As a co-operative, while we have an organisational history, in reality we have as many histories as we have members willing to share one.
The following blog post is the first in a series of Dublin Food Co-op history blogs from the perspective of our members.
This post is by Pauric Cannon, one of our founding members, and it is fair to say one of the most active and committed members at the Co-op throughout its lifetime. We hope you enjoy Pauric’s history of the
Co-op, and if you have a history to share, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d be delighted to follow up with you.
A cycle from Dublin to Carnsore Anti-Nuclear Festival, Co. Wexford
I set off on the morning of Thursday June 1st, 1983 by bicycle to meet Bill O’Donoghue, then chairman of the Irish UFO Society. Bill had planned what he described as a ‘mass cycle’ from Dublin to the Carnsore Anti-Nuclear Festival in Co. Wexford.
When I arrived at Stephen’s Green, Bill was waiting for me with two Garda motorcycle escorts and five young women who had also planned to join us. The Garda escorts led us around Stephen’s Green and up to the top of Earlsfort Terrace, where Bill and I parted ways with them.
We continued to cycle towards Rathfarnham, where the young lady cyclists decided to turn back. Bill’s plans for ‘a mass cycle’ to Carnsore were beginning to unravel. We continued however, stout heartedly, up the steep hill towards Glencree, turning right in the direction of Bray. Bill complained of being tired and asked if I could carry his tent: I was happy to oblige.
He was then in his seventies. We had planned on stopping at Loughlinstown on the banks of the river Barrow where a friend, Johnny Walker, offered to put us up for the night in his ‘lock house’. Brendan, one of Johnny’s friends, had invited us out on the river Barrow in his rowing boat the following morning.
Thrills and spills on the Barrow
Next morning Johnny, Bill and I boarded Brendan’s rowing boat. The anchor released, and Brendan nimbly jumped onboard. I could see a concrete weir in front of us which was designed to slow the fast flowing current.
However, much to our alarm, Brendan steered the boat kamikaze style over the weir and down a 30 degree slope on the other side, plunging the boat and all on board into the water. We got soaked, and were relieved to get back on dry land.
When we scolded Brendan for his reckless behaviour, he just laughed. We said goodbye to Johnny Walker and friends, saddled-up and cycled off with the aim of reaching Wexford before nightfall.
Next stop, Carnsore Anti-Nuclear Festival
On reaching Our Lady’s Island, a local pilgrimage spot, we could see a large marquee in the distance that indicated our final destination. We were both saddle sore as we entered the marquee. The first person to meet us was our friend Eoin Dinan who showed us the essentials of living native.
The toilet was a newly dug latrine trench for men and a similar screened off latrine for women. A bucket of water stood nearby for hand washing and there was a standpipe for drinking water. Facilities for children had been taken care of by Eoin and included disposable nappies, baby powder and a first-aid kit.
At this point I had lost contact with Bill, but learned sometime later that he became the self-appointed ‘head of security’ for the event. He claimed to be able to identify plainclothes Garda detectives a mile off and would escort such unwelcome visitors promptly off the site. I slept well that first night under the billowing canvas of the marquee, lulled by a cacophony of snoring.
Breakfast was served next morning at 8am at the exotically named Oasis Tent Café run by the Hare-Krishna. The atmosphere was convivial and I found myself chatting to a young man who introduced himself as an ‘Anarchist for Christ’. His friends had set up a tent with anarchist books. Sadly, sometime later the tent was stolen.
There were several information stalls, including Friends of the Earth (FoE). The Donegal Anti-Uranium Mining campaign was also represented, ably led by the late Brian Flannery from Strabui, Glenties, Co. Donegal. My attention however, was drawn to a booklet on the FoE stall entitled, ‘How to Start a Vegetarian Bulk Wholefoods buying club.’
I was on the dole back then and imagined somehow that I might save money by becoming a vegetarian. I purchased the booklet and discussed the idea with my already vegetarian friend, Eoin Dinan.
Eoin showed both interest and practical initiative. He produced a hand-made flyer which was posted up around Dublin. The flyer called for a meeting back in Dublin in a friends flat to discuss setting up a bulk-buying vegetarian food club. Nine people turned up at that first meeting including Maggie Ryan, who worked for a wholefoods wholesaler.
