Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, KCVO, PC, DL, JP, FRS (24 October 1854 – 26 March 1932), was an Anglo-Irish unionist, agricultural reformer, pioneer of agricultural cooperatives, politician, Member of Parliament (MP) and author.
Plunkett was a member of the Congested Districts Board for Ireland from 1891 to 1918, founder of the Recess Committee and the Irish Agricultural Organisational Society (IAOS), Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) for Ireland from October 1899 to May 1907, MP for South Dublin in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom from 1892 to 1900, and Chairman of the Irish Convention of 1917–18. An adherent of Home Rule, in 1914 he founded the Irish Dominion League, hoping to keep Ireland united, and in 1922 he became a member of Seanad Éireann, the upper chamber in the Parliament of the new Irish Free State.
Family and Background
Plunkett was the third son of Admiral The 16th Baron of Dunsany, of Dunsany Castle, Dunsany, near Dunshaughlin, County Meath, and The Hon. Anne Constance Dutton (d. 1858) (daughter of The 2nd Baron Sherborne). He was Anglo-Irish, being of Anglican Irish unionist background, educated at Eton College and University College, Oxford, of which he became an honorary fellow in 1909. His older brother was the 17th Baron of Dunsany and his cousin was George, 1st Count Plunkett, a Papal count and father of Joseph Mary Plunkett.
Threatened by lung trouble in 1879, Horace Plunkett sought health in ranching for ten years (1879–1889) in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, 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 after the death of his father in 1889. Never marrying, he poured his tremendous energy into politics, sociology, public administration and economics. As visible testimony to his endeavours, he left the Irish cooperative movement and what is now the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as his main legacies.
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 ills was cooperative 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 cooperation, of which he had learned from isolated American farmers, and also took account of Scandinavian models of cooperation and the invention of the steam-powered cream separator. Working with a few colleagues, including two members of the clergy, and advocating self-reliance, he set his ideas into practice first among dairy farmers in the South, who established Ireland’s first cooperative at Doneraile, County Cork. He also opened the first creamery in Dromcollogher, County Limerick.
In the setting up of creameries the cooperative 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, which could guarantee fair prices without middlemen absorbing the profits.
Plunkett believed that the industrial revolution needed to be redressed by an agricultural revolution through cooperation, and proclaimed 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 cooperative movement developed and shopkeepers, butter-buyers and sections of the press led a campaign of virulent opposition. Cooperatives and Plunkett were denounced for supposedly 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 on the role of labour. As early as 1894, when his campaign reached a size too big to be directed by a few individuals, Plunkett founded the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), which rapidly became the powerhouse of cooperation, with 33 affiliated dairy cooperative societies and cooperative banks, introducing cooperation among Irish farmers by proving the benefits obtainable through more economical and efficient management. The following year he and Russell began publishing 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 was 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 Plunkett had felt compelled to abandon his non-political attitude, and at the general election in July 1892 he was elected as Irish Unionist Alliance Member of Parliament (MP) for South County Dublin. Continuing 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 for 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 and members of divergent views, such 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 accounts of the systems of state aid to agriculture and 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 in 1899 of an Act establishing the 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. He guided the policy and administration of the DATI 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 DATI had 138 instructors travelling the country, informing farmers about new methods in agriculture, horticulture and poultry-keeping.
The start of the 20th century saw the high-water mark in Plunket’s achievements. The IAOS was flourishing and vigorous. In 1903 there were 370 dairy societies, 201 cooperative 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. However, hard-line unionists considered Plunkett too conciliatory and their hostility cost him his seat at the general election In October 1900, when theyput up a candidate to split the unionist vote.
It had been intended that the Vice-President should be responsible for the DATI in the House of Commons, but an extensively signed memorial, supported by the Agricultural Council, prayed that Plunkett might not be removed from office, and at the government's request he continued to direct the policy of the DATI without a seat in Parliament. He was created Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1903.
Plunkett pressed ahead with agricultural cooperation, its future seemingly assured, but the following 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 opinions 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 making comments on the power of the Catholic priesthood. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, turned against Plunkett for suggesting that anything but Home Rule might be the answer to Ireland’s problems, and other mainstream nationalists, led by John Dillon, rejected economic development, whether through Plunkett’s agricultural cooperatives, 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, and the Nationalists made a determined effort to drive him from office, moving a resolution to that effect in the House of Commons in 1907. The government gave way, and although Plunkett was re-elected President of the IAOS in the summer of 1907, he retired from office in the DATI. Since the year 1900 a grant of about 4,000 pounds a year had been made by the DATI to the IAOS, but in 1907 the new Vice-President of the DATI, T. W. Russell, who had been himself previously a member of the Unionist administration, withdrew it. Nonetheless, many continued to be inspired by Plunkett's vision and established creamery cooperatives around the country.
