Horace Plunkett

The Right Honourable
Sir Horace Plunkett
Leader of the Irish Dominion League
In office
Member of Parliament for South Dublin
In office
Preceded by Sir Thomas Esmonde
Succeeded by John Joseph Mooney
Personal details
Born 24 October 1854 (1854-10-24)
Died 26 March 1932 (1932-03-27)
Weybridge, Surrey, England
Nationality British/Irish
Political party Irish Conservative Party
Irish Unionist Alliance
Irish Dominion League
Alma mater University College, Oxford

Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett KCVO PC JP DL FRS (24 October 1854 – 26 March 1932), was an Anglo-Irish agricultural reformer, pioneer of agricultural cooperatives, Unionist MP, supporter of Home Rule, Irish Senator 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 Organisation 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.[1] An adherent of Home Rule, in 1919 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 Honourable Anne Constance Dutton (d. 1858) (daughter of John Dutton, 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 John Plunkett, 17th Baron of Dunsany and his distant cousin was George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and father of Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and a leader of the Easter Rising of 1916.

Threatened by lung trouble in 1879, Horace Plunkett sought health in ranching for ten years (1879–89) 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.

Pioneering co-operation

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 about the wretched conditions of the rural population, especially west of the River Shannon. The experience 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.[2]

First Irish Dairy Cooperative, erected and established 1889, in Doneraile, County Cork.

He took a leading part in developing agricultural co-operation, of which he had learned from isolated American farmers, taking account of Scandinavian models of co-operation 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 of Ireland, 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 to establish units to process and market their own butter, milk and cheese to standards suitable for the profitable 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 guaranteed fair prices without middlemen absorbing the profits.

Plunkett believed that the Industrial Revolution needed to be redressed by an agricultural revolution through co-operation, and proclaimed his ideals under the slogan "Better farming, better business, better living" (US president Theodore Roosevelt adopted the slogan for his conservation and country life policy).

Success and opposition

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. Plunkett and his colleague the poet and painter George William Russell (AE) 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), with Lord Monteagle, Thomas A. Finlay[3] and others. Robert A Anderson acted as secretary,[4][5] with AE and PJ Hannon his assistants. IAOS soon became the powerhouse of co-operation, with 33 affiliated dairy cooperative societies and cooperative banks, introducing co-operation 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 spread information on farming. 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.[6]

Expanding co-operation

Plunkett in 1915

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 the Irish Unionist Alliance Member of Parliament (MP) for South County Dublin.[7]

Early in his career Plunkett initially opposed home rule because of the danger of partition. In 1893 he asserted that one of the leading objections to any measure of home rule was that if it were possible to enforce it on Ulster . . . "it would intensify and perpetuate a state of things in which the Boyne seemed to be broader, deeper and stormier than the Irish Sea".[8]

Continuing his policy of conciliation, Plunkett suggested in a letter to the Irish press 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, Thomas Sinclair, Thomas Spring Rice, Rev Dr Kane (Grand Master of the Belfast Orangemen), Father Thomas A. Finlay, Mr John Ross, MP, Timothy Harrington MP, Sir John Arnott, Sir William Ewart, Sir Daniel Dixon (after Lord Mayor of Belfast), Sir James Musgrave (Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Board), Thomas Andrews (Chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway). T.P. Gill acted as Honorary Secretary to the Committee.[9]

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.[10] He guided the policy and administration of the DATI in its first seven critical years.

The DATI worked:

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.[11] However, most unionists considered Plunkett too conciliatory and their hostility cost him his seat at the general election in October 1900, when they put up a candidate to split the unionist vote.[12]

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.

On the accession of the Liberal Party to power in 1906 James Bryce, the new Chief Secretary, asked Plunkett to remain at the head of the department he had created.

Efforts obstructed

Having sat in the House of Commons as a Unionist, attitudes among the nationalist party were exacerbated by the opinions in his book, Ireland in the New Century (1904). Here he described the economic condition and needs of the country, and the nature of the agricultural improvement schemes he had promoted. Plunkett put forth the view that economics were more important than politics for the future of Ireland, classed the huge sums invested in the building of Catholic churches as "uneconomic" and remarked negatively on the power of the Catholic hierarchy.

