The Catholic Thrift and Loan Co-operative was registered on 4 October 1946 and although it was the 12th “credit union” registered in NSW (and co-operative banks were registered in Victoria as early as 1905), Catholic Thrift and Loan is considered by historians to be the first “true” credit union in Australia.

The founder of The Catholic Thrift and Loan Co-operative, Kevin Yates, was a practicing Catholic, dedicated to Catholic social teaching. He learned about co-operatives and credit unions first from the Campion Society and then in North America where he was stationed with the RAAF during World War II.

Our recent snapshots of the histories of the Hong Kong, Fiji and New Zealand credit union movements also revealed that in each case individuals and groups influenced by Catholic social teaching created the foundations for credit unions in those countries. That being the case, might you expect that there is a significant credit union movement in Ireland as it is an English speaking country with a culture thoroughly infused with Catholicism?

Ian MacPherson, writing in his history of the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), Hands Around the Globe, confirms these assumptions with the following:

As in so many other countries, much of the initial promotion of co-operatives, especially credit unions, in Ireland came from men and women involved in adult education and influenced by the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1948 the Board of Extra Mural Studies at University College, Dublin, started its first programme in adult education; it led to a Diploma in Social and Economic Studies. Most of the students were sponsored by the trade union movement, and within a year some of the courses were exploring the possibilities of the co-operative movement. Three particularly important individuals attended the 1948 programme and continued their studies for more than five years: Nora Herlihy, Seamus MacEoin and Sean Forde; in time, these three would be recognised as the founders of the Irish credit union movement.

Nora Herlihy was a teacher who grew up in County Cork and witnessed much economic emigration from her home county growing up. She explored retail and worker co-operatives in Dublin and invited Joseph Collerain, the Treasurer of the Humble Oil Company Employees Credit Union in Texas, to speak to the Irish National Co-operative Council in 1957. Herlihy was instrumental in forming the Irish Credit Union League in 1960 who today say her “most notable effort is her contribution to developing the Credit Union Act 1966.”

Sean Forde was from Dublin and worked for Peter Kennedy Bakers. He was a founding member of the Dublin Central Co-operative Society out of which was established the Credit Union Extension Service. He was appointed the first Vice President of the Irish Credit Union League.

Seamus MacEoin worked at the Land Commission, Department of Social Welfare in Ireland and lectured on “co-operation” in the years leading up to the development of the Irish credit union movement. Seamus was, as mentioned above, a collaborator with Herlihy and Forde, and was made Treasurer of the Credit Union Extension Service and involved with the Irish Credit Union League for many years. He was also founder of Ireland’s first industrial credit union, the Civil Service Credit Union in 1960.

Another important person in the history of Irish and Northern Irish credit unions was John Hume, a politician and founder of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and a co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his major contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Irish League of Credit Unions (formerly Irish Credit Union League) encompasses the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. John Hume was a founding member of Derry Credit Union, Northern Ireland’s first credit union and became president of the League aged just 27. The Irish League of Credit Unions among many others mourned his passing last year.

When interviewed John Hume always spoke about his pride in his contribution to the Irish credit union movement in between all the inevitable questions about the Irish “Troubles”. In a major interview Hume said:

Before the arrival of the credit union, people who were from the poor background or a working class background couldn’t borrow from banks. Banks wouldn’t have them, and when they needed to borrow money for rearing their children and for furniture, et cetera, for normal things, then the methodology in those days was either from loan sharks or from pawn shops. And, of course, that meant that people were made poorer by all of that, particularly by the charge of loan sharks. So what the credit union movement did, of course, was not only help the ordinary people to have the true value of whatever their income was, but it helped local business, small business as well, because the money that would have left your city in loan charges remained and were spent.

WOCCU’s 2020 Statistical Report recorded 3,600,000 credit union members in Ireland. The population of the Republic of Ireland is just over 5,000,000. Statistically speaking everyone eligible for credit union membership in Ireland is indeed a member making the Irish credit union movement one of the world’s most successful.


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