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Economics in the Shadow of the First World War

George Russell [AE], Co-operation and the State in Ireland during the First World War

George Russell [AE], la Coopération et l'État en Irlande durant la Première Guerre mondiale
Patrick Doyle
p. 525-545


Quand la Grande-Bretagne a déclaré la guerre à l’Allemagne en août 1914, le mouvement coopératif agricole était une des organisations économiques les plus importantes en Irlande. Durant la Première Guerre mondiale, la sécurité alimentaire de la Grande-Bretagne est devenue un impératif économique pour le gouvernement soutenu par les leaders du mouvement coopératif. Cependant, l’intervention régulatrice accrue de l’État dans l’agriculture a entaché les relations entre l’État et le mouvement coopératif. Cet article considère l’impact de cette redéfinition de l’appareil étatique Irlandais à travers la réponse intellectuelle du principal théoricien de la sphère coopérative en Irlande, George Russell [AE]. Le rôle d’AE comme éditeur de la revue du mouvement, The Irish Homestead, lui a donné des conditions uniques pour observer et intervenir publiquement sur la nature changeante de l’État en Irlande. Il concevait les interventions de l’État sur l’organisation de la production de nourriture, durant la guerre, comme de plus en plus tyranniques et hostiles aux intérêts de long terme des agriculteurs irlandais. L’article soutient l’idée que la critique formulée par AE sur le rôle de l’État durant la guerre dans l’organisation agricole a contribué à la dégradation des relations Anglo-Irlandaises. Et surtout, la réponse d’AE démontre l’importance accordée en Irlande à une critique économique du pouvoir britannique, ce qui a alimenté une plus vaste critique politique adoptée par des nationalistes radicaux : c’est le cœur de son intérêt historique.

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1In June 1918, George Russell, better known by his pen-name AE, wrote an article entitled ‘The Self-Supporting Community’ for the journal Studies. AE was a writer and mystic, but also a leading intellectual in Ireland’s rural co-operative movement. The article focused upon how war regulations impacted upon the values of economic autonomy and self-sufficiency that AE believed the co-operative movement promoted so effectively before 1914. The growth of a new type of wartime state, AE warned his readers, meant that, ‘Irishmen are threatened not only by the submarines which lie around their coasts, but by the action of the economic machinery which has grown up in their country’ (Russell, 1918, 301). AE viewed the rise of wartime regulations within the food sector as evidence of the increasingly tyrannical nature of the British state and a threat to a vision of Irish national identity based along the lines of a rural, co-operative society.

2The First World War had a profound historical impact upon Ireland and its relationship with the United Kingdom. A major reason for this stemmed from political developments that derived from the aftermath of the Easter Rising in April 1916. This armed rebellion against British rule by a radical minority of Irish nationalists changed the contours of the Irish Question and led to increased sympathy for the separatist cause (Townshend, 2006). The Sinn Féin party, founded in 1905, experienced a rapid growth in support after the armed uprising in Dublin. In part, Sinn Féin gained from its ability to inherit the legacy of the Easter Rising. Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish Republic after 1916 combined with a platform of abstention from Westminster saw them displace the Irish Parliamentary Party as the major political party of nationalist Ireland at the 1918 General Election (Laffan, 1999, 164). Sinn Féin’s electoral performance heralded the arrival of a new, separatist force in Irish nationalist politics. Between 1919 and 1921 armed guerrilla warfare aimed at the removal of the British state from Ireland unfolded—much of it across rural regions of Ireland (Hart, 2005, 34-37). Economic changes that occurred in Ireland as a result of the war also played a part in changing the pallor of nationalist opinion in Ireland.

3During the war, the issue of a secure food supply arose as one of the political priorities facing the British government as it looked to secure military victory. Ireland emerged as an important part of the British war economy. As a country with a large agricultural sector, Ireland was well-positioned to help ensure Great Britain received its required foodstuffs despite the German navy’s efforts to disrupt imports. The First World War has been acknowledged as a relatively plentiful time for Irish farmers as prices of agricultural produce were guaranteed by the state. The impact of price guarantees produced an economic bonanza for Irish agricultural producers as colourfully recalled by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh, who grew up in rural county Monaghan during the war, recalled scenes from his childhood, whereby ‘every Sunday coming home from Mass I heard all around me: “It’s a great war for the farmer. Cattle up four pounds a head.” “The German’s a good soldier. Up the German.”’ (Kavanagh, 2001, 58) Nationalist MP Stephen Gwynn supported this view when he reflected that ‘socially and economically the war brought floods of money into Ireland… agriculture had a golden time, and all the profits of agriculture went to the occupiers of the land’ (Gwynn, 1924, 73). By 1920, agricultural prices were three times higher than in 1913. In particular, the farmers with larger landholdings made a lot of money due to their ability to exploit the prices paid for crops (Bell and Watson, 2009, 247). However, the picture of wartime economic prosperity painted by Kavanagh and Gwynn sits uneasily alongside the violent rejection of the British state that occurred in the war’s immediate aftermath. This article attempts to understand how this discontent accelerated in the sphere of economics by tracing the intellectual development of AE, the co-operative movement’s propagandist and theorist.