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,[13] 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 hopes, and the Irish Parliamentary Party 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. From the year 1900 the DATI had made an annual grant of about £4,000 to the IAOS, but in 1907 the new vice-president of the DATI, TW Russell, who had previously been a member of the Unionist administration, withdrew it. Nonetheless, many continued to be inspired by Plunkett's vision and to establish creamery cooperatives around the country.

Political reorientation

The Plunkett House nameplate

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,[14] under the name The Plunkett House.[15]

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, with Ellice Pilkington and Anita Lett. This would develop in the 1930s into the powerful Irish Countrywomen's Association.

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 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 unsuccessfully sought 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.[16]

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 rejected by those working for an Irish Republic.

Marginalisation and departure from Ireland

In the troubled years between 1918 and 1922 the cooperative movement was targeted by the Black and Tans and other British government forces, as the creameries were alleged to be centres of sedition. Factories were wrecked and burned, stock was destroyed, and trade was interrupted. Plunkett's protests were unheeded and demands for compensation were rejected.

In 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was implemented, Plunkett was nominated to Seanad Éireann, the upper chamber of the new Irish Government. As a senator he met Michael Collins, whom he described as "simple yet cunning".[17]

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, County Dublin, was one of at least 285 country houses targeted by the IRA and burned down,[18] 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. He resigned from the Seanad in November 1923.[19]

Plunkett moved to Weybridge in England, where on 21 December 1918, he set up the Plunkett Foundation, launched in 1919 with £5,000 to support the co-operative movement. (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 co-operation in the British Commonwealth and in 1925 he visited South Africa to help the movement there.

During Plunkett's last years, Gerald Heard was his personal secretary. Naomi Mitchison, who admired Plunkett and was a friend of Heard, wrote: "H.P., as we all called him, was getting past his prime and often ill but struggling to go on with the work to which he was devoted. Gerald [Heard] who was shepherding him about fairly continually, apologized once for leaving a dinner party abruptly when H.P. was suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion".[20]

Plunkett died at Weybridge on 26 March 1932.


  1. Thom's Directory 1928.
  2. Byrne, J.J.: AE and Sir Horace Plunkett, pp. 152–54: (The Shaping of Modern Ireland Conor-Cruise O'Brien, 1960).
  3. Ireland in the New Century, Chapt.7
  4. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23059676 "Robert A Anderson and the Irish Co-operative Movement"
  5. http://m.independent.ie/regionals/corkman/news/tribute-to-pioneer-of-the-coop-movement-27071156.html
  6. Ferriter, Diarmaid:The Transformation of IRELAND 1900–2000, p. 68, Profile Books (2004); ISBN 1 86197 443-4
  7. Walker, Brian M., ed. (1978). Parliamentary election results in Ireland 1801–1922. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy. p. 146. ISBN 0-901714-12-7.
  8. King, Carla: Sir Horace Plunkett, chapter 7, pp. 138-54 in: Boyce, D. George (Ed.), O'Day, Alan (Ed.): Defenders of the Union: A Survey of British and Irish Unionism Since 1801.
    Routledge (2000); ISBN 0-415-17421-X/ISBN 0-415-17422-8
  9. Ireland in the New Century, Chapt.8
  10. Maume, Patrick: The Long Gestation, Irish Nationalist Life 1891–1918 p.18, Gill & Macmillan (1999) ISBN 0-7171-2744-3
  11. Ferriter, Diarmaid: p. 68
  12. Maume, Partick: p. 241
  13. Kee, Robert: The Green Flag, pp. 435–37 (1972, 2000)
  14. Irish Agricultural Organization Society (IAOS)
  15. Directory of Irish Biographies p. 367
  16. Jackson, Alvin: Home Rule, An Irish History 1800–2000, pp. 206–215, Phoenix Press (2003); ISBN 0-7538-1767-5
  17. James Mackay, Michael Collins: A Life (Edinburgh 1996), p. 256, cited in Townshend, "The Republic", p. 424.
  18. Ferriter, Diarmaid: p. 210
  19. "Sir Horace Plunkett". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  20. Naomi Mitchison, You may well ask, London, 1979, Part II, Chap. 12.



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Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Esmonde, Bt
Member of Parliament for County Dublin South
Succeeded by
John Joseph Mooney
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