home as much as they have lost by competition from abroad Thus our farmers find themselves harassed first by the cheaper production from vast tracts of virgin soil in the uttermost parts of the earth, and secondly by a nearer and keener competition from the better organised and better educated producers of the Continent.

While the opening up of what the economists call the 'world market,' has necessitated, as a condition of successful competition, improved methods of production for, and carriage to, the market, a third and less obvious force has effected an important change in the method of distribution in the market. The swarming populations, which the factory system has brought together in industrial centres, have to be supplied with food by a system of distribution which must above all things be expeditious. This requirement can only be met by the regular consignment of food in large quantities, of such uniform quality that the sample can be relied upon to be truly indicative of the quality of the bulk. Thus the rapid distribution of produce in the markets becomes as important a factor in agricultural economy as improved methods of production or cheap and expeditious carriage.

Now this new market condition is being met in two ways. In the United States, and, in a less marked degree, at home, an army of middlemen between the producer and the consumer attends to this business for a share of the profits accruing from it, whilst in many parts of the Continent the farmers themselves attend, partially at any rate, to the business side of their industry instead of paying others to do it all for them. I say all, for middlemen are necessary at the distributive end: but it is absolutely essential, in a country like Ireland, that at the producing end the farmers should be so organised that they themselves can manage the first stages of distribution, and exercise some control over the middlemen who do the rest. The foreign agricultural producers have long been alive to this necessity, for their superior education enabled them to grasp the economic situation and even to realise that the matter is not one of acute political controversy.

Here, then, was a definite practical problem to the solution of which the promoters of the new movement could apply their principle of co-operative effort. The more we studied the question the more apparent it became that the enormous advantage which the Continental farmers had over the Irish farmers, both in production and in distribution, was due to superior organisation combined with better education. State-aid had no doubt done a great deal abroad, but in every case it was manifest that it had been preceded, or at least accompanied, by the organised voluntary effort without which the interference of the Government with the business of the people is simply demoralising.

Generally speaking, the task before us in Ireland was the adaptation to the special circumstances of our country of methods successfully pursued by communities similarly situated in foreign countries. We had to urge upon farmers that combination was just as necessary to their economic salvation as it was recognised to be by their own class, and by those engaged in other industries, elsewhere. They must combine, so we urged on them, for example, to buy their agricultural requirements at the cheapest rate and of the best quality in order to produce more efficiently and more economically; they must combine to avail themselves of improved appliances beyond the reach of individual producers, whether it be by the erection of creameries, for which there was urgent need, or of cheese factories and jam factories which might come later; or in ordinary farm operations, to secure the use of the latest agricultural machinery and the most suitable pure-bred stock; they must combine--not to abolish middle profits in distribution, whether those of the carrying companies or those of the dealers in agricultural produce--but to keep those profits within reasonable limits, and to collect in bulk and regularise consignments so that they could be carried and marketed at a moderate cost; they must combine, as we afterwards learned, for the purpose of creating, by mutual support, the credit required to bring in the fresh working capital which each new development of their industry would demand and justify. In short, whenever and wherever the individuals in a farming community could be brought to see that they might advantageously substitute associated for isolated production or distribution, they must be taught to form themselves into associations in order to reap the anticipated advantages.

This brief statement of our general aims will furnish a rough idea of the economic propaganda which we initiated, and if I give a few illustrations of the practical application of the new principle to the farming industry, I shall have done all that will be required to leave on the reader's mind a true though perhaps an incomplete impression of the character and scope of the self-help side of the new movement. I shall first give a sketch of the unrecorded struggles of its pioneers, because these struggles prove to those engaged in social and economic work in Ireland that, in the wholly abnormal condition of our national life, no project which is theoretically sound need be rejected because everybody says it is impracticable. The work of the morrow will largely consist of the impossible of to-day. If this adds to the difficulty, it also adds to the fun.