Maggie assisted in drawing up our first members’ bulk food order. Payment was solicited in advance from each of our new founding members.
Our first wholefoods bulk order duly arrived, but then had to be hauled up two flights of stairs to a room over a restaurant at 15 Stephen’s Street. This room was furnished with a wooden barrel, two tea chests and an unhinged plywood door which served as a table-top when placed on top of the tea chests. Mrs. Dinan (Eoin’s mother) had provided a kitchen weighing scales, which is now on permanent display behind the check-out as a Co-op heirloom at our new premises at No. 1 Kilmainham Square, Dublin 8.
The new members of the fledgling food co-op, who had ordered and paid for their food in advance, also weighed out all the beans, nuts, seeds, grains, raisins and currants into one pound and two pound units using environmentally friendly brown paper bags.
Eoin had drawn up a large handwritten spreadsheet, that showed each member’s order with the amount due shown at the bottom. These tasks completed, we relaxed, sitting on the floor and planning our next ‘members’ order collection day’, in two weeks time.
In summer our meetings were held in St. Stephen’s Green, sitting on the grass near the bandstand. We decided to move out of 15 Stephen’s Street, as hauling heavy sacks of food up the two flights of stairs had become a no-brainer.
Source; Dublin Food Co-op archive
Number 6 Crow Street
It was agreed to move to the nearby No. 6 Crow Street which was then a resource centre for the unemployed. There was a small but secure room available on the ground floor. This move however meant sharing space with other groups, some of whom were involved in activities that unfortunately conflicted with the Co-op’s aims. We held another members meeting and it was decided to move again.
Temple Bar Artist's Studios
At Temple Bar Artist’s Studios we were provided with a secure lock-up store, and access on Saturdays to an art gallery space, which allowed the Co-op to trade with its members in an environment surrounded by works of art.
The PPT ordering system
PPT stands for ‘Purchasing Power Transfer’. This system enabled the Co-op to trade on a very low profit margin without the need for bank borrowings. Members ordered and paid for their food in advance.
Not every member was happy with the system. For example, we had to issue credit notes when a product ordered by a member failed to arrive.
We eventually abandoned the PPT system but continued to develop the Help Rota system, with members rostered on work shifts starting at 8am on Saturday mornings, and finishing at 5pm in the afternoon. On Saturday evenings all our equipment and leftover food stocks had to be placed in a lock-up storeroom until the following week.
We realised that a pre-order, pre-pay, co-operative food distribution system had potential for success. It demonstrated that if consumers were to provide working capital up-front by means similar to our PPT system we could give our members better value.
On 16th January 1991 ‘Dublin Food Co-op’ became an incorporated society under the Industrial and Provident Societies Acts of 1883 to 1991.
The objects of the society were and are as follows;
- to provide wholesome, nutritious food and ecologically acceptable products and services to its members, who will be composed of ultimate consumers, in accordance with the following principles:
- to deal in organically grown wholefoods and Irish-produced wholefoods when possible
- to discriminate in favour of ecologically acceptable products and not to deal in meat or meat products
- to promote the rational use of the Earth’s resources and in particular to promote the use of ecologically acceptable packaging
- to discriminate positively in favour of countries which uphold basic human rights, when importing wholefoods
- to supply wholefoods to its members at the wholesale or supplier cost plus the minimum margin necessary to cover the Society’s operating expenses and the need for financial reserves
- to aim to make shopping an amiable, communal experience
- to promote co-operation and food co-operatives as an important means of building a locally integrated organic food economy
- applicants for membership of the co-op shall not be discriminated against on grounds of race, sex, political or religious beliefs, marital status, sexual orientation, physical or mental disabilities
Note: A copy of the Rules of Co-op may be had from the Secretary.
St Andrew’s Community Centre, Pearse Street
A friend suggested that we might get a favourable hearing if we approached St. Andrew’s Community Center, Pearse St., with a view to securing trading and storage space for Saturday trading. St. Andrews had a large hall with a polished wooden floor of approximately 4000 sq.ft., plus storage space for our equipment and a large yard to the rear for outdoor events.
