THE year 1913 was just over a week old when a group of farmers and townspeople met in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, to assess the level of support for the building of a creamery.
Support for the proposal was encouraging because local dairy farmers were at the time sending their milk to other processors four or five miles away.
The tractor and trailer era had yet to come, and local farmers had to take their churns of milk to the creameries on carts pulled by horse or donkey.
Acting on the view that what was good for farmers would also be good for shopkeepers, it was decided at a public meeting nine days later to establish a creamery in Nenagh.
The first formal meeting of Nenagh Co-op was held on Feb 24, 1913. Seventy-five farmers invested a total of £350 in share capital to fund the society.
A site was acquired and a building was erected at a cost of £1,025 and equipped at a cost of £1,825 to separate milk and manufacture butter.
Thomas O’Brien was the co-op’s founding chairman, with Edward Michael Walsh as the first secretary.
Patrick Coleman, the first person to take up the role of manager, served for 31 years, and was followed by JJ Ryan, Thomas Ryan, and Jimmy Murphy.
Nenagh and Mid-West Creameries merged in 2001 to form Arrabawn Co-op, now a major player in the Irish dairy industry, It has 900 milk suppliers, 300 staff, and operations in six counties in three provinces.
The Story of Arrabawn Co-op... So Far, a 400-page book that celebrates the society’s history, has now been published.
Researched, compiled, and written by agricultural journalist Martin Ryan, it tells the story of Arrabawn and how it developed.
Arrabawn’s first chairman was Richard Tobin, Nenagh. He was succeeded by Tomas Colleran, Mid West. Jimmy Murphy became chief executive.
A large diversified co-op, it has divisions for retail trading, animal feed, and manufacturing liquid milk and dairy ingredients. How the society, now serving farmers from Limerick City borders to Co Roscommon, grew into a €185m-a-year business is also part of the story of the Irish dairy industry.
The co-op, with Patrick Meskell, of Clonlara, Co Clare, as current chairman, deserves much credit for commissioning the book, an important social document relating to a large slice of rural Ireland. It costs €20, with the proceeds going to charity.
Illustrated with 300 photographs, it details the development of the dairy industry in the region through acquisitions, organic growth, and mergers with local creameries.
Mr Ryan said the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society provided crucial leadership in the formation of the society, while local farmers played the central role. Leaders with foresight emerged.
One such man was Edward Michael Walsh, the first secretary, who had already had many dealings with local farmers as full-time secretary of the County Committee for Agriculture and Technical Instruction.
Mr Ryan notes that Walsh was an inspiring example of the stewardship that led to the co-op’s formation.
“Family history reveals that it cost him his farm, which was sold to pay the personal indebtedness which was attributed to his devotion to getting the creamery going,” said Mr Ryan.
Walsh spent the last year of his life working in an ammunition factory in Liverpool. He died in his 50s and his remains were brought to Nenagh for burial.
Mr Ryan writes that Walsh left an indelible legacy to the farming families of North Tipperary and beyond.
Agriculture minister of state Tom Hayes, who launched the book, compared the dramatic impact of the first co-operatives with the much more recent EU decision to abolish milk quotas in 2015.
He praised the vision of the co-operative movement pioneers and the path they set for the dairy industry.
“It is up to this generation to show a similar level of vision, determination, and attention to detail in preparing this marvellous industry for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” said Mr Hayes.
Arrabawn, which grew from a small co-op into a huge business with a turnover exceeding €3m a week, is preparing to meet that challenge.
Conor Ryan, chief executive, states in the book that the society is looking forward to ensuring that its facilities can process up to 50% extra milk.
It is in the final stage of a major plant reinvestment programme to be completed by the end of 2014, he states.
The co-op’s chairman, Patrick Meskell, notes that the co-operative idea promoted by Horace Plunkett became the foundation of the Irish dairy industry.
Nenagh and all the other co-ops who came together over the years to form what is now Arrabawn grew from this principle.
“They have played a significant role in improving the return to farmers in the area and the betterment of the communities we live in,” said Mr Meskell.
He said that Arrabawn Co-op goes forward into its second century from a position of strength.
However, it does so, he said, in the knowledge that, like the previous century, there will be trials and tribulations ahead, but when tackled together they will be easier to overcome.
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