Funding housing, making change: Cork's Quay Co-op and its place in history

Over the four decades it has operated, the Quay Co-op has been part of radical social change and has become a vital part of the community. Now a new film charts those changes in Ireland and the co-op's part in those changes
Funding housing, making change: Cork's Quay Co-op and its place in history

Co-founder, Arthur Leahy (left), and John Calnan, manager, at Quay Co-Op on Sullivan's quay in Cork. “People with alternative ideas needed to get together to present those ideas in a coherent way to the city." Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Once a hub for progressive politics and a sanctuary for those shut out by a theocratic Ireland, the Quay Co-Op evolved over the years to become one of Cork city’s most iconic and unconventional businesses.

It is the subject of a new documentary by Emma Bowell and Eddie Noonan of Framework Films which will screen at the IndieCork film festival next Sunday, September 26, at the Gate Cinema. The film charts the changes in Ireland over the almost 40 years since the co-op was founded in 1982 and examines the Quay Co-Op's role in those changes. 

Almost 40 years after it was founded in reaction to Cork’s conservatism, the country has finally caught up with the Quay Co-Op's principles. Their causes, once considered ‘radical’, like LGBTQ rights, sustainability, global warming and organic foods, have now become mainstream.

And campaigns they fought for - like gay marriage and repealing the Eighth Amendment - have become law and made Ireland a better place. 

Although they initially met resistance, with people sometimes crossing to the other side of the street to avoid it when passing the building on Sullivan’s Quay, their ideas have won out.

Campaign rooms

Arthur Leahy was one of the original founders in 1982. After 20 years working in alternative venues and communities in London, he brought ideas for the co-op back to Cork where he found people who were keen to create a space for social justice campaigns and had an energy for societal change.

“There was a sense in Cork that we needed to have a place like this. Groups like the CND (now Chernobyl Children’s Project) and the Gay Mens Group were meeting in people’s houses or maybe the pub and it was putting a strain on the organisations’ development," Mr Leahy said.

“People with alternative ideas needed to get together to present those ideas in a coherent way to the city.

“The Quay Co-Op was originally founded as a community co-op. It only later changed to a workers co-op with a growing food business.

“The primary need was to provide a safe space and resources for people and their campaigns.

“It’s hard to remember now how little resources there were. It was hard to get information, you had to go home to make a call or queue to use a pay phone. 

The Quay Co-op café was set up in the 80s to help fund the political campaigns and community centre.
The Quay Co-op café was set up in the 80s to help fund the political campaigns and community centre.

“And it wasn’t just equipment that’s changed so much. Irish society has changed so much. The Catholic Church’s power has changed so much.

“The campaign offices in the co-op were the centre for a lot of campaigns like against the first Eighth Amendment [which limited a woman’s reproductive rights], the Criminal Justice campaign [to make homosexuality legal], two divorce campaigns.”

Communications

Communication has changed the way the group operates. 40 years ago, Mr Leahy was wiring up a phone in the campaigns room, or queuing at a pay phone, but now it is all immediate.

“We think that should be empowering but the immediacy of information transfer is overwhelming in a way, you don’t know what to do with it," he said.

“When we started the Quay Co-Op, there was a great sense of political involvement. There were groups formed around every issue in Cork. 

"There is not the same level of grassroots involvement now, even though there are huge issues - like housing, which is worse now than it was in the 80s.

“But it was much easier for us to be political experts in the 80s because there wasn’t as much information. Now, you have to absorb so much information before you feel you can engage with someone on it. And to change something now seems like an overwhelming concept.

“We were more involved then but we were also more naive because we were not as informed as nowadays."

Their first big campaign was against the Eighth Amendment and its limits on reproductive rights in 1983. That was eventually repealed in 2018 after another energetic campaign.

They campaigned successfully to finally make homosexuality legal in 1993. They also campaigned successfully for divorce.

Vegetarianism

A café was set up in the 80s to help fund the political campaigns and community centre. It became a vegetarian café because one of the co-op members felt strongly that it should be. Over time, vegetarianism and wholefoods became central to the Quay Co-Op’s identity.

“For the first 10 years, we were the only vegetarian restaurant in Cork. It became a strong aspect of what the Quay Co-Op stood for. 

It was a very political statement in the early days, people almost saw it as a threat that we were not eating meat. 

“We also had a book shop that brought in a lot of political books and magazines that were not available anywhere else in Cork. And then we opened a wholefoods shop which eventually became a significant part of the business.

“I think it’s very good that this food and ethos has now gone mainstream. That’s led by people’s choices. Industry just responds to what people want."

“It’s very good that significant numbers of people now expect more from their food now - better standards, more sustainable and fair. Supermarkets now are unrecognisable from what they were in the 80s and 90s. There’s so much choice now and the quality is so much better."

Aids

The Aids epidemic is one of Mr Leahy’s most vivid memories of his almost 40 years of activism with the co-op.

“We set up the Aids Alliance. Something that stays with me is the number of people we lost. The enormous number of gay men that died as a result of that.

“We set up five houses here in Cork for people who were dying. But most of these young men died abroad - mostly in England or America. Most young gay people got out of Ireland as soon as they could because it was so repressive. London at the time seemed more Irish than Cork did.

“A lot of people have died in this pandemic but the majority have been people around my age. People in their 70s and 80s. But the Aids epidemic mostly killed young men in their 20s and 30s.

“And you often wouldn’t find out someone had died until six months later, when you noticed that they weren’t around anymore.” 

The Quay Co-Op also runs two housing co-ops, social housing projects in the city where about 50 people live. Keeping the Quay Co-Op relevant in a fast changing world (that has eventually caught up with its thinking) is the next challenge for the organisation, he said.

Arthur Leahy: "Something that stays with me is the number of people we lost (to the Aids epidemic). The enormous number of gay men that died as a result of that."
Arthur Leahy: "Something that stays with me is the number of people we lost (to the Aids epidemic). The enormous number of gay men that died as a result of that."

John Calnan is a long-time member of the Quay Co-Op. He has worked at the Sullivan’s Quay premises since 1985.

“There were other co-ops in Ireland but they were agricultural or credit unions. It was unusual to have one that was community-based," Mr Calnan said.

“When the Co-Op was set up in the early 80s there was no divorce, it was still illegal to be gay. The Eighth Amendment, which was recently repealed, was passed the year after the Quay Co-Op opened. 

"The Church had so much power. And if you didn’t fit in, if you were gay; a whole load of people felt Ireland did not accept them.

“I’m gay, I struggled in the early 80s. But the Quay Co-Op created this place where people could go and be accepted. And it brought different groups together, Adi Roche’s CND, which became the Chernobyl Children’s Project, met there, anti-apartheid groups met there. There was a safe space for women and a library. There was a resource centre which made badges and leaflets for campaigns.

“It was wonderful.

I came out in 1985. You were effectively a criminal in your own community. A lot of people who were gay emigrated. I had more friends abroad than in Cork in the 80s. 

"Cork was also an unemployment blackspot back then. And there was nowhere really to go before the Quay Co-Op but they made me feel very much at home and I even got a job out of it. 

"But things have gradually improved over the years. Being gay was decriminalised in 1993.

“In the late 80s, whole foods and supplements were not really around, so we provided those. Now you find them in supermarkets."

‘The Quay Co-op’ documentary will be shown at 11am in the Gate Cinema in Cork on Sunday 26 as part of the IndieCork Festival. Tickets available from www.gatecinemas.com. IndieCork Festival runs at the Gate Cinema from September 19 to 26. 

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