When we arrived at the conclusion that the introduction of the principle of agricultural co-operation was a vital necessity, the first practical question which had to be decided was how the industrial army, which was to do battle for Ireland's position in the world market, should be organised and disciplined for the task. It is evident that before a body of men who have never worked together can form a successful commercial combination, they must be provided with a constitution and set of rules and regulations for the conduct of their business. These must be so skilfully contrived that they will harmonise all the interests involved. And when an arrangement has been come to which is, not only in fact but also obviously, equitable, it remains as part of the process of organisation to teach the participants in the new project the meaning, and to imbue them with the spirit, of the joint enterprise into which they have been persuaded to enter with perhaps no very clear understanding of all that is involved. There were in Ireland no precedents to guide us and no examples to follow, but the co-operative movement in England appeared to furnish most of the principles involved and a perfect machinery for their application.[37] So Lord Monteagle and Mr. R.A. Anderson, my first two associates in the New Movement, joined me as regular attendants at the annual Co-operative congresses. We were assiduous seekers after information at the head-quarters of the Co-operative Union in Manchester. We had the good fortune to fall in with Vansittart Neale, and Tom Hughes, both of whom have passed away, and with Mr. Holyoake, who, with the exception of Mr. Ludlow, is now the sole survivor of that noble group of practical philanthropists, the Christian Socialists. Mr. J.C. Gray, who succeeded Mr. Vansittart Neale as the General Secretary of the Co-operative Union, gave us invaluable help and continues to do so to this day. The leaders of the English movement sympathised with our efforts. The Union paid us the compliment of constituting our first converts its Irish Section. Liberal support was given out of the central English funds towards the cost of the missionary work which was to spread co-operative light in the sister isle. We can never forget the generosity of the workingmen in England in giving their aid to the Irish farmers, especially when it is remembered that they had no sanguine anticipations for the success of our efforts and no prospect of advantages to themselves if we did succeed.

It must be admitted that the outlook was not altogether rosy. Agricultural co-operation had never succeeded in England, where it seemed to be accepted as one of the disappointing limitations of the co-operative movement that it did not apply to rural communities in these islands. There were also in Ireland the peculiar difficulties arising from ceaseless political and agrarian agitation. It was naturally asked--did Irish farmers possess the qualities out of which co-operators are made? Had they commercial experience or business education? Had they business capacity? Would they display that confidence in each other which is essential to successful association, or indeed that confidence in themselves without which there can be no business enterprise? Could they ever be induced to form themselves into societies, and to adopt, and loyally adhere to those rules and regulations by which alone equitable distribution of the responsibility and profit among the participants in the joint undertaking can be assured, and harmony and successful working be rendered possible? Then, our best-informed Irish critics assured us that voluntary association for humdrum business purposes, devoid of some religious or political incentive, was alien to the Celtic temperament and that we should wear ourselves out crying in the wilderness. We were told that Irishmen can conspire but cannot combine. Economists assured us that even if we succeeded in getting farmers to embark on the projected enterprises, financial disaster would be the inevitable result of our attempts to substitute in industrial undertakings, ever becoming more technical and requiring more and more commercial knowledge and experience, democratic management for one-man control.

On the other hand there were some favouring conditions, the importance of which our studies of the human problems already discussed will have made my readers realise. Isolated, the Irish farmer is conservative, sceptical of innovations, a believer in routine and tradition. In union with his fellows, he is progressive, open to ideas, and wonderfully keen at grasping the essential features of any new proposal for his advancement. He was, then, himself eminently a subject for co-operative treatment, and his circumstances were equally so. The smallness of his holding, the lack of capital, and the backwardness of his methods made him helpless in competition with his rivals abroad. The process of organisation was also, to some extent, facilitated by the insight the people had been given by the Land League into the power of combination, and by the education they had received in the conduct of meetings. It was a great advantage that there was a machinery ready at hand for getting people together, and a procedure fully understood for giving expression to the sense of the meeting. On the other hand, the domination of a powerful central body, which was held to be essential to the success of the political and agrarian movement, had exercised an influence which added enormously to the difficulty of getting the people to act on their own initiative.

