Time to remember the real unsung heroes of Ireland

From laying down the roots for dairy groups to establishing credit unions, it’s time to also honour the pioneers who helped this island to flourish, writes Kyran Fitzgerald. 

The Easter Rising celebrations have brought the past alive. We have remembered dead heroes while considering the national story from various angles.

After 1916, the journey grew bumpy as disputes were settled by men in trench coats with revolvers. Ireland eventually became a relatively prosperous republic.

Unlike many of the new nations that emerged after the Second World War, the country remained firmly democratic. Since then, most have achieved levels of personal financial wellbeing that would have been considered beyond the imaginings of the vast majority, a century ago.

It is time to celebrate a few of the clever, practical, business-minded, yet community-focused people who are arguably the real heroes in our island story.

Horace Plunkett was born in 1854. From a Unionist background, he was made aware of the wretched condition of many rural poor while serving on the Congested Districts Board. 

He had already spent a decade as a rancher in the US state of Wyoming where he picked up tips on Scandinavian-style agricultural co-operation. In 1889, Mr Plunkett established Ireland’s first dairy co-operative at Doneraile, Co Cork, soon after opening the country’s first creamery in Dromcollogher, Limerick.

Farmers were persuaded to join forces to process and market their own butter, milk, and cheese. Mr Plunkett was faced with opposition from vested interests including shopkeepers and butter buyers. 

The downbeat view at the time was that Irish farmers were “uncombinable atoms”.

In 1894, he founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society along with a Jesuit priest, Fr Tom Finlay, and he was also a driving force behind the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction.

In their book on the Irish Co-ops, Carla King and Liam Kennedy have described how Mr Plunkett sought to apply principles of combination to every branch of farming. 

The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society sent paid organisers around the country. But the gap between the paternalistic Mr Plunkett and a largely illiterate rural population was, at times, huge. By 1914, around 90,000 belonged to co-operative organisations.

During the First World War, however, many producers pursued short-term gains at the expense of long-term customer relations. Mr Plunkett’s home in Foxrock was burned down by anti-Treaty forces in 1923 and he died soon after.

The foundations for Ireland’s successful dairy groups had been laid, though farming struggled for many years amid post-war depression and a 1930s trade war between Ireland and Britain.

Nora Herlihy grew up in Ballydesmond in these years. She witnessed much destruction in the area as a child during the Troubles. She later worked as a national school teacher in Dublin where she witnessed some terrible living conditions. 

She saw how people struggled to manage their money. It led her to form the Dublin Central Co-operative Society, in 1954, along with Thomas Hogan.

In 1958, Ireland’s first credit union opened on Donore Avenue, near the Coombe in central Dublin. The branch took in £7 in its first week. Ms Herlihy co-founded the Irish League of Credit Unions in 1960, serving as secretary. 

In 1967, the Credit Union Act was passed and today, there are over 500 credit unions affiliated to the League. John Hume founded the North’s first credit union, in Derry.

Social historians have noted how spending on food has plummeted as a proportion of people’s incomes in the past 100 years. A revolution has occurred in the grocery sector. 

The transformation of retailing in Ireland began in Cork with the opening of the first branch of Dunnes Stores. There was nothing soft about founder Ben Dunne — his toughness towards suppliers and trade unions was legendary — but the Dunnes supermarket formula helped Irish housewives to stretch the family earnings, paving the way for new forms of leisure spending from the 1960s onwards.

Waterford Crystal was a tangible symbol of a burgeoning export economy in that period. The ‘glass’ was revived in the city in large part by a Czech craftsman, Miroslav Havel who came to the city in 1947 as a young migrant. 

Mr Havel served as a glass blower, engraver, cutter, designer, polisher and sculptor. Almost single handedly, he recreated an industry, with financial backing from the powerful McGrath family.

Irish industry after the war benefited from an infusion of overseas entrepreneurial talent. At the same time, state companies stepped in to fill a large funding gap left by the commercial banks. 

The forerunner was the Industrial Credit Corporation which was established in 1933. The ICC was run for decades by a classmate of Seán Lemass, JP Beddy. Somewhat forgotten today, he played a key role in persuading Mr Lemass to drop his opposition to the establishment of the IDA, the organisation which has spearheaded the drive to attract foreign investment into Ireland.

The name Eustace Shott hardly rings too many bells. Little is known about this partner in the accountancy firm, Craig Gardner, bar the fact that he is credited with suggesting that the IDA be established. 

Alexis FitzGerald, a government adviser in 1948, later recalled the approach from Mr Shott. His point was that “we needed a body that was independent of the bureaucracy... free of all the trammels and restrictions... ready to go out and seek new industries”.

Another character now lost in the mists of time is Roy Geary, founding director of both the Central Statistics Office, and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). 

Mr Geary once played hurling with Michael Collins, but his real interests were cerebral. He rose to a senior position in the UN before returning to set up the ESRI in 1960. He is remembered as the father of Irish statistics.

None of these people were handy with guns, one suspects, but each in his or her own way played an important part in building the nation.

From the 1970s, our business leaders acquired more glamour and swagger. Many, such as Tony Ryan, the man behind GPA and Ryanair, and Kerry Group founder Denis Brosnan, have left great legacies. 

But we must never forget the debt owed to the early pioneers, often running below the radar, operating in a country that took time to emerge from poverty and discord.

When we are thinking up the next commemoration ceremony, maybe it is time to remember some of our non-violent champions to avoid the temptation to ‘round up the usual suspects’.


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