In 1908 public appreciation of Plunkett's service was marked by the purchase and gift to him of 84 Merrion Square, Dublin, which became the headquarters of the IAOS, under the name The Plunkett House.
The Irish Homestead had frequently drawn attention to the status of women in rural Ireland (its assistant editor was Susan L. Mitchell), and in 1910 Plunkett helped to found the United Irishwomen to improve their domestic economy, welfare and education. Having previously focused his attention pragmatically on economic factors, Plunkett now began to reorient to political and social issues. 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 intended to prevent partition and the exclusion of Ulster, to no avail.
During the First World War the cooperatives were severely hit as farmers avoided their high standards, supplying inferior produce directly to Great Britain, where food shortages led to 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 Easter Rising of 1916 he spent his energy seeking clemency for its leaders.
From July 1917 to May 1918 Plunkett chaired the Irish Convention, which sought to find agreement on the implementation of the suspended Third Home Rule Act 1914. He may have lost what would have been an historic deal in January 1918 by diverting the debate to the issue of land purchase.
Until 1922 Plunkett 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 1922.
Marginalisation and Departure from Ireland
In the troubled years between 1918 and 1922 the cooperative movement suffered considerable injury at the hands of British government forces, as the creameries were alleged to be centres of sedition. Factories were wrecked or burned, stocks were destroyed, and trade was interrupted. Plunkett’s protests went unheeded and demands for compensation were rejected.
In 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was implemented, Plunkett accepted membership of Seanad Éireann, the new upper chamber. His work on cooperation 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 more than 300 country houses targeted by the IRA and burned down, the fire taking with it many of the records of the Plunkett family, which he had gathered to prepare a work on the subject. Plunkett wrote that "the healthiest house in the world, and the meeting place of a splendid body of Irishmen and friends of Ireland," had been destroyed.
Plunkett moved to Weybridge in England, where on 21 December 1918, he had agreed to found the Plunkett Foundation, launched in 1919 with 5,000 pounds sterling. (The Foundation continues its work today.) Plunkett continued to promote and spread his ideas for agricultural cooperatives. In 1924 he presided over a conference in London on agricultural cooperation in the British Commonwealth and in 1925 he 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 society and with family matters. He assisted for many years in the running of the Dunsany estate and was close to his nephew, the writer Lord Dunsany, who later donated a building in Dublin to the cooperative movement. Horace Plunkett was also close to the neighbouring Killeen Plunketts and he features in an account of aristocratic country life by the then Countess Fingall, Seventy Years Young. Plunkett remained in touch with friends in the United States, including Colonel House, Theodore Roosevelt and Charles McCarthy.
- Thom’s Directory 1928
- Byrne, J. J.: AE and Sir Horace Plunkett, pp.152-54: (The Shaping of Modern Ireland Conor-Cruise O’Brien, 1960)
- Ferriter, Diarmaid:The Transformation of IRELAND 1900-2000 p.68, Profile Books (2004)(ISBN 1 86197 443-4)
- Walker, Brian M.:, ed. (1978). Parliamentary election results in Ireland 1801–1922. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 146. ISBN 0-901714-12-7.
- Maume, Patrick: The Long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891-1918 p.18, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3
- Ferriter, Diarmaid: p.68
- Maume, Partick: p.241
- Kee, Robert: The Green Flag, pp.435-37 (1972, 2000)
- Irish Agricultural Organization Society (IAOS)
- Directory of Irish Biographies p.367
- Jackson, Alvin: Home Rule, An Irish History 1800-2000 pp.206-215, Phoenix Press (2003) ISBN 0-7538-1767-5
- Ferriter, Diarmaid: p.210
- 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.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- The Plunkett Foundation
- Works by Sir Horace Plunkett at Project Gutenberg
- Irish Co-operative Organisation Society 
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Horace Plunkett
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Sir Thomas Esmonde, Bt
|Member of Parliament for County Dublin South
1892 – 1900
John Joseph Mooney