Though the economic conditions of the Irish farmer clearly indicated a need for the application of co-operative effort to all branches of his industry, it was necessary at the beginning to embrace a more limited aim. It happened at the time we commenced our Irish work that one branch of farming, the dairying industry, presented features admirably adapted to our methods. This industry was, so to speak, ripe for its industrial development, for its change from a home to a factory industry. New machinery, costly but highly efficient, had enabled the factory product, notably that of Denmark and Sweden, to compete successfully with the home-made article, both in quality and cost of production. Here, it will be observed, was an opportunity for an experiment in co-operative production, under modern industrial conditions, which would put the associative qualities of the Irish farmer to a test which the British artisan had not stood quite as well as the founders of the co-operative movement had anticipated. To add to the interest of the situation, capitalists had seized upon the material advantages which the abundant supply of Irish milk afforded, and the green pastures of the "Golden Vein" were studded with snow white creameries which proclaimed the transfer of this great Irish industry from the tiller of the soil to the man of commerce. The new-comers secured the milk of the district by giving the farmer much more for his milk than it was worth to him, so long as he pursued the old methods of home manufacture. This induced farmers to go out of the butter-making business. After a while the price was reduced, and the proprietor, finding it necessary to give the suppliers only what they could make out of their milk without his modern equipment, realised profits altogether out of proportion to his share of the capital embarked or the labour involved in the production of the butter.

The economic position was ideal for our purpose, and we had no difficulty in explaining it to the farmers themselves. The social problem was the real difficulty. To all suggestions of co-operative action they at first opposed a hopeless non possumus. Their objections may be summed up thus:--They had never combined for any business purpose. How could they trust the Committee they were asked to elect from amongst themselves to expend their money and conduct their business? It was all very well for the proprietor with his ample capital, free hand, and business experience, to work with complicated machinery and to consign his butter out of the reach of the local butter buyer, and to save the waste and delay of the local butter market. But they knew nothing of the business and would only make fools of themselves. The promoters--they were not putting anything into the scheme--how much did they intend to take out?[38]

There was nothing in this attitude of mind which we had not fully anticipated. We were confident that, as we were on sound economic ground, no matter what difficulties might confront us it was only a question of time for the attainment of our ends. All that was required was that we should keep pegging away. My own experience was not encouraging at first. I was, and am, a poor speaker, and in Ireland a man who cannot express his thoughts with facility, whether he has got them or not, accentuates the difficulties under which a prophet labours in his own country. I made up for my deficiencies in the first essential of Irish public life by engaging a very eloquent political speaker, the late Mr. Mulhallen Marum, M.P., to stump the country. He gave to the propaganda a relish which my prosaic economics altogether lacked. The nationalist band sometimes came out to meet him. We all know the efficiency of the drum in politics and religion, but it seemed to me a little out of place in economics. However, he created an excellent impression, but unhappily he died of heart disease before he had attended more than three or four meetings. This was a severe blow to us, and we toiled away under some temporary discouragement. My own diary records attendance at fifty meetings before a single society had resulted therefrom. It was weary work for a long time. These gatherings were miserable affairs compared with those which greeted our political speakers. On one occasion the agricultural community was represented by the Dispensary Doctor, the Schoolmaster, and the Sergeant of Police. Sometimes, in spite of copious advertising of the meeting, the prosaic nature of the objects had got abroad, and nobody met.

Mr. Anderson, who sometimes accompanied me and sometimes went his rounds alone, had similar experiences. I may quote a passage from some of his reminiscences, recently published in the Irish Homestead, the organ of the co-operative movement in Ireland.

