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Father James McDyer: the cooperative idea in the 1960s-1980s and its legacy

Updated Tuesday 5th April 2016

Father James McDyer was a Catholic priest and campaigner for the rights of disadvantaged and underdeveloped rural areas of Ireland. See here how he worked with cooperatives to promote social welfare and economic development.

Father James McDyer had been active since the 1950s in promoting social welfare and economic development in order to stem emigration and retain the area's Irish culture. He was very well aware of the formidable obstacles to development in Southwest Donegal and the West of Ireland generally. Remoteness from markets, poor infrastructure, local conservatism and lack of capital, together with weak industrial tradition and lack of support from central government all combined to make modern industrial development difficult. He came to the conclusion that “if we were going to get anywhere we’d have to do it ourselves” and founded the first cooperative in the area in 1961. 

Transcript: Father McDyer, 1983: 'The origins of the cooperative idea in Glencolmcille'

PAT JESS

The obstacles to development are formidable and typical of many peripheral regions. Remoteness from markets and poor infrastructure, local conservatism and lack of capital together with weak industrial tradition have all combined to make modern industrial development difficult. 

Father McDyer, who came to the area in the 1950s, was well aware of these problems. 

FATHER MCDYER

I knew in my heart of hearts that if we opened up the place to industrialisation that we were thereby running the risk of negating the culture in the place. I spent as I said two years going around the country trying to entice government sponsored industry and private industry to start up here, and eventually, and I had to write to the head of Government to get it done, I got one factory, a government sponsored industry, weaving, a handweaving factory. But I was so disillusioned with the whole attitude of these people. I couldn’t blame the private enterprise for not coming in here because it’s an icy and remote place, and so I came to the conclusion that if we were going to get anywhere we would have to do it ourselves, and that launched me into the cooperative idea. 

PAT JESS

But getting the necessary capital proved to be a problem. Father McDyer toured the United States in the early ‘60s collecting money from Donegal Americans. He formed partnerships with private and state-run companies to get technical and marketing help. He built on traditional skills and local resources. For example, wool was produced in the region and people were involved in spinning, weaving and knitting to supplement farm incomes. On the basis of this homeworking economy, McDyer set up one of the first cooperatives in Southwest Donegal.

 

The knitting co-operative, started by Father McDyer in 1966 in the old local national schoolhouse, was the only one of his cooperatives surviving in 1983. It provided employment for young people like Norman Fuller - the younger of the sons of Charles and Gladys who you met in the previous article 'The realities of rural life in the 1950s -1980s' - who did not wish to earn a living from agriculture.  It was, for others an alternative at a period when widespread economic recession had reduced the opportunities for emigration.

Transcript: Norman Fuller, 1983: 'Working in Father McDyer's knitting cooperative'

PAT JESS

The cooperative like this one is one response to the problems of this area. But agriculture by itself cannot sustain a viable community, any more than it ever could. What happens to those who cannot or don’t wish to earn a living from agriculture? What alternatives are there now that widespread economic recession has reduced the opportunities for emigration?

Norman, the younger of the Fuller sons, prefers not to farm, but doesn’t want to leave either. What was his alternative?

Norman works in manufacturing in a local knitwear cooperative originally set up by Father McDyer in the ‘60s.

How long does it take you to actually to learn to do this?

NORMAN FULLER

Ah, I think about six weeks.

PAT JESS

Six weeks to

NORMAN FULLER

Learn how to do it yeah.

PAT JESS

to learn, to learn how to do it, yeah. Do you like doing it or?

NORMAN FULLER

Aye I do yeah.

PAT JESS

You really do?

NORMAN FULLER

Yeah.

PAT JESS

What would you do in, what’s your alternative?

NORMAN FULLER

Not much really, you know.

PAT JESS

Nothing much.

NORMAN FULLER

No.

PAT JESS

You don’t fancy the farming?

NORMAN FULLER

No I do not, no. oh no, ah now the day of farming’s gone.

PAT JESS

Is that right?

NORMAN FULLER

As far as I’m concerned, yeah.

PAT JESS

Well what would you do if you didn’t work in here?

NORMAN FULLER

That’s hard to say. Maybe, I did do a bit of welding like and I might have gone on to that maybe.

PAT JESS

Well you’d have had to leave here though wouldn’t you?

NORMAN FULLER

Yeah, yeah.

