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REACTIONARY CONSERVATISM OR RADICAL UTOPIANISM? A.E. AND THE IRISH COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT MICHAEL McATEER George Russell (A.E.) is most famous for his involvement with W.B. Yeats in the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the century. However, literary scholars have paid less attention to his involvement with the Irish “cooperative movement” and A.E.’s philosophy of nationality; and when they do so, scholars usually presume that social concerns were secondary to his literary and theosophical interests and could only be understood with reference to those interests.1 The ideal of cooperation took, at least for A.E., much of its inspiration from the doctrine of feudal communalism that Standish O’Grady portrayed through his characterization of Cuchulainn in his two-volume History of Ireland. Furthermore, O’Grady became personally concerned with the cooperative movement initiated by Sir Horace Plunkett, entering into dialogue through his newspaper, The All-Ireland Review, with the journal of the cooperative movement, The Irish Homestead. Interpretations of the history of the cooperative movement in Ireland during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are sometimes sharply divided. The movement began in humble surroundings and was slow to develop initially. Sir Horace Plunkett started his first cooperative society at Doneraile, County Waterford, in 1889, but it was to be another six years before a national body governing co-ops was established— namely, the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). F.S.L. Lyons reads the movement exclusively as a mode of constructive unionism, part of a strategy, however benevolent, deployed to stall what he regards as the A.E. AND THE IRISH COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT 148 1 Darrell Figgis, A.E. (London: Maunsel, 1916), 84. Here Figgis considers A.E.’s involvement in the cooperative movement as a means by which A.E.’s spiritual beliefs could be articulated practically. inexorable movement of Irish nationalism toward political independence after the Great Famine.2 It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Lyons sees the movement as a failure, and accounts for this failure as sourced in what he regards as Plunkett’s error of subordinating politics to economics:3 Plunkett made one miscalculation more fundamental than any that have yet been mentioned. Because Home Rule was moribund when he entered public life he assumed that politics had become less urgent and vital for Irishmen than economics. But here he was profoundly mistaken. In the very years when he was launching his movement the whole political situation was in ferment and out of that ferment would come a mood and temper sharply inimical to the well-meant efforts of Protestant landlords to lead their fellow-countrymen to co-operative paths to quiet pastures.4 Paul Bew accepts that Plunkett was politically unionist and that he prioritized economics over politics. “But,” Bew writes, “Plunkett was still a difficult man to pigeonhole: he did after all support some rather unconventional causes (for a Unionist MP for South Dublin)—the G.A.A., the Gaelic League and the campaign for a Catholic University.”5 Plunkett’s ambivalent persona reflected in many ways the movement he initiated. Lyons’ assumption, for example, that the cooperative movement was landlord -led is undermined by the fact that one of its strongest campaigners during the 1890s was a Jesuit priest, Fr. Finlay, who often joined his voice to those of Plunkett, H.F. Norman, and A.E. in criticism of those who opposed the movement both politically and economically.6 A.E. AND THE IRISH COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT 149 2 F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since The Famine (London: Fontana, 1973), 32. 3 Cormac O’Gráda also argues that the cooperative ideal envisaged by Plunkett and A.E. failed to materialize, but he argues that the reason lay not in a sense of nationalist loyalty on the part of Irish farmers but simply because of their hard-nosed attitude to cooperation . O’Gráda quotes from the IAOS records for Killasnet co-op, 5 July 1900, in which the manager informs A.E. that “the farmers look at it solely as a matter of £s.d. They do not concern themselves in the least about measures of co-operation, etc., etc., but if Lonsdale [a...


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