Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett
, (24 October 1854
– 26 March 1932
), was an Anglo-Irish unionist
, later Irish nationalist
, agricultural reformer, pioneer of agricultural co-operation
, politician and MP.
in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
, author and Irish patriot. Titles included:
(1902), M.A. (Oxon.)
; Hon. D.C.L. Oxford
(1906); Hon. LL.D.
, (1908). J.P. for Co. Meath; D.L. for Co. Dublin.
He was a member of the Congested Districts Board, Ireland, 1891-1918; Founder of Recess Committee and Irish Agricultural Organisational Society (IAOS); Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) for Ireland from Oct. 1899 to May 1907; MP. for South Dublin in the House of Commons 1892-1900; Chairman of the Irish Convention, 1917-18 . An adherent of Home Rule, he founded 1914 (-1922) the Irish Dominion League to keep Ireland united, and in 1922 he became a member of the new Irish Free State Senate, Seanad Eireann.
Family and background
Horace was the third son of Edward Plunkett, 16th Baron Dunsany
, of Dunsany Castle
, Dunsany, near Dunshaughlin
, County Meath
and the Hon. Anne Constance Dutton (d.1858) (daughter of 2nd Baron Sherborne
). He was of Protestant Irish unionist
background, educated at Eton College
and University College, Oxford
of which college he became honorary fellow in 1909. His cousin was Count George Noble Plunkett
father of Joseph Mary Plunkett
Threatened by lung trouble in 1879, he sought health in ranching for ten years (1879-1889) in Montana on Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains, United States, where, together with a substantial fortune, he acquired experience that proved invaluable in the work of agricultural education, improvement and development, to which he devoted himself on his return to Ireland on the death of his father in 1889.
Never marrying, his tremendous energy poured into politics, sociology, public administration and economics. As visible testimony to his endeavours, he left the Irish co-operative movement and what is now known as the Republic of Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
At first, Plunkett resolved to hold himself aloof from party politics, and he set himself to bring together men of all political views for the promotion of the material prosperity of the Irish people. In 1891 he was appointed to the Congested Districts Board and learned at first-hand of the wretched conditions of the rural population west of the River Shannon
. The experience only hardened his conviction that the one remedy for social and economic ill was co-operative self-help. Around him he saw a troubled economy, racked with dissension, denuded by emigration, impoverished in its countryside and economically stagnant in its towns . He immediately took a leading part in developing agricultural co-operation, of which he had learned from isolated American farmers, and also took account of Scandinavian co-operation models and the invention of the steam-powered cream separator. Working with a few colleagues, including two members of the clergy, and advocating the value of self-reliance, he set his ideas into practise first amongst dairy farmers in the south, establishing Ireland’s first co-operative at Doneraile
, County Cork
and opening the first creamery in Dromcollogher
, County Limerick
In the setting up of creameries the co-operative movement experienced its greatest success. Plunkett got farmers to join together and establish these in order to process and market their own butter, milk and cheese to standards suitable for the British market, rather than producing unhygienic poor quality output in their homes, for local traders. This enabled farmers to deal directly with companies established by themselves, who could guarantee fair prices without middlemen absorbing the profits. He believed that the industrial revolution needed to be redressed by an agricultural revolution through co-operation and promulgated his ideals under the slogan "Better farming, better business, better living" (President Theodore Roosevelt adopted the slogan for his conservation and country life policy).
Success and opposition
Expressed public opinion, initially lukewarm, grew hostile as the movement developed and shopkeepers, butter-buyers and sections of the press led a campaign of virulent opposition. Co-operatives and Plunkett were denounced as ruining the dairy industry. But the movement caught hold and with his colleague George William Russell
(AE), Plunkett made a good working team, writing widely on economic and cultural development and the role of labour. As early as 1894, when his campaign reached a stage too big to be directed by a few individuals, Plunkett founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), which rapidly became the powerhouse of co-operation, with 33 affiliated dairy co-operative
societies and co-operative banks
, introducing co-operation among Irish farmers by proving the benefits obtainable through more economical and efficient management, publishing the following year its journal The Irish Homestead
, to disperse information on farming generally. Four years later there were 243 affiliated societies. Within a decade 800 societies were in existence, with a trade turnover of three million pounds sterling.
