Robert Owen, Co-operation and Ulster in the 1830s

  • Vincent Geoghegan


For a brief period in the early 1830s, it is possible to find in Ulster public traces of a largely working-class co-operative movement. The co-operative movement in Britain and Ireland owed its intellectual origins to the work of Robert Owen, and its social and political existence to the economic vicissitudes of capitalism in the post-Napoleonic War period. An examination of the way the conservativeBelfast Newsletter tracked and commented on Owenite ideas and organisations provides a useful vantage point for understanding aspects of the political and ideological terrain of working-class activity in this period. The newspaper is also an important source of raw information on the movement. Although critical of Owen’s ideas, there is a willingness to see the Ulster co-operators as a philanthropic, self-help current within the ‘respectable’ working class. Furthermore, in the various accounts of co-operative meetings carried in the newspaper, the participation of solid citizens from ‘higher’ classes is invariably mentioned. What it did not want, however, was the development of a radical working-class politics. This chapter will also attempt to provide information on the little-known co-operative societies set up at this time. J.F.C. Harrison, in a classic study of Owenism, has written of these co-operative stores that ‘unfortunately almost nothing is known about them except their names and approximate total number...they left no records’ and ‘no very clear picture of their activities has ever been drawn’.1 Hopefully, this small study will help in the task of providing a fuller description and explanation of this episode in British and Irish working-class history.


Labour History Simple Direction Intellectual Origin Political Existence Decisive Contest 
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  1. 1.
    J.F.C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London, 1969), pp. 200–1. These co-operative stores are to be distinguished from the far better known co-operative shops which began with the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’ in 1844.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For Owen see G. Claeys, Citizens and Saints: Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British Socialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    also Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America; an old (1907) but still useful text is F. Podmore, Robert Owen: A Biography, 2 vols (New York, 1971).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Robert Owen, Report of the Proceedings at the Several Public Meetings, Held in Dublin (Dublin, 1823), p. 3.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    M. O’Connell (ed.), The Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell, Vol. 2 (Shannon, 1972), p. 471.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    On Ralahine, see Vincent Geoghegan, ‘Ralahine: An Irish Owenite community, 1831–1833’, International Review of Social History, vol. 36, no. 3 (1991), pp. 377–411CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 11.
    R.G. Garnett, Co-operation and the Owenite Socialist Communities in Britain 1825–45 (Manchester, 1972), ch. 4.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    On MacCormac, see Vincent Geoghegan, ‘MacCormac, Henry’, in Thomas Duddy (ed.), Dictionary of Irish Philosophers (Bristol, 2004), pp. 211–13Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Geoghegan, ‘The emergence and submergence of Irish socialism, 1821–51’, in D.G. Boyce, Robert Eccleshall and Vincent Geoghegan (eds), Political Thought in Ireland Since the Seventeenth Century (London, 1993), pp. 103–6;Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Thomas Duddy, A History of Irish Thought (London, 2002), pp. 236–40.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Henry MacCormac, On the Best Means of Improving the Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes (London, 1830), p. 23.Google Scholar
  12. 31.
    See G.J. Holyoake, The History of Co-operation in England, Vol. 1 (London, 1875), p. 137.Google Scholar
  13. 65.
    Henry MacCormac, An Appeal in Behalf of the Poor (Belfast, 1830), p. 24.Google Scholar
  14. 71.
    John W. Boyle, The Irish Labor Movement in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, D. C, 1988), pp. 38–41;Google Scholar
  15. 71.
    Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824–1960 (Dublin, 1992), pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
  16. 74.
    For Kerr, see Andrew Boyd, The Rise of the Irish Trade Unions (Tralee, 1985), pp. 40–1, 122–40.Google Scholar
  17. 74.
    See also Mel Doyle, ‘Belfast and Tolpuddle’, Saothar: Journal of Irish Labour History, vol. 2 (1976), pp. 2–12.Google Scholar

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© Vincent Geoghegan 2005

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  • Vincent Geoghegan

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