4A great deal of historiographical focus has concentrated on the political and social changes that occurred during the war as a precursor to political independence in 1922. The war acted as catalyst that helped drive a shift in popular nationalism from parliamentary demands for political autonomy to the widespread support for a militant brand of Irish republicanism (Bew, 1994; Githens-Mazer, 2006; Laffan, 1999; McGarry, 2011; Townshend, 2006). However, a growing literature now exists on Ireland’s experience in the First World War taking account of the military experience, the effects upon social activity, its cultural impact and the political fallout attendant that accompanied the drawn-out conflict (Brearton, 2000; Gregory and Paseta, 2002; Horne and Madigan, 2013; Lee, 1989; Pennell, 2012). John Horne has argued that at the time four different visions of statehood existed in Ireland into which political allegiances across the island divided: Unionist, Ulster Unionist, Nationalist and Republican (Horne, 2008). However, the breakdown of these visions of statehood into four broadly political categories includes no reference to the ways in which the economic impact of the war also shaped visions of statehood.

5The economic imperatives of the war led to rapid changes in the style of government. The redrawing of the state apparatus in Ireland in order to avoid food shortages led AE to construct a critique of British power based upon a perception of unwarranted interventions into the business of farmers. As one of the leading intellectual figure in Ireland’s co-operative movement, AE possessed an influential platform that allowed him to make important interventions in Irish public life. Therefore, his critique of British power possessed especial resonance and he found a receptive audience for his ideas amongst younger nationalist intellectuals who were in the midst of creating a vision of an independent Irish republic (Mitchell, 1995, 45). The emergent vision of an independent Irish state offered by Sinn Féin in particular, drew upon strands of thought advocated by AE whose brand of co-operative economics long appealed to the radical nationalists outside the mainstream parliamentary tradition in the early twentieth century (Doyle, 2014). This article examines the intellectual response of AE, who alongside other leaders of the Irish co-operative movement such as Horace Plunkett and Robert Anderson, responded critically to the changing role of the wartime state in Ireland. However, as the editor of the Irish Homestead, AE’s thought unfolded gradually and in public through his prolific production of journalism and books. Therefore he provides an important insight into the ways in which wartime regulations influenced the intellectual tradition of co-operation in Ireland.

6The article will first provide an outline of the role played by the Irish co-operative movement during the war as it provided extra-governmental support to farmers who supplied the British war effort. Then, attention is turned to AE’s responses to state intervention in his position as co-operative propagandist. For AE, the promotion of economic co-operation represented ‘an attempt to build up a new social order in Ireland’ (Russell, 1912, 33). By the end of the First World War, AE reached the conclusion that the British state impeded efforts to build this new social order. Finally, the wider influence of AE’s thought upon a new generation of political nationalists will be highlighted. The success of Sinn Féin and the slide into violence helped make political separation between Ireland and the United Kingdom a reality after the war. However, it will be argued that through his economic writings, AE highlighted the incompatibility between economic co-operation and the organisation of the British state throughout the course of the war. In the process AE differentiated the Irish nation from the United Kingdom via economic arguments.

1. Rural Co-operation in Ireland

7The emergence of the Irish co-operative movement represented a monumental effort to revitalise the condition of rural life. This occurred at the end of a century that saw Ireland transformed by a devastating famine in the 1840s, followed by mass emigration accompanied by the restructuring of agriculture and rural life (Crossman, 2006; Daly, 1986; Ó Gráda, 1999). Irish agriculture struggled to compete with international competition from the 1870s and the government instigated a programme of subsidised land purchase for tenant farmers in order to resolve the issue of land ownership. By the 1880s, agricultural depression placed further pressure on Irish farmers. The value of agricultural output for 1886 stood at 64 per cent of its 1876 value (Solow, 1971).

8The social reformer, Horace Plunkett, used this juncture to promote the co-operative organisation of rural society. This served the purpose of making Irish agriculture competitive in an international marketplace as Plunkett sought to instigate a revolution of character that would produce an improved rural citizenry. Plunkett believed that ‘the spread of agricultural co-operation through voluntary associations’ was required to overcome practical problems that affected Irish farming’s international reputation and a way to exploit national resources. He argued that co-operative societies represented an ‘agency of social and economic progress’ without which:

Small landholders will be but a body of isolated units, having all the drawbacks of individualism and none of its virtues, unorganised and singularly ill-equipped for that great international struggle of our time, which we know as agricultural competition. (Plunkett, 1904, 44)

9This concern for the small farmer remained a feature of co-operative rhetoric during the early twentieth century. Plunkett advocated that the establishment of co-operative societies offered a means to achieve an element of social cohesion and ensure that small farmers contributed to the economic development of Ireland. Such a view drew criticism from already established trading interests and the introduction of a co-operative society to a new district usually heralded local controversy and conflict (Kennedy, 1978; 1979; 1983).

