Read CHAPTER IV of What's the Matter with Ireland?, free online book, by Ruth Russell, on


The co-operative commonwealth

It was very dark. I could not find the number. The flat-faced little row of houses was set far back on the green. But at last I mounted some lofty steps, and entered a brown linoleum-covered hallway. In the front parlor sat the hostess. She was like some family portrait with her hair parted and drawn over her ears, with her black taffeta gown surmounted by a cameo-pinned lace collar. She poured tea. In a back parlor whose walls were hung with unframed paintings, a big brown-bearded man was passing teacups to women who were lounging in chairs and to men who stood black against the red glow of the grate. The big man was George Russell, the famous AE, poet, painter and philosopher, the “north star of Ireland.”

At last he sat down on the edge of a chair his blue eyes atwinkle as if he knew some good secret of the happy end of human struggling and was only waiting the proper moment to tell. This much he did reveal as he gestured with the pipe that was more often in his hand than in his mouth: it is his belief that all acts purposed for good work out towards good. He gives ear to all sincere radicals, Sinn Feiners and “Reds.” But he states that he believes he is the only living pacifist, and disputes the value of bloody methods. He advocates the peaceful revolution of co-operation. His powerfully gentle personality has an undoubted effect on the revolutionaries, and while neither element wants to embrace pacifism, both want AE’s revolution to go forward with theirs.

His gaiety at the little Sunday evenings which he holds quite regularly, goes far, I am told, towards easing the strain on the taut nerves of the Sinn Fein intellectuals who attend them. On the Sunday evening I was present the subject of jail journals was broached. Darrell Figgis had just written one. In a dim corner of the room was miniatured the ivory face and the red gold beard of the much imprisoned Figgis.

“Why write a jail journal?” queried AE, smiling towards the corner. “The rare book, the book that bibliophiles will pray to find twenty years from now, will be written by an Irishman who never went to jail.”

Some one, I think that it was “Jimmy” Stephens, author of “The Crock of Gold,” who sat cross-legged on the end of a worn wicker chaise longue and talked with all the facility with which he writes, mentioned the countess’s plan of living in the Coombe district. AE returned that as far as he knew the countess was the only member of parliament who felt called upon to live with her constituency.

Then suddenly the whole room seemed to join a chorus of protest against President Wilson. At the Peace Conference all power was his. He was backed by the richest, greatest nation in the world. But he failed to keep his promise of gaining the self-determination of small nations. Was he yielding to the anti-Irish sentiment brought about by English control of the cables and English propaganda in the United States was he to let his great republic be intellectually dependent on the ancient monarchy?

“Perhaps,” said AE to me after a few meditative puffs of his pipe, “you feel like the American who was with us on a similar occasion a few weeks ago. At last he burst out with: ’It’s no conception which Americans have of their president that he should take the place and the duties of God Omnipotent in the world,’”

One day I went to discuss Irish labor with AE. I climbed up to that most curious of all magazine offices the Irish Homestead office up under the roof of Plunkett House. It is a semi-circular room whose walls are covered with the lavender and purple people of AE’s brush. AE was ambushed behind piles of newspapers, and behind him in a grate filled with smouldering peat blocks sat the black tea kettle. As a reporter, one of the few things for which I am allowed to retain respect is the editorial dead line. So I assured AE that I would be glad to return when he had finished writing. But with a courtesy that is evidently founded on an inversion of the American rule that business should always come before people, he assured me that he could sit down at the fire with me at once.

Now I knew that he had great sympathy with laborers. I recalled his terrible letter against Dublin employers in the great strike of 1913 when he foretold that the success of the employers in starving the Dublin poor would necessarily lead to “red ruin and the breaking up of laws.... The men whose manhood you have broken will loathe you, and will always be brooding and seeking to strike a new blow. The children will be taught to curse you. The infant being moulded in the womb will have breathed into its starved body the vitality of hate. It is not they it is you who are pulling down the pillars of the social order." But I knew, too, that he was opposed to violence, so I wondered what he would say to this:

“A labor leader just told me that it was his belief that industrial revolution would take place in Ireland in two or three years. Labor waits only till it has secured greater unity between the north and south. Then it will take over industry and government by force.”

“I had hoped I am trying to convince the labor leaders here,” he said finally, “of the value of the Italian plan for the taking over of industry. The Italian seaman’s union co-operatively purchased and ran boats on which they formerly had been merely workers.”

