Saturday, April 12, 2008

'Re-Telling Ralahine' Exhibition in Gort Public Library

As part of The Forge Literature Festival, organized by the Western Writers’ Centre, which took place in Gort in the last weekend of March 2008, Gort Library hosted two events: a performance by storyteller, Eddie Lenihan and an Exhibition on the Re-telling of Ralahine.
The Re-telling of Ralahine is a drama in words and music by the playwrights, Margaretta D’Arcy and John Arden. The play was performed in the Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort on Saturday 29th March. The supporting exhibition will be on view in Gort Library throughout the month of April.

The great social experiment of eighteen-thirties Ireland, on the estate of John Vandeleur at Ralahine, Co. Clare, started as an attempt to keep unhappy tenants out of the clutches of the Ribbonmen, but concluded as a glorious folly which inspired socialists well into the twentieth century.

The Ralahine Co-operative came into being on November 7th 1831.
Robert Owen was a Welsh born social reformer who aspired to the elevation of the labouring classes through education and fair sharing of profits. Owen had expounded his ideas at a large meeting held in the Rotunda, Dublin in 1823. A number of wealthy landowners who attended were inspired to form the Hibernian Philanthropic Society. This society was short-lived but Owen’s ideas continued to percolate in the minds of some, most notably, Lord Vandaleur who engaged E.T. Craig to manage his co-operative farm in Co. Clare.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the venture was to set up common capital or a common wealth to provide for tenants against sickness and old age, and to provide educational needs. It was governed by a committee elected twice a year. The commune consisted of twenty-two single adult men, seven married men and their wives, five single women, four orphan boys, three orphan girls and five infants under the age of nine. It was governed by an elected committee of nine people. New machinery was bought and the first mowing machine in Ireland was introduced by the Ralahine Commune. The commune prospered for a time and 29 new members joined.

Employed by Vandeleur to manage the Ralahine co-operative, E.T. Craig saw himself very much as a facilitator, rather than a landlord’s agent, who applied the ideals of Robert Owen to the agrarian setting of Ralahine. George Russell describes Craig as "a true, kind, stout-hearted man with an infinite belief in the magic of goodwill and justice" and refers to him as a man of advanced philosophical principles. Craig left his home in England to emigrate to Clare in 1830. It was a brave step to take on the social turmoil of County Clare with the hope that his confidence in his economic theory and the essential goodness of human nature could improve the social condition of the destitute local population. While other leaders in Irish society resorted to physical force to cull social unrest, Craig believed in winning men from violence by reason and justice.

But Vandeleur's reckless lifestyle collapsed the ground-breaking venture and by 1831 it was over. The commune members met for the last time on November 3rd, 1833. The venture, however, caught the imagination of socialists for years afterwards. An issue of the 'Socialist Worker' declared that it was 'a magnificent socialist enterprise.'
Two great Irish social thinkers of the 20th century who were inspired by the Ralahine experiment were George Russell (AE) and James Connolly. AE wrote the preface to the edited reissue of Craig’s book "An Irish Commune" in 1920 and in it refers to his own hope for the reincarnation of the soul of Ralahine in the modern Ireland of the early 20th century.

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