10 The Irish co-operative movement soon sat at the heart of rural communities across Ireland. Co-operative creameries placed modern dairying technology within reach of many Irish farmers, which allowed their butter and dairy produce to compete with their main rivals for the British butter market, Denmark (Henriksen, 1999; O’Rourke, 2007). The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) was founded by Plunkett in 1894 to co-ordinate the development of Irish co-operative societies and ensure that all members of these agricultural businesses followed the rules set by these societies (West, 1986, 33-35). AE was employed as an organiser for rural credit banks in the west of Ireland in 1898, but the decision was taken several years later to place his literary experience at the disposal of the movement. In 1905, AE, was employed as the editor of the Irish Homestead, the mouthpiece of the journal which allowed him to publicly assert his ideas in support of co-operative economics and its value to the emerging Irish nation (Allen, 2003, 27). By the outbreak of the First World War, membership of the co-operative movement had surpassed 100,000 members and it was estimated that half of all Irish milk converted for butter at a creamery passed through a co-operative society (Rodgers, 1998, 333) (See Table 1).

Table : Co-operative societies and members, 1907-1914


No. of Societies (Creameries, credit societies, etc.)


























Source: IAOS, Annual Reports, 1907-1914.

2. The Movement on Trial

11The outbreak of the First World War immediately impacted upon Irish society. Political debates around Home Rule became side-lined as the government emphasised the need to concentrate on the war effort (Fanning, 2013). Horace Plunkett believed the war represented a new challenge for the co-operative movement and offered a test ‘of the character and a capacity of the rural democracy, the condition of whose life and work we [the IAOS] have striven all these years to improve’ (IAOS, 1914, 7). The IAOS’s role in spreading technological innovations throughout rural Ireland provided one way in which the organisation could prepare the country to meet wartime demands. In 1914, the IAOS executive issued a patriotic rallying cry:

Without the co-operative movement, the scarcity of labour, consequent on the war, would probably result in a still further diminution of the acreage under tillage; with it the shortage of labour can be to a great extent counterbalanced by the more general use of labour saving machinery. The movement is on its trial [emphasis added] (IAOS, 1914, 7).

12The challenge for Irish co-operators lay in the execution of their duties at a moment of grave concern.

13On a practical level, Horace Plunkett ‘had from the first seen that food supplies would be one of the keys to victory, and he had been anxious for the IAOS to use its powers to increase food production in Ireland’ (Digby, 1949, 207). The outbreak of the First World War led to a rapid increase in the output of agricultural produce in the British economy (Milward, 1972, 50). Food supply formed a major concern of British government during the war and Irish agriculture remained a central plank to Britain’s economic performance. The Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland (DATI) and the IAOS initially united in appeals that Irish farmers carry out their patriotic duty through an intensification of agricultural production in the national interest. JR Campbell, a departmental official, urged farmers to concentrate upon tillage farming and extend dairy output to cover winter months (Campbell, 1914, 12-15).

14The cordial relations between the Irish government department and the IAOS did not last long. This reflected the entangled history of the two agricultural agencies. Horace Plunkett provided the impetus behind the establishment of the DATI in 1900. The establishment of the DATI saw the devolution of agricultural policymaking powers to Ireland and Plunkett became the first Vice-President (effectively the Agriculture Minister) a position which he occupied until removed in 1907. TW Russell replaced Plunkett and sat at the head of the DATI until 1918 (West, 1986, 76-86). Russell’s appointment created immediate friction between the IAOS and DATI with long-term implications for Irish agricultural development. A Liberal Unionist MP from Tyrone, Russell resented the co-operative movement’s interference in agrarian affairs and stressed that under his leadership, ‘there would be no partnership between the IAOS and the Department’ (Lyons, 1975, 215). Tensions between the DATI and IAOS characterised TW Russell’s period in office. The DATI opposed the co-operative movement’s intervention into agrarian affairs and reduced the IAOS’s access to state resources. TW Russell circumvented the co-operative movement’s expertise wherever possible and embarked upon a policy of ‘non-controversial co-operation’, under the auspices of which he withdrew the state subsidy to the IAOS. The ‘non-controversial’ nature referred to the official aim that co-operative societies continue to trade only if they managed to refrain from harming the interests of local independent and private operators (Anderson, 1935, 123; Kennedy, 1983, 350-353).

15Tensions again erupted between the IAOS and DATI during the First World War. In 1915, a DATI investigation into Irish agriculture saw Horace Plunkett invited to sit on the Departmental Committee in an indication the co-operative sector would play a role in shaping a governmental response to a potential food crisis. The report’s major conclusions included the promotion of increased tillage, and a vague call to improve the farmers’ position. Alone amongst the Committee, Plunkett dissented from the majority’s findings, and proposed an amendment that argued that any rise in food production depended upon ‘at least as much voluntary effort as upon governmental action’. This attempt to give official recognition to the work of the IAOS failed, as his amendment lost by eleven votes to four. Instead, he submitted a Minority Report, in which he argued that an increase in food production required the adoption of the co-operative method. In submitting this report, Plunkett claimed to ‘speak for tens of thousands of farmers, whose wishes and opinions I am in a position to know’ (HCPP, 1916, 11-12). As a consequence the IAOS positioned itself as an organisation engaged in patriotic war work without official government support. The failure of the IAOS and DATI to reconcile differences and work together represented a lost opportunity to improve Irish agriculture. Notably, a failure to promote standardisation harmed Irish producers in the longer term, and led to the loss of goodwill amongst customers after the war (Meenan, 1970, 302-303).

  • 1 This mirrored the experience of other countries with large agricultural sectors. For example, agric (...)