It was hard and thankless work. There was the apathy of the people and the active opposition of the Press and the politicians. It would be hard to say now whether the abuse of the Conservative Cork Constitution or that of the Nationalist Eagle, of Skibbereen, was the louder. We were "killing the calves," we were "forcing the young women to emigrate," we were "destroying the industry." Mr. Plunkett was described as a "monster in human shape," and was adjured to "cease his hellish work." I was described as his "Man Friday" and as "Rough-rider Anderson." Once, when I thought I had planted a Creamery within the precincts of the town of Rathkeale, my co-operative apple-cart was upset by a local solicitor who, having elicited the fact that our movement recognised neither political nor religious differences--that the Unionist-Protestant cow was as dear to us as her Nationalist-Catholic sister--gravely informed me that our programme would not suit Rathkeale. "Rathkeale," said he, pompously, "is a Nationalist town--Nationalist to the backbone--and every pound of butter made in this Creamery must be made on Nationalist principles, or it shan't be made at all." This sentiment was applauded loudly, and the proceedings terminated.

On another occasion a similar project was abandoned because the flow of water to the disused mill which it was proposed to convert into a creamery, passed through a conduit lined with cement originally purchased from a man who now occupied a farm from which another had been evicted. To some minds these little complications would have spelled failure. To my associates they but accentuated the need for the movement which they had so laboriously thought out, and the very nature of the difficulties confirmed them in their belief that the economic doctrine they were preaching was adapted to meet the requirements of the case. And so the event proved.

In the year 1894 the movement had gathered volume to such an extent--although the societies then numbered but one for every twenty that are in existence to-day--that it became beyond the power of a few individuals to direct its further progress. In April of that year a meeting was held in Dublin to inaugurate the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Ltd. (now commonly known as the I.A.O.S.), which was to be the analogue of the Co-operative Union in England. In the first instance it was to consist of philanthropic persons, but its constitution provided for the inclusion in its membership of the societies which had already been created and those which it would itself create as time went on. It had, and has to-day, a thoroughly representative Committee. I was elected the first President, a position which I held until I entered official life, when Lord Monteagle, a practical philanthropist if ever there was one, became my successor. Father Finlay, who joined the movement in 1892, and who has devoted the extraordinary influence which he possesses over the rural population of Ireland to the dissemination of our economic principles, became Vice-President. Both he and Lord Monteagle have been annually re-elected ever since.

The growth of the movement in the last nine years under the fostering care of the I.A.O.S. is highly satisfactory. By the autumn of this year (1903) considerably over eight hundred societies had been established, and the number is ever growing; of these 360 were dairy, and 140 agricultural societies, nearly 200 agricultural banks, 50 home industries societies, 40 poultry societies, while there were 40 others with miscellaneous objects. The membership may be estimated--I am writing towards the end of the Society's statistical year--at about 80,000, representing some 400,000 persons. The combined trade turnover of these societies during the present year will reach approximately £2,000,000, a figure the meaning of which can only be appreciated when it is remembered that the great majority of the associated farmers are in so small a way of business that in England they would hardly be classed as farmers at all.

These societies consist, as has been explained, of groups of farmers who have been taught by organisers that certain branches of their business can be more profitably conducted in association than by individuals acting separately. The principle of agricultural co-operation with its economic advantages will, as time goes on, be further extended by the combined action of societies. With this end in view federations are constantly being formed with a constitution similar to that of the societies, the only difference being that the members of the federation are not individuals but societies, the government of the central body being carried on by delegates from its constituent associations. The two largest of these federations, one for the sale of butter, and another for the combined purchase by societies of their agricultural requirements, have been working successfully for several years. Federations, too, are being formed, as societies find that their business can be conducted more economically, for example, in dairying by centralising the manufacture of butter, or in the egg export trade by the alliance of many districts to enable large contracts to be undertaken. In the near future a further development of federation will be required to complete a scheme now under consideration for the mutual insurance of live stock. Such a scheme involves the existence of two prime conditions, a local organisation for the purpose of effective supervision, and the spreading of the risk over a large area.