Terms and a rent were agreed and the Co-op moved in on Saturday 3rd February 1984. We traded successfully at St Andrews from 1984 to 2004.
Initially we traded in dry organic wholefoods only. However, we were becoming aware that a small number of farmers based in Wicklow and Kildare were growing vegetables without the use of chemical fertilizers and harmful insecticides.
We explored the idea of introducing our members to Irish organically grown vegetables, which was a radical idea back then. It obviously made sense as we were already providing our members with organic wholefoods including beans, grains, nuts, seeds and organic Fair Trade tea and coffee.
We believed that the time was ripe to introduce our members to certified Irish organic vegetables.
We invited four organic farmers to trade in certified Irish organic vegetables at the Co-op on Saturdays. They came to be referred to as ‘producer members’, although this description was misleading.
They were in fact private traders who were involved in organic farming and traded directly with the Co-ops consumer members.
Dublin Food Co-op does not actually have an explicit category of members called ‘Producer Members’, but many of these private traders signed up as ordinary consumer members and began to participate in our meetings and governance.
This dysfunctional situation was allowed to continue for many years without resolution, leading to quite a bit of conflict within the Co-op between ordinary members and those who also had a private interest through their private trading.
When we founded the Dublin Food Co-op, it was rooted in the principle of consumer ownership, and we had regrettably taken steps that critically undermined that fundamental principle by allowing an informal producer membership to develop without explicit safeguards.
This situation was unsustainable and as the interests of ordinary consumer members began to clash more and more with the interests of the private traders, those private traders decided to leave the Co-op and set up their own market in competition with us.
This was a difficult time for the Co-op and our community, but in retrospect this outcome has been fortuitous and has meant that the Co-op is now free and unfettered to focus exclusively on serving the needs of its consumer shareholder members to the best of its ability.
This also meant that the Co-op would have to find new alternative sources of certified Irish organic vegetables, which it did in due course.
Our move to 12 Newmarket and beyond
Our then landlord owned a number of properties in Newmarket, Dublin 8 and was involved in plans to redevelop the square. However, he was unable to continue to accommodate the Co-op on financial terms that it could reasonably accept.
Relations between the landlord and the Co-op had become strained. At our 2012 AGM (at which the landlord was present), the first item on the agenda was the landlords rent review demand, which involved a very substantial rent increase.
The Co-op Chairperson announced that it would not be possible or appropriate to continue the meeting while the Landlord was present, because of an obvious conflict of interest.
There also appeared to be side negotiations taking place between the landlord and private traders without reference to the Co-op’s legitimately elected Board of Directors, the Co-ordinating Body (CB). This was another factor that fed into the tensions that ultimately lead to the majority of the larger private traders leaving the Co-op.
During the remaining years in Newmarket there was much work done on sustaining the Co-op under increasingly higher rents and pressure from the other traders in the square, all the while the Co-ordinating Body and the Premises Group searched for new premises (to rent or to buy).
On 10th November 2018 Dublin Food Co-op moved to No 1 Kilmainham Sq., Dublin 8 and a new exciting chapter begins…
The Founder Members of Dublin Food Co-op (Society) Ltd., who are listed in the official documents of incorporation under the Industrial & Provident Societies Acts of 1893 to 1978 include; 1. Eoin Dinan, 2. Morgan Sheehy, 3. Ciaran Dolan, 4. Thomas Simpson, 5. Betty Reeves, 6. Deirdre Keogh, 7. Joseph P.Dunne, 8. Pauric Cannon.
A note on our vegetarian ethos
The early Co-op of the 80’s was, from its inception, committed to a vegetarian ethos.
Our first Chairperson was a remarkable lady called Betty Reeves, founder of the Vegetarian Society of Ireland. The words ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ mean food produced to ethical standards without cruelty to animals and without links to abattoirs.
A number of cases of Covid-19 have been linked to abattoirs in Ireland. However, the meat lobby is very powerful and these facts have not been highlighted.
Want to hear more? Below we have a radio interview from a couple of years ago with Pauric Cannon, and then a short video on the Dublin Food Co-op featuring some other founding members.
The views expressed in this article are Pauric’s own, and we thank him for his time and contribution in recording our community’s history.