Plunkett’s task was frustrating. He was a pioneer of the concept of systematic rural development, who, in spite of his role in Irish affairs being often overlooked, influenced many international reformers, and can be credited as one of the few who had a long-term vision for the development of rural Ireland. He was apt to remind audiences that even if full peasant proprietorship was achieved and Home Rule implemented, rural underdevelopment would still have to be faced. But class conflict between farmers and shopkeepers intervened to frustrate much of what he aimed to do.
Already in 1892 he had felt compelled to abandon his non-political attitude, and he entered parliament as Unionist Party
member for South Dublin
(county). Continuing, however, his policy of conciliation, Plunkett suggested in August 1895 that a few prominent persons of various political opinions both nationalist and unionist should meet to discuss and frame a scheme of practical legislation in pursuing national development and to make recommendations on the Agriculture and Industries (Ireland) Bill of 1897. The outcome of this proposal was the formation of the Recess Committee with Plunkett as chairman, which included men of such divergent views as the Earl of Mayo
, John Redmond
, The O'Conor Don
and Thomas Sinclair.
In July 1896, the Recess Committee issued a report, of which Plunkett was the author, containing valuable accounts of the systems of state aid to agriculture and of technical instruction in foreign countries. This report, and the growing influence of Plunkett, who became a member of the Irish Privy Council
in 1897, led to the passing of an Act in 1899 which established a Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) for Ireland, of which the Chief Secretary for Ireland
was to be president ex officio
. Plunkett was appointed vice-president, a position of de facto leadership which gave him control of the department's operations. He guided the policy and administration of the department in its first seven critical years.
The DATI worked :
- To improve the quality of crops and livestock
- To deal with animal and plant disease
- To encourage fishing and planting of forests
- To collect statistics on many aspects of Irish life.
By 1914 the Department had 138 instructors travelling the country, informing farmers of new methods in agriculture, horticulture and poultry keeping.
The turn of the century was a high water-mark in Plunket’s achievements. The IAOS was flourishing and vigorous. In 1903 there were 370 dairy societies, 201 co-operative banks and 146 agricultural societies under the auspices of thee IAOS, and by 1914 there were over 1,000 societies and nearly 90,000 members.
But hard-line Unionists considered him too conciliatory and cost him his seat in the general election of 1900 by putting up a candidate to split the vote .
It had been intended that the vice-president should be responsible for the department in the House of Commons, but an extensively signed memorial, supported by the Agricultural Council, prayed that he might not be removed from office, and at the government's request he continued to direct the policy of the department without a seat in parliament. He was created Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1903.
He pressed ahead with agricultural co-operation, its future seemingly assured. But the next years told otherwise. Having sat in the House of Commons as a Unionist, Plunkett had incurred the hostility of the Nationalist party, whose resentment had been further excited by the bold statement of certain controversial truths in his book, Ireland in the New Century
(1904), in which he described the economic condition and needs of the country and the nature of the agricultural improvement schemes he had inaugurated, stating that the Irish cause was more a question of economics than of politics, and for making comments on the power of the Catholic priesthood. On the accession of the Liberal Party
to power in 1906, Plunkett was requested by James Bryce
, the new chief secretary, to remain at the head of the department he had created.
But John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party turned against him for suggesting that anything but Home Rule might be the answer to Ireland’s problems. And other mainstream nationalists, lead by John Dillon, rejected economic development, whether Plunkett’s agricultural co-operatives, William O'Brien’s tenant land purchase or D.D. Sheehan’s housing of rural labourers, in advance of "national development".
Ultimately the DATI ceased to work harmoniously with the IAOS, wrecking Plunkett’s highest hopes. A determined effort was therefore made by the Nationalists to drive from office the man who by his immense efforts had probably done more than any one else of his generation to benefit the ordinary Irish people; and in moving a resolution in the House of Commons with this object in 1907, a Nationalist declared that his party took their stand on the principle that the industrial revival could only go hand in hand with the national movement.
The government gave way, and although re-elected president of the IAOS in the summer of 1907, Sir Horace Plunkett retired from office in the DATI. Since the year 1900 a grant of about 4,000 had been made annually by the Department of Agriculture to the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society but the new vice-president, T. W. Russell, who had been himself previously a member of the Unionist administration, withdrew in 1907 this modest support of an association with which Plunkett was so closely identified, and of which he continued to be the guiding spirit. Nonetheless, many were inspired by his vision and established creamery cooperatives around the country, such as the Lee Strand Co-operative, still thriving in 2007, and which was established by Denis O'Donnell in 1920 in Tralee.