In all such enterprises and economic changes the Organisation Society is either the initiator, or is called in for advice, and its continued existence in a purely advisory capacity as a link between the societies where concerted action is required, will be necessary even when the organisation of farmers into societies is completed. The economic life of rural communities is in continual need of adjustment. Now it is an invention like a steam separator which revolutionises an industry. At another time the crisis created by a change in the tariff of a foreign country forces the producer either to find a new outlet for his wares, or to abandon a hitherto profitable employment. A striking instance of the value of organisation and connection with a central advisory body occurred in 1887, when swine fever broke out in Denmark, and the exports of live swine fell from 230,000 in one year to 16,000 in the next. The organisation of the farmers, however, enabled them easily to consult together how best to meet the emergency, and their decision to start co-operative bacon-curing factories was the foundation of their present great export trade in manufactured bacon.

I must not overburden with details a narrative intended for readers to whom I merely wish to give a deeper and wider understanding of Irish life than most of them probably possess. But there is just one form of agricultural co-operation to which I can usefully devote a few paragraphs, because it throws much light upon the associative qualities of the people and also upon the educational and social value of the movement. I refer to the Agricultural Banks, more properly called Credit Associations, which have been organised upon the Raiffeisen system. Before the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society was formed we had read of these institutions, and of the marvellously beneficial effect they had produced upon the most depressed rural communities abroad. But only in the last few years have we fully realised that they are even more required and are likely to do more good in Ireland than in any other country; for on the psychological side of our work we formerly but dimly saw things which we now see clearly.

The exact purpose of these organisations is to create credit as a means of introducing capital into the agricultural industry. They perform the apparent miracle of giving solvency to a community composed almost entirely of insolvent individuals. The constitution of these bodies, which can, of course, be described only in broad outline here, is somewhat startling. They have no subscribed capital, but every member is liable for the entire debts of the association. Consequently the association takes good care to admit men of approved character and capacity only. It starts by borrowing a sum of money on the joint and several security of its members. A member wishing to borrow from the association is not required to give tangible security, but must bring two sureties. He fills up an application form which states, among other things, what he wants the money for. The rules provide--and this is the salient feature of the system--that a loan shall be made for a productive purpose only, that is, a purpose which, in the judgment of the other members of the association as represented by a committee democratically elected from among themselves, will enable the borrower to repay the loan out of the results of the use made of the money lent.

Raiffeisen held, and our experience in Ireland has fully confirmed his opinion, that in the poorest communities there is a perfectly safe basis of security in the honesty and industry of its members. This security is not valuable to the ordinary commercial lender, such as the local joint stock bank. Even if such lenders had the intimate knowledge possessed by the committee of one of these associations as to the character and capacity of the borrower, they would not be able to satisfy themselves that the loan was required for a really productive purpose, nor would they be able to see that it was properly applied to the stipulated object. One of the rules of the co-operative banks provides for the expulsion of a member who does not apply the money to the agreed productive purpose. But although these "Banks" are almost invariably situated in very poor districts, there has been no necessity to put this rule in force in a single instance. Social influences seem to be quite sufficient to secure obedience to the association's laws.

Another advantage conferred by the association is that the term for which money is advanced is a matter of agreement between the borrower and the bank. The hard and fast term of three months which prevails in Ireland for small loans is unsuited to the requirements of the agricultural industry--as for instance, when a man borrows money to sow a crop, and has to repay it before harvest. The society borrows at four or five per cent, and lends at five or six per cent. In some cases the Congested Districts Board or the Department of Agriculture have made loans to these banks at three per cent. This enables the societies to lend at the popular rate of one penny for the use of one pound for a month. The expenses of administration are very small. As the credit of these associations develops, they will become a depository for the savings of the community, to the great advantage of both lender and borrower. The latter generally makes an enormous profit out of these loans, which have accordingly gained the name of 'the lucky money,' and we find, in practice, that he always repays the association and almost invariably with punctuality.