Russia he spoke of for a moment. People shortly over from Russia told him, as he had felt, that the soviet was not the dreadful thing it was made out to be. But a dictatorship of the workers he would not like. He wanted, he said with an upward movement of his big arms, he wanted to be free.

“Now I am for the building of a co-operative commonwealth on co-operative societies. Ireland can and is developing her own industries through co-operation. She is developing them without aid from England and in the face of opposition in Ireland.

“England, you see, is used to dealing with problems of empire with nations and great metropolises. When we bring her plans that mean life or death to just villages, the matter is too small to discuss. She is bored.

“Ireland offers opposition in the person of the ‘gombeen man.’ He is the local trader and money lender. And co-operative buying and selling takes away his monopoly of business.

“Paddy Gallagher up in Dungloe in the Rosses will give you an idea of the poverty of the Irish countryside, of the extent that the poverty is due to the gombeen men, ‘the bosses of the Rosses,’ and of the ability of the co-operative society to develop and create industry even in such a locality.

“Societies like Paddy Gallagher’s are springing up all over Ireland. The rapid growth may be estimated from the fact that in 1902 their trade turnover was $7,500,000, and in 1918, $50,000,000. These little units do not merely develop industry; they also bind up the economic and social interests of the people.

“In a few years these new societies and others to be created will have dominated their districts, and political power will follow, and we will have new political ideals based on a democratic control of agriculture and industry, and states and people will move harmoniously to a given end.

“Ireland might attain, by orderly evolution, to a co-operative commonwealth in fifty to two hundred years.

“But these are dangerous times for prophecy.”


From the dark niche under the gray boulder where the violets grow, a Donegal fairy flew to the mountain cabin to bring a birthday wish to Patrick Gallagher. The fairy designed not that great good would come to Paddy, but that great good would come to his people through him. At least when Paddy grew up, he slew the child-eating giant, Poverty, who lived in Donegal.

Paddy began to fight poverty when he could scarcely toddle. With his father, whose back was laden with a great rush basket, he used to pad in his bare feet down the mountainside to the Dungloe harbor down where the hills give the ocean a black embrace. Father and son would wade into the ocean that was pink and lavender in the sunset. Above them, the white curlews swooped and curved and opened their pine wood beaks to squawk a prayer for dead fish. But the workers did not stop to watch. Their food also was in question. They must pluck the black seaweed to fertilize their field.

When the early sun bronzed the bog, and streaked the dark pool below with gold, Paddy and his father began to feed the dried wavy strands of kelp between the hungry brown furrow lips. They packed the long groove near the stone fence; they rounded past the big boulder that could not be budged; last of all, they filled the short far row in the strangely shaped little field. At noon, Paddy’s mother appeared at the half door of the cabin and called in the general direction of the field it was difficult to see them, for their frieze suits had been dyed in bog water and she could not at once distinguish them from the brown earth. They were glad to come in to eat their sugarless and creamless oatmeal.

In the evening Paddy ran over the road to his cousin’s. Western clouds were blackening and his little cousin was pulling the pig into the cabin as a man puts other sort of treasure out of danger into a safe. Paddy listened a moment. He could hear the castanets of the tweed weaver’s loom and the hum of his uncle’s deep voice as he sang at his work. He ran to the rear of the cabin and up the stone steps to the little addition. A lantern filled the room he entered with black, harp-like shadows of the loom. While the uncle stopped treadling and held the blue-tailed shuttle in his hand, the breathless little boy told him that the field was finished.

“God grant,” said the uncle with a solemnity that put fear into the heart of Paddy, “there may be a harvest for you.”

Paddy watched his mother work ceaselessly to aid in the fight that his father and he were making against poverty. During the month her needles would click unending wool into socks, and then on Saturday she would trudge often in a stiff Atlantic gale sixteen miles to the market in Strabane. There she sold the socks at a penny a pair.

In spite of combined hopes, the potato plants were floppily yellow that year. Their stems felt like a dead man’s fingers. No potatoes to eat. None to exchange for meal. What were they to do?

The gombeen man told them. As member of the county council, he said, he would secure money for the repair of the roads. All those who worked on the road would get paid in meal.

“Let your da’ not worry,” said the fat gombeen man pompously to Paddy. Paddy had brought the ticket that his father had obtained by a week’s work to exchange for twenty-eight pounds of corn meal. “I’ll keep famine from the parish. Charity’s not dead yet.”