16The IAOS provided valuable support to members at a local level throughout the war despite the fact the leadership sat outside the official food policymaking process. As early as 1911, AE argued that ‘the power to continuously adjust production to the needs of the market is one of the greatest advantages of association among farmers’ (Russell, 1911, 368). IAOS organisers continued to work with local managers and society committees in order to adapt the economic functions of societies where necessary.1 Robert Anderson, who served as the IAOS’s Secretary throughout the war, recalled that ‘Co-operation was called on to put forth efforts in directions as novel to its staff as they were to the reluctant farmers to whom they had to make appeal’ (Anderson, 1935, 194). The IAOS directed specialised resources where and when required, and disseminated information to large sections of the population. For example, the manager of Abbeydorney Co-operative Dairy Society requested copies of a pamphlet produced by the IAOS to disseminate amongst its members. The IAOS dispatched 200 copies of its ‘War and the Food Supplies’ pamphlet, which offered advice to members (National Archives of Ireland [NAI], T. O’Donovan to R.A. Anderson, 15 August 1914). The IAOS remained in contact with a large number of farmers and therefore remained alive to their members’ requirements and anxieties.

17Co-operative societies shored up their position in the economy through a diversification of their operations. An important feature of co-operative creameries that allowed them to respond to shifting demands lay in their ability to adapt in order to ensure suppliers returned a profit. Co-operative creameries diversified in order to meet economic demands, whilst simultaneously expanding their utility to members. The IAOS helped co-operative societies expand their modes of production and some established flour mills in order to stimulate bread production (NAI, T. O’Donovan to R.A. Anderson, 22 January 1915). As early as 1915, 248 out of 344 co-operative creameries engaged in the trade of other goods outside of butter. This ‘agricultural trade’ encompassed a wide range of services, including the sale of agricultural inputs, and indicated an increased diversification amongst the network of co-operative societies (Bolger, 1977, 208). Creameries moved into the production of new consumables, such as cheese and flour. A flagship society such as Abbeydorney Co-operative Society experienced an improvement in the quality of its milk supply combined with stable membership figures. For the year 1915-1916, the society benefitted from a significant increase in the amount of milk supplied, from 109,180 gallons in July 1915, to 129,245 gallons 12 months later (NAI, IAOS Organiser’s Report, 11 September 1916).

18A significant development during the war was the move to cheese production by the creamery societies. This was because of the high prices offered for cheese by the government as a way to meet the demand for protein required for British diets. Irish cheese production expanded during the war years, from 10,000 tons for export in 1914 to 286,000 tons by 1919 (Daly, 2002, 58-60). An article in the co-operative movement’s newspaper, The Irish Homestead framed the switch to cheese production within a discourse that emphasised ‘Economy, patriotism, health, all call for a greater use of this valuable food’ (Irish Homestead, 17 August 1918). In the south west, the region’s creameries switched to cheese production in order to compete with other societies. One manager made the decision to establish cheese-making facilities in response to other nearby creameries switching production from butter to cheese. He wrote to the IAOS headquarters in Dublin that the decision was taken to keep up with rival co-operatives stating, ‘if they can do this we must follow suit or go under’ (NAI, Thomas de Lacy to C.C. Riddall, 27 February 1918).

19The role of IAOS organisers proved crucial to the establishment of these cheese-making facilities, and creamery inspections revolved around policing this new manufacturing process. Managers sought the aid of the IAOS to equip creameries with the required machinery for cheese-making. By the war’s end, this economic shift was heralded by the IAOS as a milestone achievement in the modern Irish farmers’ war record:

The most notable of the developments attributable to the war is the widespread adoption of cheese-making in Munster, and to a less extent other parts of Ireland. Few creameries in Munster that have failed to engage in it have been able to meet the stress of competition (IAOS, 1919, 9).

20However, cheese production proved to be a temporary feature of Irish creamery production due in large part to the low quality of the produce. By the 1920s, creameries once again focused on the production of butter (Daly, 2002). The IAOS’s main purpose during the war was to assist local societies adapt to a wartime economy. Although the number of societies contracted slightly, the membership experienced a slight growth from 106,212 to 117,484 members (see table 2).

Table 2: Number of co-operative societies, 1914-1918


No. of Societies (Creameries, credit societies etc.)

















Source: IAOS, Annual Reports, 1914-1918.

21AE emerged as the co-operative movement’s most vocal advocate during the second half of the war as he argued for economic self-sufficiency for Ireland. Horace Plunkett, although still the President of the IAOS had been invited to chair the Irish Convention during 1917 in an attempt to find a solution to a political impasse that remained around the proposed implementation of Home Rule after the war (McDowell, 1970). This left AE to shape the co-operative movement’s response to quickly changing political and economic circumstances. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising, AE used his position as Irish Homestead editor to address his ‘unhappy country’. Despite the unrest caused by the rebellion and the new political uncertainties created in its aftermath, AE retained his firm belief that the co-operative movement offered a cause for optimism and a possible avenue for a future consensus between political traditions on the island. ‘Because our movement is already national… and because it alone seems capable of bringing the majority of Irish people into its ranks’ he wrote, ‘we hold that it is the best thing Ireland has at present, and in it is the promise and potency of a happy and prosperous Ireland to be found’ (Irish Homestead, 29 April, 6 and 13 May 1916). A couple of weeks later, AE offered another assessment for Irish economics in an uncertain world as he invoked the language of self-sufficiency. He argued ‘that national safety for the people in Ireland demands a complete change in economic policy here…we must aim at making Ireland self-supporting in respect of food and only sell the surplus’ (Irish Homestead, 10 June 1916).