The sketch I have given of the agricultural banks will, perhaps, be sufficient to show what an immense educational and economic benefit they are likely to confer when they are widely extended throughout Ireland, as I hope they will be in the near future. Under this system, which, to quote the report of the Indian Famine Commission, 1901, 'separates the working bees from the drones,' the industrious men of the community who had no clear idea before of the meaning or functions of capital or credit, and who were generally unable to get capital into their industry except at exorbitant rates of interest and upon unsuitable terms, are now able to get, not always, indeed, all the money they want, but all the money they can well employ for the improvement of their industry. There is no fear of rash investment of capital in enterprises believed to be, but not in reality productive--the committee take good care of that. The whole community is taught the difference between borrowing to spend and borrowing to make. You have the collective wisdom of the best men in the association helping the borrower to decide whether he ought to borrow or not, and then assisting him, if only from motives of self-interest, to make the loan fulfil the purpose for which it was made. I was delighted to find when I was making an enquiry into the working of the system that, whereas the debt-laden peasants had formerly concealed their indebtedness, of which they were ashamed, those who were in debt to the new banks were proud of the fact, as it was the best testimonial to their character for honesty and industry.[39]

One other sphere of activity worked by the co-operative associations needs a passing notice. The desire that, together with material amelioration, there should be a corresponding intellectual advancement and a greater beauty in life has prompted many of the farmers' societies to use their organisation for higher ends. A considerable number of them have started Village Libraries, and by an admirable selection of books have brought to their members, not only the means of educating themselves in the more difficult technical problems of their industry, but also a means of access to that enchanted world of Irish thought which inspires the Gaelic Revival to which I have already referred. Social gatherings of every kind, dances, lectures, concerts, and such like entertainments, which have the two-fold effect of brightening rural life and increasing the attachment of the members to their society, are becoming a common feature in the movement, and this more human aspect has attracted to it the attention of many who do not understand its economic side. We have gratifying evidence from many of the clergy that the movement thus developed has kept at home young people who would otherwise have fled from the continued hardship and intellectual emptiness of rural life at home.

These results are in no small measure due to the zeal and devotion of the governing body and staff of the I.A.O.S. The general policy of the society is guided by a committee of twenty-four members, one-half of whom are elected by the individual subscribers and the other half by the affiliated societies. It is representative in the best sense and influential accordingly. The success of the Committee is no doubt mainly due to the wisdom which they have displayed in the selection of the staff. In the most important post, that of Secretary, they have kept on my chief fellow-worker in the early struggle, Mr. R.A. Anderson, who has devoted himself to the cause with all the energy of a nature at once enthusiastic, unselfish, and practical, and who has succeeded in inspiring his staff of organisers and experts with his own spirit. Among these, two deserve special mention, Mr. George W. Russell, one of the Assistant Secretaries, who has, under the nom de plume "A.E.," attained fame for a poetry of rare distinction of thought and diction, and Mr. P.J. Hannon, the other Assistant Secretary, who has proved himself a splendid propagandist. Each of these gentlemen has brought to the movement a zeal and ability which could only come of a devotion to high ideals of patriotism, curiously combined with a shrewd practical instinct for carrying on varied and responsible business undertakings.

With the growing work the staff has been repeatedly augmented to enable the central society to keep pace with the demand made by groups of farmers to be initiated into the principles of co-operative organisation and the details of its application to the particular branches of farming carried on in their several districts. At the same time the societies which have been established need, during their earlier years, and with each extension of their operations, constant advice and supervision. Hence skilled organisers have to be kept to form co-operative dairy societies, inspect creameries, and give technical advice upon the manufacture and sale of butter, the care of machinery, the adequacy of the water supply, the drainage system, and many similar technical questions. Others are employed to start poultry societies, which when organised have still to be instructed by a Danish expert in the proper method of packing, selecting, and grading the eggs for export. In tillage districts there is a constant demand for organisers of purely agricultural societies, which aim at the joint purchase of seeds and manures, of implements and other farm requisites, and at the better disposal of produce; while the growing importance of an improved system of agricultural credit keeps four organisers of agricultural banks constantly at work Home industries, bee-keeping, and horticulture, may be added to the objects for which societies have been formed and which require separate expert organisers. And in addition to all this work, the central association has found it necessary to keep a staff of accountants, versed in the principles of co-operative organisation, to instruct these miscellaneous societies in simple and efficient systems of bookkeeping, and in the general principles of conducting business. To complete the description of the propagandist activities of the central body, there is a ceaseless flow of leaflets and circulars containing advice and direction to bodies of farmers who, for the first time in their lives, have combined for business purposes; while a little weekly paper, the Irish Homestead, acts as the organ of the movement, promotes the exchange of ideas between societies scattered throughout the country, furnishes useful information upon all matters connected with their business operations, and keeps constantly before the associated farmers the economic principles which must be observed, and, above all, the spirit in which the work must be approached, if the movement is to fulfil its mission.[40]