When Paddy lugged the meal into the cabin, he found his mother lying on the bed with her face averted from the bowl of milk that some less hungry neighbor had brought in. His father’s gaunt frame was hunched over the peat blocks on the flat hearth. Paddy, full of desire to banish the brooding discouragement from the room, hastened to repeat the words of the gombeen man. But he felt that he had failed when his father, regarding the two stone sack, said hollowly:

“Charity? Small pay to the men who keep the roads open for his vans.”

In the spring, Paddy was nine, and had to go out in the world to fight poverty alone. His father had confided to him that they were in great debt to the gombeen man. Paddy could help them get out. There was to be a hiring fair in Strabane. Paddy swung along the road to Strabane pretending he was a man he was to be hired out just like one. But when he arrived at the hiring field he shrank back. All the farm hands, big and little, stood herded together in between the cattle pens. A man? A beast. One overseer for a big estate came up to dicker for the boy, and said he would give him fifteen dollars for six months’ work. Paddy was just about to muster up courage to put the price up a bit, when a friend of the overseer came up with the prearranged remark: “A fine boy! Well worth twelve dollars the six months!”

“What do you want to know for?” asked the gombeen man, when at the end of Paddy’s back-breaking six months, Paddy and his father brought him the fifteen dollars and asked how much they still owed. The gombeen man refuses accounts to everyone but the priest, magistrate, doctor and teacher. “What do you want to know how much you owe for? Unless you want to pay me all off?”

When Paddy was seventeen he made a still bigger fight against debt. With the sons of other “tied” men, he went to work in the Scottish harvests. His family was not as badly off as those of some of the boys. Some had run so far behind that the gombeen man had served writs on them, obtained judgment against their holdings, and could evict them at pleasure.

When Paddy married and settled down in Dungloe he found the reason for the unpayableness of the debt. One day he and his father shopped at the gombeen store together. They bought the same amount of meal. The father paid cash seventeen shillings. Forty-four days later, Paddy brought his money. But the gombeen man presented him with a bill for twenty-one shillings and three pence. It did no good to say how much the father had paid for the same amount of meal. The gombeen man insisted that Paddy’s father had given eighteen shillings, and Paddy was being charged just three shillings and three pence interest. Or only 144 per cent per annum!

“Why do we buy from him? Why don’t we get together and do our own buying?” asked the insurgent Paddy. After much reflection he had decided on the tactics of his campaign against poverty and the recruiting for his army commenced that night as the neighbors visited about his turf fire. There was doubt on the faces of those tied to the gombeen man. But Paddy continued: “Let’s try it out in a small way, say with fertilizer. That stuff he’s selling us isn’t as good as kelp, and he won’t tell us what it’s made of.”

The recruits fell in. They scraped up enough money to buy a twenty-ton load of rich manure from a neighboring co-operative society. The little deal saved them $200 and brought them heavy crops. They organized. They needed a store. Up in a rocky boreen on his little farm, Paddy had an empty shed. Again the neighbors explored the toes of their money stockings, and found enough to pay for filling the shed with flour, tea, sugar and meal. Then, if they were “free” men, they came boldly to shop on the nights the store was open moonlight or no moonlight. But if they were “tied” men, they crept fearsomely tip the rocks on dark nights only. The recruits recruited. Financial and social returns began to come in. At the end of the first year there was a clear profit of over $500. In three years the society was recognized as one of the most efficient in Ireland and presented by the Pembroke fund with a fine stucco hall. Jigs. Dances. Lectures.

But the gombeen man wasn’t “taking it lying down.” He called on his political and religious friends to aid. First on the magistrate. When Paddy became the political rival of the gombeen man for the county council, there was a joint debate. Paddy used reduced prices as his argument. Questions were hurled at him by the reddening trader.

“Wait till I get through,” said Paddy. “Then I’ll attend to you.”

That, said the trader, was a physical threat! So the gombeener’s friend, the magistrate, threw Paddy into jail. Paddy went to prison full of fear that dissension might be sown in the society’s ranks. But on coming out he discovered not only that he had won the election but that a committee was waiting to present him with a gorgeous French gilt clock, and that fires, just as on St. John’s eve, were blazing on the mountains.

