Mayo co-operative creameries, the original cash cow

Irish farmers learned a long time ago that, in certain circumstances, working in co-operation could lead to real progress and maximised profit for each individual. The meitheal system, whereby a farmer would assist a neighbouring farmer, who would in turn reciprocate that help when needed, was a well established tradition in rural Ireland. The spirit of the meitheal was evident in the beginnings of the Irish co-operative movement. Co-operatives were operating since the 1880s and the concept of voluntary association among farmers went through strong periods as well as years of slow development.

Following a decade of war, the young Irish Free State strove to prove it was capable of going it alone and the co-operative movement was again encouraged. A kick-start event in the rejuvenation of co-operative creameries in Mayo was a meeting of the board of management of Mayo Co-operative Creameries held in 1930. At the meeting, contracts were signed for the erection of three creameries in Westport, Castlebar, and a central creamery at Balla. The investment of £6,000 was a major show of confidence in the viability of Mayo dairy farming. The low price of butter on the market did in some respects force farmers to participate but they were equally mindful that butter was a very solid industry with a ready market. The creameries' early years were hampered from outside and also sadly from within. Externally, trade depression continued to keep prices down. Internally, Castlebar and Westport farmers were falling well short of the necessary milk supply levels and their committees were effectively non-existent. Reasons given for the shortfall in milk production were the inaction of local TDs and senators (some were members of the creameries ) and the growth of parochial factions and petty spites among farmers. Balla was gathering more than three times the amount of milk as Castlebar and Westport combined. The dire figures aside, membership of the creameries remained at over 900 members and organisers remained confident that the daily requirement of 240 gallons of milk from each district was achievable. It was estimated at the time that 85 good cows could produce that daily requirement.

The advantages of the creamery extended to less populated centres throughout Mayo as farmers hoped for a regular income. TJ McEllin, chairman of Mayo Co-operative Creamery Balla, pressed the advantages of the system in which farmers would not be burdened by risk of liability, only profit if their area supplied the main creameries with sufficient quantities of milk. Smaller areas like Breaffy eagerly noted the advantages and farmers organised a travelling creamery there in the late 1930s to feed the centre at Balla. The local ready market for creamery butter included the County Hospital and hospitals in Ballina, Belmullet, Swinford, as well as the County Home and County Sanatorium.

The success of Mayo's creameries dipped considerably during the Emergency. The National Farmers' Association, Macra na Feirme and the Achonry Creamery Society led the charge in the revitalisation of the co-operative movement in the 1950s. Creamery units were set up in Killala, Claremorris, and Ballyvary/Keelogues. Milk production became big business again. By 1962, Mayo creameries were taking in 2,650,000 gallons of milk supplied by 2,500 farmers, who each shared in the £200,000 payout. And it did not stop there. Work on Ballinrobe's new £34,000 creamery began in 1965 and plans for a creamery at Swinford were laid three years later. Farmers who supplied the creamery at Achonry benefited from its amalgamation with other north-west co-ops in 1972 to form the North Connacht Farmers’ Co-operative Society (NCF ). NCF later merged with the Kiltoghert Co-Operative Agricultural & Dairy Society Ltd in 2000. The result was Connacht Gold. That company was rebranded as Aurivo in 2013 and its streamlining plans saw the creamery at Achonry cease butter making this year after a century of production.

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