Castleisland Co-Op Mart 1957 to 2023

Castleisland Mart stands within a stone’s throw of the offices of Castleisland District Heritage.  John Roche, Chairman of Castleisland District Heritage, is one of its founding members and has been asked to place on record a sketch of its formation.


John Roche pictured with Noel Nash (centre) Castleisland District Heritage, at Castleisland Mart recently.[1]  Castleisland Mart is regarded by many customers as the best planned cattle mart in the country

Only those of us 75 and over have a memory of rural Ireland without cattle marts but octogenarians and older have memories of a time when the marketing of livestock was so different as to almost belong to a different world.  For centuries previously, livestock was walked fifteen miles or more to what was known as ‘The Fair Day’ in towns like Castleisland, Listowel, Abbeyfeale, etc. There the owners and their drovers, who walked the distance to the fair with the stock, stood guard over them to keep separate from the other animals as the Main Street filled to capacity with horses, cows, young stock, and small animals in horse and donkey carts.


The town of Castleisland was transformed for a day into a steaming mass of bodies packed closely together with their respective drovers, all armed with ‘ash plants’ standing between the different groups of cattle, or holding one or two horses.[2]  Many would have to undertake the return journey with the same stock come evening if the trade was poor or maybe non-existent for their type of animal.  It was a testament to resilience and fitness of rural people inured to hardship from the cradle.


The next couple of days following the fair were a massive headache for the County Council as the town was a sea of animal waste, especially in wet days, which as now, were quite common.  It all had to be brushed and shovelled into horse-carts and dumped elsewhere.


The livestock purchased by buyers from far afield were loaded onto cattle trains to be transported as far as north Leinster.  Some even transported straight from the Dublin cattle market to Great Britain.


As Ireland entered the 1950s the changing environment, which had been almost static heretofore gathered momentum, and was soon at breakneck speed.  Outside influences such as the ending of the Great War and the Economic War with Britain, took Ireland from a stagnant backwater to looking outward, and for young people ‘emigration’ was the buzz word.  ‘Rebuilding Britain’ was another, and suddenly rural Ireland was becoming denuded of young people.  Prices for our food produced reached unprecedented levels and mechanisation replaced boots on the ground.


But there was no machine that would drive cattle to the fair and mind them all day.  So, the first cattle marts became a reality in County Cork in the mid ‘50s against a background of fierce opposition.  It became known as the auction system, embracing ideas from similar systems in Britain and the continent.  It started with cattle pens in the open, leading to a covered sales ring and seating for the people attending.


It was obviously the way of the future but in every town that hosted a fair there was a whole coterie of people who wanted to retain the street fair at any cost.  Most small businesses and in particular publicans and ‘eating houses’, many of whom did very little trade either side of a fair day, became almost violent.  Those of us with a high profile on the Mart Committee became very much ‘persona non grata’ in our own town.  With many the anger lasted more than a decade.  They didn’t realise that they were basically cutting off their own nose to spite their face.  They became the best organisers for marts in surrounding towns!


There were principals and ‘hangers-on’ in the cattle business.  Top of the pile was the ‘Buyer’, a man who arrived in town the previous evening, having an arrangement with the bank to withdraw thousands of pounds to pay for purchased stock in the afternoon.  This usually took place at the door of a pub.


Next to the buyer was the ‘Dealer’ who was in a position to buy stock locally, and he would be favoured by the buyer.  Then there were the ‘Tangler’ and the ‘Blocker’, who all worked for the buyer to help him get stock as cheaply as possible.  They got so efficient at this in County Cork that they pushed the farmers into introducing the mart system faster than would otherwise be the case.


In 1957 I was county Chairman of Macra Na Feirme, of which Castleisland had a very active branch.[3]  The newly formed NFA was also an active branch in the area with Tom Brosnan as county chairman and Dave Griffin as county secretary.[4]  Local vet, Dave Geaney was Kerry representative on the NFA National Council.  Following some private discussions, a public meeting was called for at the local Technical School in November of that year.  It was chaired by local man Neilie Horan, and it was a very positive start to the campaign. A committee of twenty-four representatives from the surrounding parishes was formed with the expressed intention of organising a cattle mart in the area.  Word was spreading that the neighbouring towns, such as Tralee and Abbeyfeale were moving in the same direction.  It was important to move first and that we did, but we had no idea of what was ahead when we disturbed the ‘Hornet’s Nest’.