22A change in economic policy soon arrived. The passage of the Corn Production Act in 1917 ‘marked a new departure in the agricultural policy of the United Kingdom’ that directed farmers to adopt specific methods of agricultural production (DATI, 1919, 12). From this point on the government’s agricultural objectives aimed towards increased food production to enable British self-sufficiency. Food production campaigns during 1917-1918 encouraged larger yields of vital food staples such as wheat, oats and potatoes. For example, the potato crop yield for Ireland grew by 27% and annual corn production stood at 545,000 tons more than the respective pre-war figures (Barnet, 1985, 193-208). As the war progressed and the British state extended its involvement in the politics of food production and distribution, AE fleshed out his vision of Irish economic self-sufficiency and as a response to what he viewed as a state structure designed to suit private interests. The war demonstrated the continued relevance of the IAOS as an important social actor at a local level, but its influence within official policymaking circles remained negligible. The next section examines the way in which AE developed a stringent critique of the state system in Ireland based upon regulations and food policies and called for greater autonomy in the aftermath of the war.

3. AE and the Wartime State

23AE developed a critical theorisation of the co-operative movement’s relationship with the state in the course of the First World War. This critique represented AE’s response to the government’s food policy which he believed granted no recognition for the IAOS’s war work nor did it prioritise the interests of Irish farmers. Disillusioned with government departments following the struggle with the DATI for funding in the years before the war, AE’s cynicism of state interference hardened during wartime. As shown above, the IAOS exerted influence over rural Ireland’s economic machinery and products through its ties to individual co-operative societies. However, any hope that food policies might be enacted to recognise and supplement the work of the IAOS remained unfulfilled. AE’s reticence about state interference reflected the influence of anarchist thought upon his own intellectual development. In particular, the work of Prince Kropotkin provided a formative education to the young AE in developing his ideas about the promotion of mutual aid and the pursuit of co-operative organisation as a moral imperative. The creation of a co-operative citizenry in Ireland remained AE’s great ambition for the IAOS (Allen, 2003, 40-43). His frustration with evermore government intervention reflected a belief that the state’s role should be to promote an arrangement whereby society should be allowed to flourish out of the interplay between voluntary organisations.

24 In 1916, AE published The National Being, in which he articulated a vision of an idealised Irish polity. This book represented an attempt to flesh out the social and economic values that best suited the Irish nation. The National Being sits amongst a significant body of works, literary and journalistic, that contributed to the Irish Revival from the late nineteenth century onwards. AE’s concern with the social and economic aspect of the ‘Irish Question’ marks The National Being out as an exceptional contribution. Like many of his contemporaries, AE anticipated that some form of political independence for Ireland would be implemented in accordance with the 1914 Home Rule Act. Therefore he sought to make the case for a vision of Irish nationhood that anticipated a major role for co-operative societies as centres of social and economic development. AE wrote in an idiosyncratic style that incorporated his deep personal interest in mysticism, and defined the state as ‘a physical body prepared for the incarnation of the soul of the race. The body of the national soul may be spiritual or secular, aristocratic or democratic, civil or militarist’. AE viewed the state in Ireland as a manifestation of the country’s governmental institutions, and wrote ‘if there is anything in the theory of Irish nationality, we will apply original principles as they are from time to time discovered to be fundamental in Irish character’ (AE, 1916, 2). AE believed that the leadership shown by the IAOS as it worked to extend the co-operative principle throughout Irish agriculture helped people rediscover one of these fundamental national virtues. Over the previous quarter century, AE argued, ‘the co-operative principle has once more laid hold on the imagination of the Irish townsman and the Irish countryman’. The adoption of ‘a policy which will enable it to manifest once more… will create an Irish civilization, which will fit our character as the glove fits the hand’ (AE, 1916, 125-126).

25AE’s attitude towards the state helped define an emergent nationalist conception of the economy in Ireland. In this way, AE articulated a trend reflected in countries such as India whereby an anti-imperialistic conception of a national economy emerged in response to attempts to integrate regional economies into a wider imperial order. The international evolution of national economics had its basis in the late nineteenth century and stemmed from the ascendency of transnational statist framework that challenged the political-economic imagination that underpinned Britain’s attempt to establish an imperial economy (Goswami, 2004, 280). Contemporary understandings of the state in Ireland derived from two main factors. Firstly, political debate in Ireland revolved around the potential application of Home Rule, which centred on the ability of Irish people to control political institutions and decision-making. Secondly, for the co-operative movement’s leaders, the state frequently obstructed co-operative businesses from achieving their full potential as indicated by their invisibility within the food policy-making process. AE believed that the ultimate form to be taken by the Irish state remained obscure but pliable. Despite passionate discussions around self-government, AE lamented the lack of effort devoted to the ‘speculation over our own character or the nature of the civilization we wished to create for ourselves. Nations, rarely… start with a complete ideal’ (AE, 1916, 3). In Ireland, ideas about the state came entwined within discourses around contested claims for political independence. Consequently, physical territory and ideas associated with the nation informed contemporary understandings of the state. For AE, the nation, and therefore the state, relied upon the ideas and character of its people. The IAOS represented an important agent in the state-building process as it took the rural subject as its starting point and through its interventions and organisational work strove to remake the Irish population. As AE viewed it, the IAOS worked to embed values of co-operation within the national soul through the medium of the farmer.