PAT JESS

I mean you wouldn’t have got work round here

NORMAN FULLER

No I wouldn’t no.

PAT JESS

in that sort of thing.

NORMAN FULLER

Killybegs is the nearest you’ll get work on that line

PAT JESS

Is that right?

NORMAN FULLER

Yeah, a bit too far to travel.

PAT JESS

Yes certainly but you, so you like working in here because it keeps you in the area.

NORMAN FULLER

Yeah more or less yeah. Quite good pay, you know, and it’s nice and close to home and there’s no travelling expenses, anything like that, you know.

PAT JESS

Yeah, yeah.

NORMAN FULLER

And you know everybody you’re working with and they’re all, they’re all…

PAT JESS

Friendly atmosphere.

NORMAN FULLER

Yeah very friendly atmosphere yeah.

PAT JESS

The local knitwear cooperative is successful but it has been very difficult to establish industry in this and other similar areas.

 

The first cooperative, established in 1961, Errigal Co-operative Society, had raised its capital from local families and from Donegal emigrants in Britain and the USA. In conjunction with the state-owned Irish Sugar Company, they had organised vegetable growing in the area and set up a small canning factory at Meenaneary. This had a big impact on other communities in the West of Ireland, and in the 1960s Father McDyer travelled widely for ‘Save the West’ meetings to promote the cause of self-help.

The challenges of growing vegetables in Southwest Donegal became clear and led to a change to fish processing. In 1983, the fish factory was still in operation, though no longer a co-operative. Only as a privately owned firm was it successful. In 1983, Errigal Seafood employed an average full-time equivalent of 110 people and seasonal employment could reach up to 200. The unique physical resources of the sea remained central to the community’s economic dynamism, and this produce went all over the world.

Transcript: Father James McDyer, 1983: The legacy of the cooperative idea

FATHER MCDYER

The sole surviving cooperative at the moment is the knitting cooperative. The others are in weaving and they’re doing well and I hope, hopefully do very well. But I think sufficient has been done to a) to give people of Glencolmcille confidence in their future and b) to maintain the generation at a reasonable level, you know.

PAT JESS

Not all Father McDyer’s projects were successful. A traditional culture is often resistant to new ideas. There were divisions in the community, allegations that Father McDyer had become overextended and was too domineering.

FATHER MCDYER

A sort of an ‘us and them’ mentality developed, which was quite unfortunate because in a true cooperative it’s all us, there’s no them. And unfortunately quite a small group of us were left holding the baby so to speak. But the cooperative idea didn’t maintain, it still, it was responsible for initiating various things that would never have been an issue that it were not so.

PAT JESS

One of these is now a privately owned fish processing plant, but was originally a vegetable canning cooperative. Why did this transformation occur?

FATHER MCDYER

Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough good land here, and so we had to go elsewhere, and then we were told by an expert that we would have to modernise our machinery. Well we couldn’t reach to that. Rather than turn the key in the door, then we started a fish processing factory, which is going quite good.

PAT JESS

The fish processing company is expanding and has invested over a million pounds in new plant like this cold storage shed; over half of the money coming in grants from the state authority, Udaras Na Gaeltachta, and the EEC.

Much of the produce here is destined for the international market. These crabs are going to Europe.

 

In 2015, Errigal Seafood - Earagail Eisc Teoranta Ltd is still a very successful business, a major source of employment in the area and won Seafood Exporter of the Year Award in 2012. It has sales operations worldwide from Korea and Sweden to Spain, France, the UK and Portugal. “We’re 100 per cent an exporting firm,” explained finance director Alan Mitchell. “That’s amazing because our distance from market is so phenomenal. Even our distance from some of our raw material catches is as well, given that a lot of it is caught in the UK.” (Errigal Bay, nd)

There were many difficulties and local opposition but, despite the failures, Father McDyer’s cooperatives had a catalytic effect on the area's development. Many of the community-based initiatives from the 1950s and 1960s survived in the 1980s in altered form. In particular, the co-operatives were replaced by private or state industry. In 2010, Liam Ó Cuinneagáin paid tribute to Father McDyer as ‘a pioneering champion of community development’ at the Patrick MacGill summer school in Glenties, Donegal (Donegal Democrat, 2010; SuperannRTE, 2010).

 

Now move on to read about Industrial development in Southwest Donegal: Textile production, 1983.

 

See all the articles in this series

See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection

This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland. 

 

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