BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Callan Co-op has thrived since the day it was set up following a Town Hall meeting in March 1899. It began taking milk from farmers within hours of opening for business.
In 1905, Tim Lucy took over as Manager. He hitched a lift to Callan on an ass and cart, dusted himself off, and, according to folklore, told the first farmer he met in West Street at the Creamery: “This is the town where I’ll make my fortune-come hell or high water!”
He made big improvements, and the Co-op notched up unprecedented profits. Lucy and his workforce swam happily in a sea of milk-metaphorically speaking. The Co-op grew strong as staff, farmers, and management worked together to make it a viable and productive venture.
For a while it made cheese, but scrapped this sideline in 1920 when sales plummeted. The following year, Lucy decided to expand the enterprise, acquiring premises in Green Street for the purpose of supplying hardware, timber, fertilisers and animal feeds.
In 1954, Pat Scriven, of Macroom, County Cork, replaced Lucy. He had served as assistant to Tim Lucy. He ran the Co-op with great skill and foresight and held his position for almost four decades, retiring in 1992.
One of his proudest moments was when the Co-op won the prestigious Read Cup-the Sam Maguire of butter making. Callan beat off stiff competition to win the coveted prize. At the Spring Show in 1960, Mr. Scriven accepted the award, flanked by Larry Maher of anti-Summer Time fame (see Caught in a Time Warp) and Betty Murphy, the Co-op’s ace butter-maker. Betty was a Cork woman who took to Callan like a duck to water.
Another milestone in Mr. Scriven’s career was the decision by Callan Co-op in 1973 not to amalgamate with a larger concern. Its independent stance was vindicated by subsequent events on the national scene.
But alongside this agricultural success story went a history marked by peculiar, amusing, and sometimes mind-boggling events. The human side of the Co-op is a great deal more interesting than records of butter sales, financial spread sheets, and reports on how many gallons of milk flowed through its tanks.
The Committee’s initial hostility to the advent of electricity is a case in point. After endless rounds of meetings and consultations, it agreed in November 1915 to allow an electric bulb to be installed in the creamery office. This innovation came in the face of stiff opposition from those who felt that God’s light, candlelight, and lamplight were good enough for anybody.
The remainder of the premises was not electrified until 1941.
A proposal by two far-seeing Committee members in 1914 to have a telephone installed in the creamery office caused ructions. One member denounced the idea as a concession to new-fangled gadgetry that would encourage a “lazy attitude” and anti-social habits that would infect the Co-op’s time-honoured work ethic.
He argued, persuasively by all accounts, that a man would not bother to discuss business “in the flesh” if he had a phone nearby, and that it would be better to safeguard the “personal touch” by keeping phones out of the Co-op. He warned that he felt so strongly about the issue that he would personally rip out the telephone wires if he saw them connected to the creamery!
Another Committeeman decried the proposal as anti-Christian, on the basis that the use of telephones might contravene one or more of the Ten Commandments. When pressed on this issue by a pro-phone campaigner, he voiced concern that females, if they gained access to “the contraption” in the creamery, might spend the whole day gossiping and end up undermining the Co-op’s milk supplying prowess, not to mention its glowing image in the farm community.
A pro-phone delegate insisted that there was nothing in the Ten Commandments about telephones. In 1924, the anti-phone lobby capitulated. The Co-op got connected.
The problems occasioned by the three time zones that operated between Callan, Kilkenny, and Mullinahone were worthy of a John B. Keane drama. You can read about that episode elsewhere in the book.
And then you had the characters: Names etched in the town’s collective memory: Johnny Tobin, Mick Peters, Paddy Cuddihy, Hauley Holden, Terry O’ Brien, Ellen Wallace, Jack Marnell, Paddy O’ Sullivan, John O’ Keefe, Liz Fielding, Pat Bannam, Kitty Townsend, Brigid Comerford, Jim Power, the Carroll brothers, Willie O’ Brien, and Gerry Fitzgerald.
Johnny Tobin became something of a legend in Callan within months of joining the Co-op in 1948. He was the court jester who entertained customers at the store with his endless repertoire of jokes and yarns.
Salesmen who visited with the intention of concluding their business within a few minutes would find themselves conversing for hours with Johnny, discussing everything from hurling to the Cuban missile crisis.
He could bring humour to bear on even the unhappiest predicament. For instance, he had a peculiar way of clearing the store yard of traffic when it became congested. He would position himself in the middle of the chaos and shout: “Okay folks, turn the wheel around, one way only. Enjoy yourselves”.
Sometimes, an irate farmer would respond in a less than complimentary fashion to his exhortations.
Gerry Fitzgerald devoted 40 years of his life to the store and creamery, retiring in 1985. He had a flair for mental arithmetic, never needing to tot up figures on paper; never mind use a calculator.
Despite suffering a stroke in 1970, he continued to work with the Co-op. He had been in the process of writing a book on his experiences when he died in 1994. The book may yet be completed.
Paddy Cuddihy was one of the most popular figures ever to join the Co-op. He had a witty remark for every situation. He once told a lady who complained that a mouse had been found in her bag of chick-feed that the Co-op would not be charging her for the animal. And on a plane journey to Birmingham to visit relatives, he acted decisively to put passengers out of their misery.
The aircraft was a Dakota-Aer Lingus hadn’t any jets at the time-and ventilation allowed a flow of freezing cold air to sweep through the plane. Paddy listened for a few minutes to whispered complaints, and polite exchanges on the subject.
Then, true to form, he intervened on behalf of everybody aboard. Calling the stewardess, he gently intoned: “Miss, would you mind telling someone to close the back door. There’s a terrible draught!”
Mick Peters had an equal status in the annals of Co-op folklore, offering pearls of wisdom to anyone who would listen. His favourite retort to an insoluble dilemma was “Three into two won’t go, so we won’t push it”.
The Co-op is still going strong, keeping the farmers happy and also, no doubt, breeding a new generation of characters to fill the scene.