Cork’s Quay Co-op and its place in history
Once a hub of progressive politics and a sanctuary for those excluded by a theocratic Ireland, Quay Co-Op has evolved over the years to become one of Cork City’s most iconic and unconventional businesses.
This is the subject of a new documentary by Emma Bowell and Eddie Noonan from Framework Films which will be screened at the IndieCork Film Festival on Sunday September 26 at the Gate Cinema. The film traces the changes in Ireland over the nearly 40 years since the co-operative was founded in 1982 and examines the role of Quay Co-Op in these changes.
– The wharf cooperative (@quaycoop) September 17, 2021
Almost 40 years after its creation in reaction to Cork’s conservatism, the country has finally caught up with the principles of Quay Co-Op. Their causes, once considered “radical,” like LGBTQ rights, sustainability, global warming, and organic food, have now become mainstream.
And the campaigns they fought for – like same-sex marriage and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment – became law and made Ireland a better place.
Although they initially encountered resistance, with people sometimes crossing the other side of the street to avoid it as they passed the Sullivan’s Quay building, their ideas won out.
Arthur Leahy was one of the first founders in 1982. After 20 years working in alternative places and communities in London, he brought ideas for the cooperative back to Cork where he found people keen to create a space for them. social justice campaigns and had an energy for societal change.
“There was a feeling in Cork that we had to have a place like this. Groups like the CND (now Chernobyl Children’s Project) and the Gay Mens Group were meeting in people’s homes or maybe in the pub and it was straining the development of organizations, ”said Mr. Leahy.
“People with alternative ideas had to come together to present these ideas in a coherent way to the city.
“The Quay Co-Op was originally founded as a community cooperative. It wasn’t until later that it turned into a work cooperative with a growing food business.
“The main need was to provide a safe space and resources for people and their campaigns.
“It’s hard to remember now how few resources there were. It was difficult to get information, you had to go home to make a call or stand in line to use a pay phone.
“And it’s not just the equipment that’s changed so much. Irish society has changed so much. The power of the Catholic Church has changed so much.
“The co-op’s campaign offices have been the center of many campaigns such as against the First Eighth Amendment. [which limited a woman’s reproductive rights], the Criminal Justice campaign [to make homosexuality legal], two divorce campaigns.
Communication has changed the way the group works. Forty years ago, Mr. Leahy would plug in a phone in the country room or stand in line at a phone booth, but now everything is immediate.
“We think it should be empowering, but the immediacy of the information transfer is overwhelming in a way, you don’t know what to do with it,” he said.
“When we started Quay Co-Op, there was a great sense of political commitment. There were groups formed around every problem in Cork.
“There isn’t the same level of grassroots involvement now, although there are huge issues – like housing, which is worse now than it was in the 1980s.
“But it was a lot easier for us to be political experts in the 80s because there wasn’t as much information. Now, you have to absorb so much information before you feel like you can engage with someone about it. And changing something now seems like an overwhelming concept.
“We were more involved then but we were also more naive because we were not as informed as today.”
Their first major campaign was against the Eighth Amendment and its limits on reproductive rights in 1983. It was finally repealed in 2018 after another vigorous campaign.
They successfully campaigned to finally make homosexuality legal in 1993. They also successfully campaigned for divorce.
A cafe was set up in the 1980s to help fund political campaigns and the community center. It became a vegetarian cafe because one of the cooperative members believed it should be. Over time, vegetarianism and whole foods have become essential to the identity of Quay Co-Op.
“For the first 10 years we were the only vegetarian restaurant in Cork. It became a strong aspect of what Quay Co-Op stood for.
“We also had a bookstore that sold a lot of political books and magazines that were not available anywhere else in Cork. And then we opened a whole food store that eventually became a big part of the business.
“I think it’s great that this food and this philosophy has now become mainstream. It is driven by people’s choices. The industry just responds to what people want. “
“It’s great that a significant number of people now expect more from their food – better standards, more sustainable and more equitable. Supermarkets are now unrecognizable from what they were in the 80s and 90s. There is so much to choose from now and the quality is so much better. “
The AIDS epidemic is one of Mr. Leahy’s most vivid memories of his almost 40 years of activism with the cooperative.
“We created the Alliance against AIDS. Something that stays with me is the number of people we have lost. The huge number of homosexuals who have died because of it.
“We have set up five houses here in Cork for the dying. But most of these young men died abroad – mainly in England or America. Most of the young homosexuals left Ireland as soon as they could because it was very repressive. London at the time seemed more Irish than Cork.
“A lot of people have died in this pandemic, but the majority are people my age. People in their 70s and 80s. But the AIDS epidemic has mostly killed young men in their twenties and thirties.
“And a lot of times you didn’t know someone was dead until six months later, when you noticed that they were no longer there.”
The Quay Co-Op also manages two housing co-ops, social housing projects in the city where about 50 people live. Keeping Quay Co-Op relevant in a rapidly changing world (which has finally caught up to its thinking) is the next challenge for the organization, he said.
John Calnan is a longtime member of Quay Co-Op. He has worked at Sullivan’s Quay since 1985.
“There were other cooperatives in Ireland, but they were agricultural or credit cooperatives. It was unusual to have one that was community based, ”Calnan said.
“When the cooperative was formed in the early 1980s, there was no divorce, it was still illegal to be gay. The Eighth Amendment, which was recently repealed, was passed the year after the Quay Co-op opened.
“The Church had so much power. And if you didn’t adapt, if you were gay, a whole bunch of people thought Ireland wouldn’t accept them.
“I’m gay, I struggled in the early 80’s. But Quay Co-Op created this place where people could go and be accepted. And it brought together different groups, Adi Roche’s CND, which became the Chernobyl Children’s Project, met there, anti-apartheid groups met there. There was a safe space for women and a library. There was a resource center that made badges and flyers for the campaigns.
“It was wonderful.
“Cork was also a black spot for unemployment back then. And there was nowhere to go before Quay Co-Op, but they made me really feel at home and I even found a job. .
“But things gradually improved over the years. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993.
“In the late 1980s, whole foods and supplements didn’t really exist, so we provided them. Now you find them in supermarkets. “
The documentary ‘The Quay Co-op’ will be screened at 11am at Gate Cinema in Cork on Sunday 26th as part of the IndieCork Festival. Tickets available at www.gatecinemas.com. The IndieCork Festival takes place at the Gate Cinema from September 19-26.