But the trader took another friend of his aside. This time it was the village priest. Bad dances, he said, were going on of nights in Templecrone hall. What was Paddy’s surprise on a Sunday in the windswept chapel by the sea to hear his beloved hall denounced as a place of sin. Paddy knew the people would not come any more.

Then, the great inspiration. Paddy remembered how his mother used to try to help with her knitting. He saw girls at spinning wheels or looms working full eight hours a day and earning only $1.25 to $1.50 a week. So with permission of the society, Paddy had two long tables placed in the entertainment hall, and along the edges of the tables he had the latest type of knitting machines screwed. Soon there were about 300 girls working on a seven and a half hour day. They were paid by the piece, and it was not long before they were getting wages that ran from $17.50 to $5.25 a week. Incidentally, Mr. Gallagher, as manager, gave himself only $10.00 a week.

When I saw Patrick Gallagher in Dungloe, he was dressed in a blue suit and a soft gray cap, and looked not unlike the keen sort of business men one sees on an ocean liner. And indeed he gave the impression that if he had not been a co-operationist for Ireland, he might well have been a capitalist in America. He took me up the main street of Dungloe into easily the busiest of the white plastered shops. He made plain the hints of growing industry. The bacon cured in Dungloe. The egg-weighing since weighing was introduced the farmers worked to increase the size of the eggs and the first year increased their sales $15,000 worth. The rentable farm machines.

“Come out into this old cabin and meet our baker,” Paddy continued when we went out the rear of the store. “We began to get bread from Londonderry, but the old Lough Swilly road is too uncertain. See the ancient Scotch oven the coals are placed in the oven part and when they are still hot they are scooped out and the bread is put in their place. Interesting, isn’t it? But we are going to get a modern slide oven.”

After viewing the orchard and the beehives beneath the trees, I remarked on the size of the plant, and its suitability for his purpose. He said:

“It used to belong to the gombeen man.”

The sea wind was blowing through the open windows of the mill. Barefoot girls it’s only on Sunday that Donegal country girls wear shoes and then they put them on only when they are quite near church silently needled khaki-worsted over the shining wire prongs. Others spindled wool for new work. As they stood or sat at their work, the shy colleens told of an extra room added to a cabin, or a plump sum to a dowry through the money earned at the mill. None of them was planning, as their older sisters had had to plan, to go to Scotland or America.

“As the parents of most of the girls are members in the society they want the best working conditions possible for them,” said Mr. Gallagher as he took me out the back entrance of the knitting mill. “So we’re building this new factory. See that hole where we blasted for granite; we got enough for the entire mill in one blast. That motor is for the electricity to be used in the plant.

“Northern sky lights in the new building the evenest light comes from the north. Cement floor good for cleaning but bad for the girls, so we are to have cork matting for them to stand on. Slide-in seats under the tables that’s so that a girl may stand or sit at her work.”

“Soon the hall will be free for entertainments again,” I suggested. “Won’t the old cry be raised against it once more?”

“No. We’re too strong for that now.”

At the Gallaghers’ home, a sort of store-like place on the main street, Mrs. Gallagher with a soft shawl about her shoulders was waiting to introduce me to Miss Hester. Miss Hester was brought to Dungloe by the co-operative society to care for the mothers at child-birth. She is the first nurse who ever came to work in Donegal.

But Mr. Gallagher wanted to talk more of Dungloe’s attainment and ambition. He compared the trade turnover of $5,045 for the first year of the society with $375,000 for 1918. But there were more things to be done. The finest herring in the world swim the Donegal coast. Scots catch it. Irish buy it. Dungloe men wanted to fish, but the gombeen man would never lend money to promote industry. Other plans for the development of Dungloe were discussed, but the expense of the cartage of surplus products on the toy Lough Swilly road, and the impossibility of getting freight boats into the undredged harbor, were lead to rising ambition.

“Parliament is not interested in public improvements for Dungloe,” smiled Mr. Gallagher. “I suppose if I were a British member of parliament I would not want to hand out funds for the projection of a harbor in a faraway place like this. Irish transportation will not be taken in hand until Ireland can control her own economic policy.”

As the darkness closed in about our little fire the talk turned somehow to tales of the fairies of Donegal, and Mr. Gallagher chuckled:

“Some persons about here still believe in the good people.”

Then gentle Mrs. Gallagher, conscious of a benevolent force close at hand, began simply:

“Well, don’t you think perhaps ”