One of the difficulties incidental to a movement of this kind, which, for the reasons already set forth, had to be rapidly and widely extended, was the enormous cost to its supporters. It is needless to say that such a staff as I have described could not be kept continuously travelling by rail and road for so many years without the provision of a large fund. These officers must obviously be men with exceptional qualifications, if they are not only to impress the thought of their agricultural audiences, but also to move them to action, and to sustain the newly organised societies through the initial difficulties of their unfamiliar enterprise. Such men are not to be found idle, and if they preach this gospel, they are entitled to live by it. They are not by any means overpaid, but their salaries in the aggregate amount to a large annual sum. Before the creation of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in 1900 large sums were spent by the I.A.O.S. not only in its proper work of organisation, but also in giving technical instruction, which was found to be essential to commercial success. When the Society was relieved of this educational work many of its supporters withdrew their subscriptions under the impression that there was now no longer any need for its continued existence. But so far from the Society's usefulness having ceased, it has now become more important than ever that the doctrine of organised self-help, which must be the foundation of any sound Irish economic policy, should be insisted upon and put into practical operation as widely as possible. All those who are devoting their lives to the firm establishment of this self-help movement among the chief wealth-producers of the country are agreed that no better educational work can be done at the moment than that which is bringing about so salutary a change in the economic attitude of the Irish mind.

It is not to be wondered at that the greater part of the necessary funds should have been drawn from a very limited circle of public-spirited men capable of grasping the significance of a movement the practical effect of which would appear to be permanent only to those who had a deep insight into Irish problems.[41] The difficulty of a successful appeal to a wider public has been the impossibility of giving in brief form an adequate explanation, such as that which it is hoped these pages will afford, of the part the movement was to play in Irish life. We were asked whether our scheme was business or philanthropy. If philanthropy, it would probably do more harm than good. If business, why was it not self-supporting? I remember hearing the movement ridiculed in the House of Commons by a prominent Irish member on the ground that the accounts of the I.A.O.S. showed that £20,000 (£40,000 would be nearer the mark now) had been put into the 'business,' and that this large capital had been entirely lost! When we proved that agricultural co-operation brought a large profit to the members of the societies we formed, it was suggested that a small part of this profit would give us all we required for our organising work. So it will in time, but if instead of merely refusing financial assistance to our converts, we were, on the other hand, to demand it from them, we certainly should not lessen the difficulty of launching our movement among the farmers of Ireland. Some of our critics denounced the expenditure of so much money for which, in their opinion, there was nothing to show, and said that the time had come to stop this 'spoon-feeding.' When those for whose exclusive benefit the costly work had been undertaken learned that all we had to offer was the cold advice that they should help themselves, they not infrequently raised a wholly different objection to our economic doctrine. Spoonfeeding they might have tolerated, but there was nothing in the spoon! The movement has survived all these criticisms. The lack of moral and of financial support which retarded its progress in the early years, has been so far surmounted The movement may now, I think, appeal for further help as one that has justified its existence. The opinion that it has done so is not held only by those who are engaged in promoting it, nor by Irish observers alone. The efforts of the Irish farmers so to reorganise their industry that they may hopefully approach the solution of the problems of rural life are being watched by economists and administrators abroad. Enquirers have come to Ireland during the last two years from Germany, France, Canada, the United States, India, South Africa, Cyprus and the West Indies, having been drawn here by the desire to understand the combination of economic and human reform. It was not alone the economic advantages of the movement which interested them, but the way in which the organisation at the same time acted upon the character and awoke those forces of self-help and comradeship in which lies the surety of any enduring national prosperity. A native governor from a famine district in the Madras Presidency, who, perhaps, better than any one realised the importance of these human factors, because the lethargy of his own people had forced it on his notice, said, when he was referred to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for information, "Oh, don't speak to me about Government Departments. They are the same all over the world. I come here to learn what the Irish people are doing to help themselves and how you awaken the will and the initiative." I hope to show later that State assistance properly applied is not necessarily demoralising but very much the reverse. It is consoling, too, to our national pride, long wounded by contemptuous references to our industrial incapacity as compared with our neighbours, to find that our latest efforts are regarded by them as worthy of imitation. From the other side of the Channel no less than five County Councils have sent deputations of farmers to Ireland to study the progress of the movement, and already an English Organisation Society, expressly modelled upon its Irish namesake, has been established and is endeavouring to carry out the same work.

