Sir Horace Plunkett and the Four Nations Politics of Co-operation

Sir Horace Plunkett and the Four Nations Politics of Co-operation

Dr Mo Moulton (Harvard University) explores Sir Horace Plunkett’s vision of economic cooperation in Ireland as one which sought to build up a distinctively Irish civilization.

Sir Horace Plunkett has been described as an Anglo-American Irishman, a title that suggests his capacity to challenge the distinctions between Irish and English as well as between European and American. An energetic and eccentric Anglo-Irish landlord, Plunkett was one of the main moving forces behind the development of economic co-operation in Ireland. In 1894, he founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), a philanthropic organization dedicated to encouraging agricultural co-operatives. Its efforts were defined, however, by a core tension: while co-operation was based on the idea of putting power in the hands of farmers, Plunkett and the IAOS emphasized the need for local gentry to provide leadership and guidance.

Cooperation as an economic model took hold in a variety of contexts in nineteenth-century Europe. Lacking a rigid definition, it was nonetheless defined by certain key features: joint ownership by a group of equal shareholders (who were usually limited in how many shares they could own); democratic governance; and commitment to providing social and economic benefits other than maximization of profits to shareholders. Crucially, proponents of co-operation in this era believed that it was compatible with both efficiency and self-interest: as Richard Tuck has shown, the notion that collaboration is inherently irrational dates only from the mid-twentieth century.[i] It is evident that the cooperative movement then shared many of the same assumptions and concerns as those who were interested in state intervention in the economy, which would, likewise, guide individuals toward more beneficial behavior and eliminate waste.

In his writings, Plunkett outlined a theory of Irish co-operation that simultaneously envisioned a social revolution and insisted on the central necessity of Anglo-Irish gentry leadership. Plunkett also saw co-operation as the means through which rural, agricultural life could be regenerated and re-valorized; he passionately championed the farmer and his way of life in contrast to the trader, the shopkeeper, and the urban dweller. Certain aspects of the Irish farmer’s character tended toward co-operation in his view. Yet even as he sang their praises, Plunkett also considered Irish farmers to be profoundly damaged by their history, which, he argued, had deformed their character and put them in need of the spiritual renovation offered by co-operation. His controversial 1904 book, Ireland in the New Century, focused on the moral failings of the Irish: “the lack of moral courage, initiative, independence and self-reliance,” which, he said, were “not ethically grave, but economically paralysing.”[ii]

Significantly, Plunkett’s vision of co-operation fits naturally with the outlook of his Anglo-Irish peers in the Celtic revival. Just as Yeats wanted to reinvent an authentically Irish art through the English language, so Plunkett saw the co-operative movement as a way to regenerate a distinctively Irish culture: in his words, to “add strength to the Irish character without making it less Irish or less attractive than of old.”[iii] In fact, he believed that the Irish preference for “thinking and working in groups” could be the basis for moving beyond the standards of British political economy: “If, owing to our deficiency in the individualistic qualities of the English, we cannot at this stage hope to produce many types of the ‘economic man’ of the economists, we think we see our way to provide, as a substitute, the economic association.”[iv]

For Plunkett, then, co-operation was a sharply self-critical exercise, but one that sought to celebrate and build up a distinctively Irish civilization in the wake of enervating decades of British rule. Like Yeats, he imagined the Anglo-Irish as central to this exercise and indeed as its natural leaders. But, while he emphasized the need for ordinary people to provide the “motive-power” for the movement, Plunkett nonetheless always argued that the gentry were the natural people to “stimulate and direct” that power.[v]

Plunkett was a moderate Unionist, and in some respects a maverick, politically; but in light of his language on aristocracy, gentry, and leadership it is perhaps unsurprising that he was accused by his nationalist contemporaries of launching a campaign, under the cover of co-operation, to distract farmers from Home Rule and ensure a continued role for the declining Ascendency class. Indeed, although he later endorsed dominion home rule, in 1895 Plunkett himself saw his efforts to reform agricultural policy as a better alternative to the pursuit of home rule. Ultimately, Plunkett was an Irish patriot, but the variety of Irishness that most inspired him struck his nationalist contemporaries, understandably enough, as hopelessly feudal.

What is far more surprising is that Plunkett’s ideas became mainstream even as he was doomed to be personally marginalized. His home south of Dublin, Kilteragh, was destroyed in 1923, and he moved to England, where he spent the rest of his life working to spread the co-operative movement around the globe. But the new Irish Free State took up Plunkett’s ideas. In the 1920s, proprietary creameries were eliminated and replaced with a system of state-directed co-operative creameries, for example, while in the 1930s the co-operative form was applied by the state to the turf industry. Plunkett’s gentry had been replaced by Free State bureaucrats.

The Anglo-Irish class of which Plunkett was a part was distinctive: members of a pan-British elite, they were neither locals nor colonial administrators in the imperial sense. If the Anglo-Irish war was a decolonization, it was also a civil war, the violent product of an attempt to dismantle the composite United Kingdom. While individual members of that elite, like Plunkett, lost power and even left Ireland altogether, their ideas remained influential in the early decades of independence. Plunkett’s Irish career did not survive the break-up of the Union in 1921; but his ideas about co-operation and direction from above persisted into the post-colonial era, while his global co-operative movement bore the legacy of their Irish birth.

[i] Richard Tuck, Free Riding (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[ii] Sir Horace Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century (1904), ix.

[iii] Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century, 171.

[iv] Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century, 167.

[v] Sir Horace Plunkett, Noblesse Oblige: An Irish Rendering (1908), 25.

Mo Moulton is the author of Ireland and the Irish in Interwar England (Cambridge University Press, 2014). She is working on a history of co-operatives and decolonization. She received her PhD from Brown University and is currently a lecturer in History & Literature at Harvard University.

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