Book recalls history of Aurivo Co-op
In this exclusive extract from Fields of Gold – a history of Aurivo Co-operative Society and farming in the West – author James Laffey traces the early years of Rathscanlon Creamery in Tubbercurry and the bitter opposition it engendered in nearby Achonry.
The finances of Achonry Co-operative were in such a healthy state in the spring of 1919 that 12 of the 14 members of staff – the exceptions being the manager and dairymaid – petitioned for wage increases, warning they would give notice of strike action if their request was rejected at the annual general meeting in May.
“You will understand that some of us are not getting as much as would maintain us except in our own homes,” the workers stated in a letter to the committee. “There is not any body of workers in any part of the country receiving such a low rate of wages as we are.”
The highest paid workers, Hugh Kerins and Thomas O’Grady, who were almost certainly assistant managers, were receiving 40 shillings per week and were seeking an additional 15 shillings each in their weekly wage packets. The lowest paid workers, Francis Gildea and Charles Finan, were earning 15 shillings and 17 shillings respectively per week but had very differing expectations – Gildea seeking an additional 10 shillings to Finan’s more modest three shillings.
It was going to be difficult for the management committee to reject the workers’ demands. The annual turnover in Achonry had soared in the preceding decade under the shrewd stewardship of P.P. Condon, and the co-operative now boasted a sawmill in addition to its creamery, general store and bacon curing businesses.
Indeed, the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) inspector Patrick McGowan, in his annual report for 1919, urged the management to consider extending its premises by purchasing neighbouring land and removing several temporary structures erected in recent years as the business grew. And certainly there was no shortage of cash reserves to fund an ambitious redevelopment scheme at Achonry: the co-operative’s accumulated profits having surpassed £5,000 at the start of 1919.
But finding common ground among the co-operative’s almost 800 shareholders remained an elusive task for P.P. Condon and his management committee. IAOS organiser James Moore described the annual general meeting of 1919 as “the most disorderly and unsatisfactory I have ever attended”. The meeting in the Technical Hall in Mullinabreena went on for five hours and contained so much “wordy warfare’ – as Moore colourfully termed it – that the beleaguered members of the management committee were more perplexed at the end than they had been at the beginning.
“Owing to the confusion it is hard to say what definitive conclusions were arrived at,” Moore reported to IAOS headquarters. “Probably saner counsels may prevail now that the general meeting is over.”
Notwithstanding the occasional disorderly annual general meeting, which was certainly not unique to Achonry Co-operative, the buoyant position of the society is evident in the correspondence between P.P. Condon and officials in the IAOS. By 1919, Achonry had one of the busiest creameries in Connacht and boasted a very strong export trade to the UK, with a lot of the Achonry produce shipped from Belfast in those pre-partition days. When Patrick McGowan visited the western creameries in the summer of 1919, he discovered that Achonry was purchasing quantities of milk each month that were double and treble its Connacht compatriots. For example, in July 1919, the creamery in Achonry took in 119,813 gallons of milk compared to 36,918 in Ballaghaderreen.
The tremendous success of Achonry was made all the more impressive when one considers it had competition on its doorstep in the shape of the Tubbercurry Co-operative Agricultural and Dairy Society.
The co-operative dairy at Ballyara on the Ballina Road in Tubbercurry was set up in the early 1900s in the teeth of opposition from the IAOS. Canon Patrick Staunton, the Mayo-born parish priest of Tubbercurry, first wrote to the national body in the summer of 1898 to propose the establishment of an independent creamery in the town. IAOS secretary Robert Anderson was not entirely opposed to the idea but believed that if a dairy was founded in Tubbercurry, it should be operated as an auxiliary to Achonry. Canon Staunton was of a different mind altogether, stating in correspondence that an auxiliary was out of the question.
A public meeting was duly held on June 29, 1898, but Canon Staunton’s efforts appear to have come to nothing and the project was mothballed for several years. The IAOS organiser in Sligo, Presbyterian Henry Shaw, was secretly delighted, confiding in Anderson that he wanted nothing to do with that “God Almighty of a Parish Priest”!
But the parish priest was not a man accustomed to rejection. In early 1901, Canon Staunton revived the creamery project and this time the formidable padre would not be thwarted. His message to Anderson was unequivocal: an independent creamery was being established in Tubbercurry whether the IAOS wanted to support it or not.
The priest convened a public meeting for the local courthouse on January 8, 1901, to “consider the question of establishing a creamery at or near Tobercurry”. Anderson and Shaw, in an effort to outmanoeuvre their adversary, encouraged Denis Gallagher, the secretary of Achonry Co-operative, to hold his own public meeting with a view to locating an auxiliary in Tubbercurry. Shaw, meanwhile, refused to attend Canon Staunton’s gathering and promised Anderson he would do his best to “squelch” the nascent movement.
The courthouse meeting attracted a muted response from local farmers but the town traders were overwhelmingly supportive of a co-operative dairy.
Fields of Gold: A history of Aurivo Co-operative and farming in the West is available from all local bookshops in Co Sligo and from Aurivo’s Homeland stores or online at www. aurivo.ie.
Pictured at Aurivo headquarters in Finisklin Buisness Park, Sligo, were Pat Duffy, chairman, Aurivo Co-operative Society Ltd; Aaron Forde, chief executive, Aurivo Co-operative Society Ltd; James Laffey, author, Fields of Gold. Editorial committee members for the Fields of Gold project Michael Morley, Peadar Kivlehan, Jim Kelly and Pat McHugh. Picture: Henry Wills.