A Farming Cooperative Experiment

Yet this period continued to bring forward landed Anglo Irish who were willing to help the natives. In the early 1800s a great interest was taken in the work of Robert Owen on Co-Operative movement. Robert Owen, born in 1771 in Wales is often regarded as the Father of Co-Operation, although conscious co-operation existed outside of Britain long before his time. He visited Ireland in 1823 and received almost a royal welcome. At a large meeting held in the Rotunda in Dublin, he expounded his ideas on mutual co-operation and the new moral world. The Lord Mayor of Dublin presided, also on the platform were Dr. Murray, the Duke of Leinster, Lord Meath and Lord Cloncurry. Socialism in those days was “a fad of the rich instead of the faith of the poor”. Owen’s idea fascinated one man and this was John Scott Vandaleur, an Irish landlord with two estates in Co. Clare. One of the estates comprised of 700 acres, was tenanted, but the other, of 618 acres, at Rahine near Bunratty, on the back road from Limerick to Ennis, was farmed in a progressive fashion by Vandaleur himself, who lived there in a fine mansion close by the ruined castle of the McNamaras.

Back home in Clare he enthused about the possibility of forming a village of co-operation on the lines outlined by Owen. He argued that a measure of mutual co-operation would lead to much better productivity and improved relations between landlord and worker, but his family remained unimpressed. They felt that tenant and laboring class would have to be kept in control and any concession of sharing could lead to worse trouble. Vandaleur doubted if things could be much worse, for the countryside of Co. Clare, which was in a very unsettled state. Murders and agrarian outrage were a nightly affair, as the Terry Alts and the Whiteboys wreaked vengeance on the property or persons of offending landlords. Vandaleur himself commanded some measure of respect, but his agent Daniel Hastings was just hated. In April 1831 Hastings was shot dead in front of his young wife. Vandaleur’s wife and their five children took refuge in Limerick, as they became terrified. Vandaleur himself headed to Manchester and persuaded Thomas Craig, editor of the Lancashire Co-operator, one of the Co-op journals printed at the time, to come to Ralahine to manage affairs. Craig had studied the principles of Co-operative-colonisation. He arrived in Ralahine in spring of 1831 to an unwelcoming staff and family of the estate. At a special meeting in November of labourers, artisans and servants on the estate and some others from outside was called. Fifty members were elected to a new Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association. Vandaleur was self appointed president and reserved the right to choose the secretary, treasurer and storekeeper. After many other intricacies involving land, labour and capital, the Rahaline community got down to work. Half of the 618 acres were earmarked for tillage, and some twenty acres of scrub had to be reclaimed and trenched for potatoes. Fifty to people signed up to join, and they agreed to the working and behavior rules. The working day was fixed at twelve hours during the summer and from dawn to dusk during the winter, with an hour’s break for dinner. As an incentive, the agreement provided that if a profit was made after the first years working, the wages would be raised to 10d a day for men and 6d a day for women.

The members found the communal living a bit hard to get used to – men in one dormitory women in another, and married couples in the new cottages. Nevertheless, the workers settled down to work and displayed hitherto unsuspected signs of ingenuity and skill. Gradually the word got out that something good was happening ‘abroad at Vandaleur’s  and there was a steady trickle of applications from neighbours wishing to join the community. By the harvest of 1832, the association totaled eighty one, including twenty-three children. In the outside world Daniel O’Connell was gathering political strength. The first moving machines in Ireland was introduced by the Ralahine Co-Op. The acceptance was significant, for at that time machinery was regarded as the enemy of human labour. With arrival of the horse drawn mowing machine, both Craig and Vandaleur hastened to reassure the workers of the commune and the county at large. “This machine of ours” Vandaleur wrote, is one of the first machines ever given to the working classes to lighten their labour and at the same time increase their comforts. It does not benefit any one person among us exclusively or throw any individual out of employment …………Tell the owners of the land that if they wish to use machinery beneficially they should form you into societies, where it cannot injure you, but where you would have an interest in using and protecting it.

In 1832 harvest was good. Vandaleur got his rental of corn and there was plenty to spare. The orchard abounded with Fruit and, despite the best efforts of the members and their children who could eat all they wished, two cartloads of apples and pears rotted for the want of consumers. Craig vowed that this would not happen again and began planning for a market and for planting more fruit trees along the hedgerows. The last load of wheat was decorated with garlands and flowers, and the members in colourful procession, marched round the boundaries of the commune. At their head was E.T. Craig, mounted on a grey pony and wearing a silken sash with the legend letters, “Each for ALL”At length they drew up before the door of the mansion, where Vandaleur, surrounded by his family, gave them a rousing speech. Cheering their president, they went off to dance and make merry. That night they ate the first bread made from Ralahine wheat. A fine harvest of potatoes was also completed in the same year in the big seventy five acre field and followed on by sowing of a new wheat crop.

