Anglo-Irish farming pioneer and MP who valued economics above politics

Sir Horace Plunkett believed the Irish 'excelled in political organisation' but 'were poor at political thinking'
Sir Horace Plunkett believed the Irish 'excelled in political organisation' but 'were poor at political thinking'

Historian Gordon Lucy examines the contribution to agricultural cooperation made by Sir Horace Plunkett

Horace Plunkett was the third son of the 16th Lord Dunsany and was educated at Eton and studied History at Oxford.

In 1878 in association with the tenants on the family estate in Co Meath he took the unusual step of establishing a cooperative shop.

On account of his delicate health (and the fear of contracting tuberculosis – his mother, two brothers and a sister died of consumption) between 1879 and 1889 he was ranching in the drier and healthier climate of Wyoming. There he acquired an extensive knowledge of modern farming practice.

He returned to Ireland on the death of his father with a firm conviction that the advent of the railways in the American West and American competitiveness would pose stern challenges to the survival of small farmers in Ireland.

To ensure the survival of Irish agriculture he sought to promote cooperative farming, allied to quality agricultural education and scientific innovation. His mantra was ‘Better farming, better business, better living’.

Plunkett set up a cooperative store at Doneraile in Co Cork in 1891. Cooperative stores did not prove a great success but cooperative creameries were. He established his first cooperative creamery at Ballyhahill in Co Limerick two years later.

On April 18 1894 Plunkett set up the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society as an umbrella organisation to co-ordinate the activities of the various cooperative societies throughout the island. He recorded in his diary: ‘The meeting to inaugurate the IAOS [Irish Agricultural Organisation Society] came off and was brilliantly successful. About 250 present and thoroughly representative of all sides of Irish life. I spoke for 1 1/4 hours & spoke well. The movement is now started.’

Despite opposition, Plunkett made considerable progress. The most intense opposition came from graziers and shopkeepers. Farmers preferred grazing (which Plunkett scathingly referred to as ‘their lotus-eating occupation of opening and shutting gates’) to dairying.

In Mallow, Co Cork, a shopkeeper posed the question: ‘Who are the largest subscribers [to the Nationalist parliamentary fund]?’ He thenproceeded to answer his own question: ‘Why the shopkeepers of course, who as you know have always been the backbone of nationality in Ireland.’

R A Anderson, Plunkett’s right-hand man, was to address a meeting in Co Limerick on the advantages of cooperation when a local solicitor discovered that the proposed cooperative was to be apolitical and non-denominational.

He pompously announced: ‘Rathkeal 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 bizarre sentiment was loudly cheered and Anderson was prevented from speaking. Nevertheless by 1898 there were 243 cooperative societies affiliated to the IAOS with a turnover of £675,000. The following year there were 477 affiliated societies with a turnover of £1 million and by 1904 there were 778 societies with a turnover of £1.5 million.

One of Plunkett’s great strengths was his ability to surround himself with able and talented people. Among these were R A Anderson (whom we have already encountered), a petty sessions clerk at Doneraile and sub-agent to Lord Castletown; Professor Tom Finlay, a Cavan man, a Jesuit, academic and social reformer; George Russell (AE), a writer, poet, painter and mystic from Lurgan; and Harold Barbour, grandson of the founder of the linen manufacturing firm of William Barbour of Lisburn and an advocate of cooperatives even before Plunkett.

Lisburn boasted one of the largest and most successful cooperatives in Ireland. Barbour became president of the Lisburn Society in 1900.

Plunkett enjoyed the enthusiastic support of two of Ulster’s leading Liberal Unionists: Thomas Andrews and Thomas Sinclair. The cooperative movement enjoyed its greatest success in Ulster and Munster. During the parliamentary recess of 1895-6 Plunkett brought together a group of Parnellite Nationalist and Unionist politicians who produced a report in August 1896 urging the creation of an Irish department of agriculture and industries. Three years later the report bore fruit with establishment of the Department of Agriculture and technical Instruction with Plunkett as its vice-president.

An assiduous pamphleteer, Plunkett’s most significant publication was ‘Ireland in the New Century’ (1904) in which he identified paralysing defects in the Irish character and was critical of the Roman Catholic Church’s perceived hostility to industrialism.

He thought that the Irish excelled in political organisation but were poor at political thinking. By disregarding the advice of friends to soften the book’s tone, he did himself significant damage.

Plunkett was a dynamic and innovative reformer. An ideas man rather than an organiser, he was not politically savvy. Although he was the Liberal Unionist MP for South County Dublin (1892-1900), he was a very apolitical politician who held many of his fellow politicians in low esteem, believing that they should focus on economic development rather than obsessing about Home Rule. As a result he ended up being distrusted by mainstream nationalists (like John Dillon).

Prior to 1900 when he became the leader of a reunited Nationalist Party, John Redmond, the leader of the Parnellite Nationalists, was favourably disposed to working with Plunkett but a reunited Nationalist Party in which Dillon was perhaps the most influential figure, seriously circumscribed Redmond’s room for manoeuvre.

Privately Redmond would have been very happy with the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 but Dillon was resolutely opposed to anything which might blunt the Nationalist demand for Home Rule.

Plunkett encountered difficulty with unionist opinion too, being regarded as insufficiently unionist by some of his South Dublin constituents. He would not have endeared himself to many of them through his support of the GAA, the Gaelic League and the campaign for a Roman Catholic university (a cause to which Carson was also sympathetic).

In the general election of 1900 Plunkett was unseated through the intervention of the historian F E Ball, a more hard-line Unionist candidate, thus costing unionism one of its few winnable seats outside Ulster.

Although Plunkett tried to build bridges between Irishmen of different classes, creeds and origins, he often felt as welcome as ‘a dog on a tennis court’ for his pains.