Co-operative Democracy – The Middle Way: Part 2

In 1894 Horace Plunkett founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IOAS), with himself as president and the young land-agent, Robert Andrew Anderson as secretary. Two prominent allies were Lord Monteagle in Limerick and Rev. Thomas Finlay, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the Catholic University, who had studied agricultural Co-operation in Europe. The following year he published The Irish Homestead as his means of public communication. Then in 1897 Plunkett appointed the Lurgan-born poet George William Russell (AE) as one of his organisers. Protestant in religion but nationalist in sentiment, Russell’s ideal was to “create the conditions in which the spirit of the community grows strong”. The IOAS quickly became the driving force of Co-operation in Ireland, with 33 affiliated Dairy co-operatives and co-operative banks. By the end of 1910 the Co-operative movement had become an essential part of the whole Irish Agricultural scene.

As early as 1892 Plunkett had abandoned his original non-political attitude and in the general election in July he was elected as Irish Unionist Alliance Member of Parliament for South County Dublin. His growing influence and his membership of the Irish Privy Council in 1897 led to the passing of an Act in 1899 which established the Department of Agriculture in Technical Instruction (DATI). His book Ireland in the New Century in 1904 however, criticising the politicians, the educational system, the Gaelic Revival and the power of the Catholic priesthood resulted in a fall-out with John Redmond, the Irish Nationalist leader, who felt that nothing but Home Rule could be the answer to Ireland’s problems . A failure of the Irish Council Bill in 1908 however, persuaded Plunkett that Self-Government for Ireland was of crucial importance and by 1912 he had become a convinced Home Ruler himself. During the years 1914-1921 he worked to keep Ireland united within the British Commonwealth, founding the Irish Dominion League and a weekly journal the Irish Statesman to advance that cause. In the end, however, he was denounced by Unionists and Republicans alike, Edward Carson even calling him a traitor.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, he accepted membership in 1922 of the new Irish Free State Senate, Seanad Éireann. His work in Co-operation continued to take him abroad frequently. He had had a profound influence on Theodore Roosevelt and others, including Colonel House and Charles McCarthy in the United States. But when he was in that country during the Irish Civil War in 1923, his house Kilteragh, County Dublin was burned down by the reactionary I.R.A. This was a cruel blow as it had been the meeting place for what was considered the intelligentsia of Ireland and he had hoped to make it into a hospital for children suffering from tuberculosis. Such was the treatment of a man who had been the prime mover in the development of a new economy for Ireland, firmly rooted in prosperous peasant ownership and a modernised agricultural industry. This was also the man whose fundamental belief was in character and in moral courage, which was to find expression in efficient work combined with proper technology and equipment in farms, houses, schools, hospitals, roads, harbours, communication and transport. This was the real maker of Modern Ireland.

Disillusioned, Plunkett moved to Weybridge, Surrey, England and died there on 26th March, 1932. Life had always been difficult for Plunkett, an Irish boy adapting to Eton and Oxford; then a conservative aristocrat adapting first to the Wild West in America and then to the recidivism of Irish Nationalism. Friendship with Protestant Nationalists such as Mrs Hugh R. Green had finally convinced him to throw in his lot with the new Celtic cultur-kampf. In 1893 the Anglican Douglas Hyde had founded the Gaelic League, which had its aim “the de-anglicisation of Ireland”. From this, sprang Gaelic Nationalism, “Ireland not free only but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic only but free as well”.

Strangely enough through the Anglo-Irish poets Yeats and Lady Gregory, a pseudo-Celtic twilight culture was created, which not only bowdlerised but anglicised the old Gaelic literature out of all recognition. The political manifestation of this Gaelic revival was the foundation of Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) in 1905.Yet Plunkett viewed it all with a critical eye and politics was only a means to an end. W.B. Yeats he described as ”a young poet, a rebel, a mystic and an ass but really a genius in a queer way”. Horace was to especially criticise the military executions following the 1916 rebellion, hoping they might have solely been of men against whom a charge of murder could have been made. Instead it was the young poets and dreamers like his cousin’s son, Joseph Mary Plunkett or Labour leaders of high motives and real sincerity like James Connolly who were executed, producing the inevitable reaction. Yet of Casement he thought,” The fool was guilty of High Treason without a doubt…He is, I think, mad”

So what, in the final analysis, do we make of Horace Plunkett, indeed of all the Plunketts, that old British-Norman family who have provided us with such talent. There is a mystery perchance in heredity. Horace’s final adaptation was to an England which had lost its ruling class, of which he was still essentially one, following the Great War.

The Romans conquered the known world not by the military merits of their soldiers, even though they were considerable, but by the tactics and strategy of their aristocrats and the use of modern technology. So, like them, Horace Plunkett had that most curious of all inherent gifts, the supreme gift that can make a man a Chess Master. José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, one of the greatest Chess players of all time, came to stay with him twice and a certain native quality of Horace’s play impressed him so much that he felt ”The man could have been of championship rank if he had devoted his life to the game”. And remember too, as James O’Fee has pointed out, that his nephew Lord Edward played Capablanca to a draw in a simultaneous exhibition. In the end they were aristocrats. The virtue, as Horace himself said, lay with the struggle, not the prize. The character of the man will be remembered long after the immense work he inspired.

Ed: Horace Plunkett remains an inspiration for many. Not only for his attempts to find a “middle way” between capitalism and socialism, a “middle way” which perceptibly improved the lot of many in rural Ireland; but also for his attempts to find a “middle way” between Nationalism and Unionism. If all the actors had been men of his temper, the search might have proved successful.

To be continued

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