In the following year, 1908, public appreciation of his service was marked by the purchase and gift to himself of 64 Merrion Square, Dublin, which became the headquarters of the agricultural co-operative movement's Plunkett Foundation
, the industry body for farmer co-operatives, under the name Plunkett House . The Irish Homestead
frequently drew attention to the status of women in rural Ireland, which lead to the formation of the United Irishwomen organisation in 1910, to improve their domestic economy, welfare and education. Having previously focused his attention pragmatically on economic factors, Plunkett’s political attitude began to change. The failure of the Irish Council Bill in 1908 made him realise the critical importance of self-government and by 1912 he was a convinced Home Ruler. He spent the first half of 1914 in negotiations that would prevent partition and the exclusion of Ulster
, to no avail.
During the World War I years, the co-operatives were severely hit as farmers avoided their high standards, supplying inferior produce directly to Britain, her food shortages a boom period for Irish agriculture. Much of Plunkett’s time was spent as an unofficial envoy between Britain and the United States, and after the 1916 Rising, he spent his energy seeking clemency for the leaders. From July 1917 to May 1918, he chaired the Irish Convention which sought to find agreement on the implementation of the suspended Third Home Rule Act 1914. He may have lost an historic deal in January 1918 by diverting the debate to one on land purchase. In the years 1914-1922, he worked to keep Ireland united within the British Commonwealth, founding the Irish Dominion League and a weekly journal the Irish Statesman to advance that aim, for which he was denounced by republicans. In the event, most republicans accepted dominion status when the Irish Free State was established in 1921-22.
In the troubled years preceding 1922, the co-operative movement suffered much injury at the hands of British government forces, the creameries alleged to be centres of sedition. Factories were wrecked or burned, stocks destroyed, trade interrupted. Plunkett’s protests went unheeded, demands for compensation rejected. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty
, he accepted membership in 1922 of the new Irish Free State
Senate, Seanad Éireann
. His work on co-operation took him abroad frequently, and when he was in the United States during the Irish Civil War
in 1923, his grand house Kilteragh, in Foxrock
, Co. Dublin was one of over 300 country houses burned down by the IRA, the fire taking with it many of the records of the wider Plunkett family, which he had gathered to prepare a work on the subject.
Departure from Ireland
The blow was bitter. "The healthiest house in the world" he wrote, "and the meeting place of a splendid body of Irishmen and friends of Ireland destroyed". It was the end. He moved to Weybridge
, where on the 21 December 1918, he had agreed to found the Plunkett Foundation (launched in 1919 with 5000 pounds sterling) and continued to promote and spread his gospel of agricultural co-operatives and rural sociology, with the slogan "Better Farming, Better Business, Better Living". The Foundation continues its work today.
In 1924, Plunkett presided over a conference in London on agricultural co-operation in the British Commonwealth, and in 1925 visited South Africa to help the movement there.
Horace Plunkett died at Weybridge on 26 March 1932.
While most of Horace Plunkett's efforts were devoted to his causes, he was also active in Dublin circles, and with family matters. He assisted for many years in the running of the Dunsany estate, and was for many years close to his nephew, the writer Lord Dunsany
, who later donated a building in Dublin to the co-operative movement.
Horace Plunkett was also close to the Killeen Plunketts and he features in the famous account of aristocratic country life by the then Countess Fingall, Daisy, "Seventy Years Young".
Abroad, Plunkett remained in touch with friends in the USA, including Colonel House, Theodore Roosevelt and Charles McCarthy.
Horace Plunkett, who kept a diary from at least 1881, did not marry and left no children.
- Ireland in the New Century (1904), Sir Horace Plunkett
- Noblesse Oblige: An Irish Rendering (1908), Sir Horace Plunkett
- The Rural Life Problem of the United States, (1910), Sir Horace Plunkett
- as well as numerous pamphlets
- Seventy Years Young, Memoires of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall, by Elizabeth Burke Plunkett, Lady Fingall. First published by Collins of London in 1937; 1991 edition published by The Lilliput Press, Dublin 7, Ireland [ISBN 0 946640 74 2]. This Elizabeth, was a Burke from Moycullen in County Galway, who married the 11th Earl of Fingall, and should not be confused with Elizabeth O'Donnell, 1st Countess of Fingall.