The Co-operative Creamery has been an important aspect of rural Ireland for many years now. While most small independent co-ops have been absorbed into the major creameries, many will be celebrating 100 years around this time. Maudabawn Co-operative Creamery, in Co. Cavan, has just celebrated 90 years as an independent Co-op, the founders having overcame many obstacles to provide services to the local farmers and help combat what is now referred to as “rural isolation”, writes Pat Farrell.
Maudabawn is a small rural community nestled in the drumlins of north east Cavan, about five miles from Cootehill. In the 1920’s the biggest farmer in the area had 8 cows and only a handful had 5 or 6. Most farmers had two. The closest creamery was eight miles away. John Bannon, who was secretary of the local branch of the Irish Farmers’ Union, felt that a creamery was needed in Maudabawn. The only viable option was to establish a Co-operative.
The modern concept of the co-operative is generally attributed to Horace Plunkett in the late nineteenth century and through his efforts many societies were formed. In the Brehon Laws of the Celts there was a chapter on co-operative farming, mostly dealing with common lands and tillage.
The basis of the law was that no matter what a farmer contributed to the enterprise he only reaped what he sowed. This is the principle of a co-operative creamery; no matter how many shares are owned each shareholder has only one vote. Each supplier is only paid for his own milk.
The local schoolmaster, Bernard Brady N.T. and the local curate, Fr. O’Reilly, came on board and 208 dairy farmers applied for shares. Shares were allocated on the basis of three £1 shares per cow resulting in 1,643 shares. Why were so many farmers willing to invest in a co-operative? Undoubtedly the three men mentioned were great leaders and with a committee of sixteen well respected members the idea gained momentum.
Timing in any development is crucial. The country was barely five years old. There must have been a sense of “Is féidir linn”. Almost one fifth of the original committee was non-Catholic and, unusually for the time, there was no official opening where the new creamery would be blessed by the Church. Many of course would have seen it as a way to improving their lives, a simple question of economics.
Officials in the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (the predecessor of today’s ICOS) were not against a new creamery but had to be mindful of the effect on existing co-operatives. With such a large amount of shares a new creamery would have to go ahead and IAOS gave its full backing to the new co-operative. The support and guidance of IAOS was both needed and appreciated by the Maudabawn Creamery.
Choosing a site was the next problem. Each side of the parish wanted it close to their area. The Parish Priest didn’t want it too close to the church. There had to be a source of water and, unbelievable by today’s standards, there had to be access to the river for waste and washings!