26If the IAOS provided AE with the means to arrive at a ‘complete ideal’ for the nation, other intellectuals paid attention to the ideals being disseminated by AE. The publication of The National Ideal provided stimulation for the Sinn Féin intellectuals, Darrell Figgis and Aodh de Blácam. These two writers in particular engaged upon devising a social and political program for a future Sinn Féin administration and drew heavily upon the co-operative economics of AE. The same year The National Being appeared, Figgis published his own study of AE with the subtitle A Study of a Man and a Nation (Figgis, 1916). Furthermore, for Figgis, co-operative societies already provided evidence of an emergent Irish state (Figgis, 1917, 74). Aodh de Blácam, in his work Towards the Republic, sought to express the social and political aims of a new Ireland. In this treatise he reiterated arguments made by Figgis when he asserted ‘that the future of Ireland lies in Co-operation no observer of the times can doubt.’ De Blácam’s thought is informed by the writings of AE in this period. This is acknowledged when de Blácam singles out for praise the ‘the co-operative work of Mr George Russell’ alongside the work and deeds of certain leaders of the 1916 Rising as well as the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith (de Blácam, 1918, 26; 119).

27Changes in economic policy during the war intensified AE’s intellectual process that combined ideas of nationhood with the co-operative principles embodied in local societies. Agriculture formed the dominant economic sector in Ireland, and the progression of the British government’s agricultural policy during the war fit into two phases. Until December 1916, the policy followed a laissez-faire direction and could be interpreted as at least allowing the co-operative movement to continue its business relatively unimpeded. From 1917 onwards, the formation of a coalition government under Lloyd George provoked a more interventionist approach (Dewey, 1989, 23). As the government intervened in food policy, the co-operative movement became frustrated and alienated from the overall policy consultation. AE hoped that the voluntary efforts co-ordinated by the IAOS might remain unimpeded by creeping state interference. Expecting ‘the State or a State Department to undertake this [agricultural] work is to ask a body influenced and often controlled by powerful capitalists, and middle agencies which it should be the role of the … [IAOS] to eliminate’ (AE, 1916, 53). Lack of faith in the state reflected co-operative experience under DATI policy. The war intensified this position, as the direction of government policy failed to meet the expectations of co-operators.

28In their survey of British co-operation, Fred Hall and William Watkins noted that ‘it was in the protection of the consumer… that war-time collectivism was seen in its extremest (sic) forms’ (Hall and Watkins, 1937, 197). The First World War precipitated a new form of state intervention that Hall and Watkins, as intellectuals who worked within the British co-operative movement, broadly welcomed. From 1917 onwards, AE aggressively critiqued the arrangement of economic powers under the British wartime state, which undermined attempts to assert a co-operative form of political economy. The government established the Food Production Department in 1917, with the aim of organising the arrangement of agricultural production, labour and technology (Dewey, 1985, 91-93). The 1917 Corn Production Act directed resources towards intensified production and output in corn and potatoes (Daly, 2002, 58-61). In Ireland, the practical implementation of government regulations fell under the responsibility of the DATI, which introduced new rules and orders, including compulsory tillage orders, minimum wage rates, a guaranteed price for grain and a temporary suspension of land purchase and redistribution. The Irish Homestead carried DATI that appealed to its readers to play their part in responding to these demands. For example, one publicity campaign explained to farmers that an increased emphasis on tillage farming would not harm those who relied on live stock as a source of income and equated an increase in tillage farming as a way to stimulate milk production: ‘More tillage means more men, more cattle, more work, more prosperity’ (Irish Homestead, 10 February 1917).

  • 2 Although strictly under Lord Rhondda’s authority, the approach taken to the organisation of food co (...)

29Lord Rhondda, who was appointed Food Controller in June 1917, established local committees that set out to organise an equitable distribution of food, commandeered supplies when required, and eventually introduced compulsory rationing.2 The imposition of controls over which co-operators had little say provoked an angry response from AE. In the pages of the Irish Homestead AE attacked the new agricultural policy of 1917. Annoyed at the apparent invisibility of the IAOS to government agents, AE criticised the state’s decision to use other ‘bodies to undertake new organisation of food production’:

We see continual reference to urban councils, district councils, boards of guardians, traders and merchants who are to supervise, procure land, re-allot it, get seeds, fertilisers, implements, and generally to control all this work. We have not seen the slightest official recognition of the existence of farmers’ associations and co-operative societies, of which there are well over one thousand in Ireland. (Irish Homestead, 13 January 1917)

30The DATI refused to acknowledge co-operators as an instrument through which to work. The IAOS resented its position as a governmental outcast, whereby all institutions of local government and trading associations collaborated in the execution of agricultural policy. By 1917, the relationship between the two largest agricultural institutions in Ireland had grown toxic. This led to accusations that the DATI regarded the farmers ‘as people of no importance in agriculture, their organisations as bodies which need not be considered’. In an indication of the sense of isolation from official power gathering momentum, AE continued that the co-operative movement’s building up of ‘a gigantic business by voluntary associations of farmers is regarded as another instance of their lack of intelligence because it was built up in disregard of the Department’s advice’ (Irish Homestead, 13 January 1917). By the final months of the war, the IAOS felt alienated from any position of political influence.