It is not surprising that the facts which I have cited should be interesting to the honest inquirer. A summary of actual achievement will show that this movement has spread all over Ireland, that its principle of organised self-help has been universally accepted, and that nothing but time and the necessary funds are required by its promoters to give it, within the range of its applicability, general effect. It is no exaggeration to say that there has been set in motion and carried beyond the experimental stage a revolution in agricultural methods which will enable our farmers to compete with their rivals abroad, both in production and in distribution, under far more favourable conditions than before. Alike in its material and in its moral achievements this movement has provided an effective means whereby the peasant proprietary about to be created will be able to face and solve the vital problems before it, problems for which no improvement in land tenure, no rent reductions actual or prospective, could otherwise provide an adequate solution. Furthermore, nothing could be more evident to any close observer of Irish life than the fact that had it not been for the new spirit which the workers in this movement, mostly humble unknown men, had generated, the attitude of the Irish democracy towards England's latest concession to Ireland would have been very different from what it is. In the last dozen years hundreds and thousands of meetings have been held to discuss matters of business importance to our rural communities. At these meetings landlord and tenant-farmer have often met each other for the first time on a footing of friendly equality, as fellow-members of co-operative societies. It is significant that all through the negotiations which culminated in the Dunraven Treaty, landlords who had come into the life of the people in connection with the co-operative movement took a prominent part in favour of conciliation.

I would further give it as my opinion, whatever it may be worth, that the movement has exercised a profound influence in those departments of our national life where, as I have shown in previous chapters, new forces must be not only recognised but accepted as essential to national well-being, if we are to cherish what is good and free ourselves from what is bad in the historical evolution of our national life. In the domain of politics it is hard to estimate even the political value of the exclusion of politics from deliberations and activities where they have no proper place. In our religious life, where intolerance has perpetuated anti-industrial tendencies, the new movement is seen to be bringing together for business purposes men who had previously no dealings with each other, but who have now learned that the doctrine of self-help by mutual help involves no danger to faith and no sacrifice of hope, while it engenders a genuinely Christian interpretation of charity.[42]

I cannot conclude the story of this movement without paying a brief tribute of respect and gratitude to those true patriots who have borne the daily burden of the work. I hope the picture I have given of their aims and achievements will lead to a just appreciation of their services to their country. By these men and women applause or even recognition was not expected or desired: they knew that it was to those who had the advantages of leisure, and what the world calls position, that the credit for their work would be given. But it is of national importance that altruistic service should be understood and given freedom of expansion. I have, therefore, presented as faithfully as I could the origin and development of one of the least understood, but in my opinion, most fruitful movements which has ever been undertaken by a body of social and economic reformers. As Irish leaders they have preferred to remain obscure, conscious that the most damaging criticism which could be applied to their work would be that it depended on their own personal qualities or acts for its permanent utility. But most assuredly the real conquerors of the world are those who found upon human character their hopes of human progress.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.