All was going well and would have continued so if Vandalure had followed the same rules as the Ralahine Association imposed on its members. But suddenly disaster struck. William Pare, friend and colleague of Robert Owen takes up the story:

I crossed from England to Ireland in the month of October 1833, in company with Proprietor, to visit and examine the colony of Ralahine, then in its third year of existence, with a special view of acquiring knowledge, derived from practical experience …………………………At the urgent request of Mr. Vandaleur I visited Rahaline first and remained a guest in his house long enough to enable me to make a complete and searching investigation of the affairs of the association he had founded ………and afterwards on my way back to England I doubled through Limerick to deliver a promised lecture on ‘Equitable Labour Exchange Bazaars’ then flourishing in England….and on this occasion I again for the last time met Mr Vandaleur, who seemed to be in high spirits. Judge then my surprise on arriving home early in November – filled with delight at the great and the good I had seen at Rahaline and with gratitude to its excellent founder – to find heading one of the columns of a Dublin newspaper the words, ‘Flight of John Scott Vandaleur’. This otherwise respectable and really amiable man was addicted to the damning vice, unknown until then to me, as to many of his friends. This was the vice of gambling.

In Ralahine, Craig was staring at the same headline in surprise and shock. The newspaper headlines was the first intimation to Craig and the family in the Big House that Vandaleur had gambled all he possessed and lost. Realising his desperate predicament, he boarded ship for America and would never again return to Ralahine.

That night from the cottages came the wild agonized keening of the Gael: The way in which the people received the intelligence was painful and distressing in the extreme. Upon its confirmation I heard women and stout men even, grieving piteously and bewailing their loss as if the dearest friend or relative had been snatched from them by sudden death. As the room occupied by myself and Mrs Craig was above the cottages of two married members the wailing of the people in the night had sad and heartrending effect…. I arose next morning with many grey hairs.

The commune was shown no mercy. A distant relative of Vandaleur, a Limerick banker, obtained a fiat in bankruptcy against him which would protect the interest of the family at the expense of the co-operative . The agreement between Vandeleur and the Association was not accepted and the sheriff moved to seize stock and implements. “There was neither means at hand nor time” said Craig, to avert the evil impending. The members were held to be common labourers with no rights or claims for improvements, as all they had created and added to the estate belonged to the landlord. Legally they were right. It was robbery nevertheless. We paid our rent but were remorselessly evicted. We had no remedy.

The members met for the last time on 23 November 1833 and placed on the record a declaration of “The contentment, peace and happiness they had experienced for two years under the arrangement introduced by Mr. Vandaleur and Mr. Craig and which through no fault of the Association was now at an end”. Mr. Craig went back to England and got involved in other co-operative projects and up to his death in 1884 he was known and respected as “Mr Craig of Ralahine”.

Mr Vandaleur was never heard of again and Mrs Vandaleur died some ten years later, his three daughters died of Tuberculosis and his elder son was drowned. His youngest child – a son, who was only three years old when his father fled, continued, but leased the land out to farmers. After the Land Act in the 1920s’ it was divided up by the Irish Land Commission into seventy acre farms. According to Patrick Bolger – in his Book ‘The Irish Co-Operative Movement  – Its History and Development:  “It was to a great extent a paternalistic experiment, imposed from above with limited democratic control. Perhaps the labourers were lucky. They had the resources of land, capital and management ‘forced’ upon them. The modern co-operative ideal of awaiting the members initiative, providing capital from their own non-existent resources, and committing management to the conscious and informed dynamics of the democratic community would have been as unrealistic then as entrusting the running of a modern household to a family of orphaned children. The Ralahine commune was a success for its members but was undone by the legal system of land tenure and the attitudes towards land ownership; indeed the Irish obsession with land ownership, but small regard for productivity, is theme in this narrative.  ……………………..The Ralahine experiment can still be regarded as a outstanding example of Co-operative success because of its devotion of its management, its meticulous economic and social planning, and its scrupulous implementation of the democratic principle. It succeeded in what it attempted to do, and in a very short time. ……………………..What might Rahaline have done if it had been given a chance? Craig could claim that the system, even where only partly applied, had “effected what neither the Government, the soldier, the priest nor the political economist could accomplish……Socialism could induce poor ignorant Irish peasants to live in peace and harmony with each other’.

It took another 58 years before the next attempting of forming a co-operative was initiated by Sir Henry Plunkett.


1 thought on “A Farming Cooperative Experiment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.