31The Ministry of Food attracted AE’s opprobrium regularly and its distance from Dublin heightened the sense that Westminster used this Ministry to override the interests of Irish farmers. Robert Anderson was appointed to the Irish section of the Food Control Committee by Lord Rhondda, but referred to the time spent in this role as ‘spent in more or less fruitless ferryings over the Irish Sea to attend meetings in London’ (Anderson, 1935, 194). The Irish Homestead reported Anderson’s resignation from the Food Control Committee in December 1917. The author (presumably AE) described the action as to be expected and that ‘self-respecting men cannot remain on a committee whose advice is ignored by those who appointed it.’ He went on to argue that the correct policy ‘would be to have had an Irish Ministry of Food with complete authority in Ireland to act in the interests of the Irish people. How such things can be arranged by a food controller in London we do not know’ (Irish Homestead, 29 December 1917).

32The role of the Food Controller in fixing prices for producers represented an issue that vexed AE. His main problem with the pricing for food produce set by Lord Rhondda pivoted on the price differentials that existed between Irish produce and comparable goods from other countries, including England. Whilst Kavanagh and Gwynn noted the increased prosperity of farmers during the war, the picture of a satisfied agricultural population becomes more complex when compared with equivalent producers elsewhere. This point was seized upon by AE immediately. In anticipation of imminent fixed prices for butter, AE repeated a rumour that Irish butter would receive around 6d per cwt. less than the same article from New Zealand. The problem with such regulation resided in the fact that Irish butter would be legally enshrined ‘in a position of inferiority’. If the regulation passed without protest, AE argued, then ‘the market will have hammered into it the idea that Irish butter is in the view of the Government an article inferior in food value to Danish or New Zealand butter’. Furthermore, the effects of regulation would create long-term ramifications through the creation of an impression that ‘will last long after the War’ (Irish Homestead, 24 March 1917). The impression that Irish farmers received different treatment to other competitors, including English farmers, prevailed. In July 1917, AE again wrote on the ‘fixing of prices’ in which he argues that ‘hardly any social problem so thorny… as food prices’ existed and objected to ‘the fixing of prices against Irish and in favour of English, Colonial, and foreign interests’ (Irish Homestead, 14 July 1917). The sense of injustice filtered down to the level of local co-operative societies. Ballycanew Co-operative Society passed a resolution in September that at once protested against the fact that Irish farmers were guaranteed less than half the price of the English farmer for its milk supply and strongly protested ‘against the maximum price of Irish creamery butter fixed by the Food Controller’ and demanded ‘an immediate advance of 30s. per cwt., with a further advance to meet the increased cost of production during the winter months’ (Irish Homestead, 29 September 1917).

33By the start of 1918, AE believed that the government’s food policies amounted to an effort ‘to empty Ireland of its food supplies, to transfer all grain, meat, butter, bacon, etc., possible to the other side, and to leave Ireland largely dependent on the chances of imported food’ (Irish Homestead, 19 January 1918). AE’s discussion of British food policy in Ireland was undoubtedly shaped by the lack of engagement with co-operative experts, who he believed had been sidelined in favour of other private interests. The impact of regulation led some to one letter writer, called ‘Farmer’ to conclude that ‘it is now manifest to the Irish farmer that the Food Controller is out to make a Sinn Feiner of him… Every new order the Food Controller makes confirms the belief that the Irish farmer must depend upon himself and not trust his big brother across the channel’ (Irish Homestead, 29 September 1917). Indeed, the role of the Food Controller coloured the economic thinking of Sinn Féin. In 1920, Darrell Figgis again recycled the arguments of AE when he cited the role of the ‘English Food Controller’ in treating Irish and English farmers differently as a factor behind the necessity for political independence. The role played by government controls over food policy served the interests of English manufacturers Figgis argued in The Economic Case for Independence. This led him to him view wartime controls and regulations as ‘a state of affairs in which war was only an excuse for national avarice and imperial depredation’ (Figgis, 1920, vi).

34The theme of a future under an unsympathetic state recurred frequently in The Irish Homestead’s editorials from 1917. AE feared that the expansion of the state would submerge the co-operative movement via a new form of tyranny, arguing that, once a nation embarks upon policies of compulsion, serious consequences abounded. The state sided with social groups the movement viewed as anathema to its efforts to create a better society. AE viewed the state ‘with profound mistrust, because we dread its alliance with the meanest and most greedy elements in society, the profiteers and Gombeen men, the class who furnish political parties with funds and who are therefore in a position to affect the policy of State departments.’ Under the cover of the wartime economy, the conflict between co-operators and long-standing economic rivals became an increasingly intense struggle for influence and access to state-controlled resources. In article headed ‘The Allies of the State’, AE attacked those who accepted this situation as:

people with the ideas of an infant school who suppose that the State or its officials are always nobly moved or inspired to act solely for the general good. The State allies itself with the party which seems to it economically most powerful… and this leaning to the economically powerful, even when that power is based upon pure greed and ferocious profiteering, has been evident through all the years of the war… The State made a deal with the profiteers early in the war. It said to them… “Go you and fleece the people. We will allow you to keep forty per cent of the extra plunder and we will take sixty per cent.” That is exactly what the legislation about excess profits means, that and nothing else. The State at present is the prime profiteer, the profiteer of the profiteers. That is why we fear the future with the State dominating every factor in national life. (‘The Allies of the State’, Irish Homestead, 20 January 1917)

35Suspicion of the state’s actions coincided with a general shift in the attitude amongst the co-operative leadership towards the British state system in Ireland by 1918.

