Member co-ops and their associated companies employ 12,000 people in Ireland, a further 24,000 abroad and have a combined turnover of €12bn.
Those dairy processing co-ops and livestock marts have 150,000 members and continue to make a vital contribution to the national economy.
It all began with local creameries, which were streamlined over the past 124 years through mergers and linkages.
Groups such as Aryzta AG, Glanbia, the Irish Dairy Board and Kerry Group all evolved from small co-operative beginnings.
The Irish Dairy Board, a co-operative, owned by Ireland’s dairy processors, has a marketing footfall across 90 countries and a globally recognised product brand in Kerrygold.
Much has been achieved by the agricultural co-operative movement in Ireland since it was founded by Sir Horace Plunkett and others.
The men chosen over the years by their local co-op creameries to provide them with the leadership to overcome the challenges they faced were by and large pragmatic and cautious people.
Guided by common sense and a commitment to the co-operative ideal, they worked closely with their creamery managers and committees and steered the growth and development of their businesses.
Some were more innovative and visionary than others, however, and just before Christmas one of them was chosen by ICOS for its highest honour — the Plunkett Award for Co-operative Endeavour.
It is presented each year to one individual who is regarded as having made an outstanding lifelong contribution to the co-op movement in Ireland.
Jim Maher, Moyne, Thurles, Co Tipperary, has certainly given a lifelong personal contribution to the business of co-operation.
He is the former chairman of Centenary Thurles Co-op, board member of Mid-Tipperary Co-op and co- founder of the highly successful Cooleeney Cheese business.
A dairy farmer, he served as a committee member of Centenary Thurles Co-op for over 30 years since first being elected at its antecedent Centenary Co-op in 1980.
In 1991, he was elected to the Board of Mid-Tipperary Co-op Livestock Society. He has served both co-operatives with distinction throughout his long career.
Back in 1996, he was elected to represent the then Centenary Co-op on the Council of Avonmore Co-op.
He progressed in 1998 to the boards of both Avonmore Waterford Co-op and Avonmore Waterford plc.
Mr Maher played an active and supportive role in the consolidation and rationalisation of the business post merger, at a crucial time for what was later to become Glanbia.
In 2001, he was elected vice-chairman of Centenary and subsequently as chairman in 2002. He played a crucial role in the process leading to the merger of Centenary with Thurles Co-op in 2005. Mr Maher was unanimously elected chairman of the new combined entity, Centenary Thurles Co-op.
At Mid-Tipperary Co-op Livestock Society, Mr Maher’s contribution was equally impressive. First elected to the management committee in 1991, he supported a strong period of growth and development for the Society. This included investment in developing new facilities, information technology and the overall successful promotion of the mart business.
Mr Maher is also a highly progressive dairy farmer and in 1986, together with his wife Breda, started their own farmhouse cheese business, Cooleeney.
They now export their award-winning cheeses to over 15 countries, provide full-time employment to 12 people and buy high-quality milk sourced from locally producing farmers.
ICOS chief executive Seamus O’Donohoe said Mr Maher “is exemplary of the spirit that Ireland needs to create a better future and he is a worthy recipient of this prestigious award,” he said.
Jim Maher, whose son Patrick is involved in the running of Cooleeney Farm, said he was surprised and honoured at being chosen for the Plunkett Award.
“While the co-operative movement started from a foundation that is greatly different from today, I think it is as relevant now as it was at that time,” he said.