36Under AE’s watch, the Irish Homestead argued for the exercise of economic autonomy amongst farmers as the most effective way to guard against state tyranny. The fear that wartime controls might continue indefinitely estranged co-operators further. After the War, emergency controls appeared as ‘a policy which Great Britain will apply to her British children as well as to her Irish stepchildren’ (Irish Homestead, 20 July 1918). This reading suggested that the Irish people were at one remove from the rest of the British population, an incongruity emphasised by AE’s belief that Irish economic principles required constant enunciation. In the final months of the war, the co-operative movement once again attempted to rally supporters around its founding principles. AE’s economic arguments were developed further towards the end of the war in a piece entitled ‘The State and Organisation’ which explored the theme of economic autonomy and which grew closer in spirit to the overtly political arguments used by nationalist critics of the British state:

if you want political attention create economic organisations. Control trade, and you will be recognised by the State. Let your business be controlled by others than yourselves, and the state will listen to those who control your trade, not to you. The state deals with principles, not with the rank and file. (‘The State and Organisation’, Irish Homestead, 20 July 1918)

37As political independence appeared an ever closer reality, AE urged farmers to rely only upon themselves and their organisations. The dividing line between economic and political independence grew indistinct, as all threads of the Irish question became entwined. Whatever the ultimate constitutional settlement for Ireland, the will to play a prominent role remained central to co-operative thinking. However, the position of the co-operative movement to influence a future Irish state developed in unexpected ways by 1918. The failure to find an accommodation with the DATI from 1907 onwards, combined with an alienation from the government during the war, moved the co-operative movement into a position whereby it critiqued the state as it operated in Ireland. This pushed the movement into a closer accommodation with an unexpected force—radical nationalism.

4. Conclusion

38Throughout the early twentieth century, co-operative ideas around the economy and the role of the state gestated amongst those sympathetic to securing a more advanced conception of political independence than that offered by a Home Rule settlement. AE was a crucial figure in the propagation of these ideas, and his writings during wartime prepared the groundwork for economic policies in the imminent Irish state. By early 1919, AE’s home served as an intellectual salon which attracted a coterie of ‘sincere radicals’. According to a visiting American journalist, Ruth Russell, AE opened his home up on Sunday evenings which served to ease ‘the strain on the taut nerves of the Sinn Fein intellectuals who attend them’ (Russell, 1920).

39The 1918 General Election confirmed the political transformation of nationalist Ireland. Sinn Féin emerged the largest party on the island, winning seventy-three seats and establishing its own revolutionary government called Dáil Eireann in Dublin (Laffan, 1999, 164). These results gave a political platform to separatist nationalists, which included those influenced by AE. The ideas contained in works by Figgis and de Blácam found expression in the economic resolutions passed by the underground Irish government (Mitchell, 1995). In June 1919, Sinn Féin ordered all local party branches to ‘promote the organisation of Co-operative Societies to deal with neglected resources and industries’ (Sinn Féin, 1919). Before his death in 1922, the leading republican, Michael Collins, advocated that industrial development in Ireland needed to occur ‘on co-operative lines rather than on the old commercial capitalistic lines’ (Collins, 1922, 133).

40The co-operative movement’s inability to court state support during the war led AE to vociferously emphasise the importance of economic self-determination for Ireland. By the First World War’s conclusion, the co-operative movement proved itself a vital part of the country’s social and economic infrastructure, and one with practical experience ready to be drawn up by a generation of nationalists ready to seize political power. Throughout the war, the changed nature of state interventions into the area of food production forced AE to conclude that some form of greater autonomy in economic matters for Ireland was necessary.. As he argued in the summer of 1918, ‘whatever Ireland may be politically, economically it must work towards its independence’ (Russell, 1918, 306).

I would like to thank the anonymous referees and the editors Christopher Godden and Jean-Sébastien Lenfant for their useful comments.

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1 This mirrored the experience of other countries with large agricultural sectors. For example, agricultural co-operative societies in Russia mediated the economic demands made upon peasants and leading co-operative figures viewed the outbreak of war ‘as an opportunity to create a more systematic programme of agronomic research and assistance’ (Gatrell, 2005, 46).

2 Although strictly under Lord Rhondda’s authority, the approach taken to the organisation of food controls allowed the DATI to retain great discretion in structuring the food administration in Ireland.

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Patrick Doyle, « George Russell [AE], Co-operation and the State in Ireland during the First World War », Œconomia, 6-4 | 2016, 525-545.

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Patrick Doyle, « George Russell [AE], Co-operation and the State in Ireland during the First World War », Œconomia [En ligne], 6-4 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 24 février 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.2525

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Patrick Doyle

University of Manchester,

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