The first step was to canvass share capital.  The initial response was encouraging, with leading farmers and business people pledging from £20 to £200 each.  We agreed that prospective shareholders could pay half on demand and half later.  A fatal mistake! With what looked like decent share capital pledged, and banks offering ‘unlimited financial support without security’, next move was a site and a plan.


We purchased a six acre site right smack in the centre of town, and believed that it would assuage the concerns of the business people along Main Street.  Nothing could be further from the reality that ensued.  The area witnessed a mini-revolution with an amalgam of farmers, shopkeepers, publicans, cattle dealers and whatever you’re having yourself, screaming that we were going to ruin their great fair.


For a period it was a bad experience just to go to town by day.  Evening time we were surrounded by Macra members and supporters.  It helped me to stay sane.  We got an engineer to draft plans for the mart and work got underway.  As we set to collect the second moity of the share capital, we met with a lot of refusals.  Some geniuses started a campaign to build another mart in the Killarney Road beside the railway.  This caused us to rely more than was intended on bank loans which hamstrung the committee for many years.


Castleisland Mart opened for business in September 1960 with a very successful sale, and my late father selling the first three cows in the new sales ring.  It was a good start but its problems were far from over.  While a huge resistance to the development of a mart in Castleisland was causing delays and uncertainty, farmers in the Tralee region, who had earlier pledged support for Castleisland in preference to building a second mart there, got going. They negotiated a deal with the urban council for a site in Tralee town centre, and got their mart built and opened while in Castleisland we were still a community divided.

Above left, Richard Harnett Manager with John Roche, Chairman, Albert Reynolds, Taoiseach, and Jerh O’Connor, Secretary pictured outside the mart in November 1988 on the occasion of the official opening of Nylerin (New York Life Insurance), a revolutionary data processing plant near the Radiac Factory (now McElligots) at the IDA facility on the Tralee Road.  In the centre (l-r), long-serving employees of the Mart include Timmy Horan, Chairman of Castleisland Co-Op Mart who is a son Neilie Horan, Chairman of the original Mart Committee formed in 1957; Jim O’Connor, Yard Manager, who has given forty-four years’ service to the Mart; Neilus McAuliffe, Mart Manager, who started his working career in Castleisland Mart as a drover and Jim Cremins, who has given nearly half a century to Castleisland Mart.  On the right, John Roche pictured in the ring of Castleisland Mart in 1973

By the year 1982, I had been deeply involved in opening Castleisland Mart three times but this time round was by far the hardest.  It was forced to close when hundreds of farmers, dealers etc., to their shame, blockaded the lane leading to the mart on a daily rota to prevent access to the mart.  Four months later, as the reopening of the sales was arranged for February 2nd 1982, thankfully enough farmers had the courage and principle to pass an unofficial picket and facilitate the reopening of sales.  The picket faded into oblivion after a few hours, and heralded a new, golden era for the mart.


The committee consisted of eight courageous shareholders with Maurice Griffin as chairman, and Jerh O’Connor as secretary.  The committee oversaw the running of the sales as we searched for a manager.  In this we were very lucky in finding a young man, Richard Harnett, with a zest for the cattle trade, and farmers flocked to the new management.  When Maurice Griffin retired, after suffering years of tension and pillory as he and his committee tried to wrestle control of the mart back for the shareholders, I was elected chairman again, a position I had held a decade earlier after we wrestled control back from the bank.


Our mart surely has a chequered history!  It was my third time involved in opening, or reopening, Castleisland Mart.


Working with Jerh and Richard for the next number of years was amongst the toughest but rewarding of any period in my more than seventy years in volunteering.  Jerh and I quickly developed a special bond as we’d been long-time friends since our days in Macra and played football together for Cordal/Scartaglin in the 1950s/60s.  Our voluntary positions became almost fulltime as we set out to develop our mart into one of the leading ones, which we did with aplomb. One statistic – turnover in 1982 was £8million; turnover in 1992 was £32million. It peaked at 80,000 cattle and calves, the highest number of stock sold in any mart in Ireland.


We started with a severe cash shortage – the eight members signed a bond for £100,000 at year-end 1982 to ensure cheques would be honoured – so we could only afford to spend on development in accordance with successful trading.  We started to improve facilities as turnover and capital allowed.  We started with small ‘hands on’ jobs with a local small-building contractor, Jimmy Kearney, who also owned a pub on Main Street, things had changed a lot in two decades.  With Jimmy we had another steel repair man from Tooreencahil to the East, Johnnie ‘Batty’ Cronin, who became an expert in steel penning, etc.


My involvement with the organisation ended in the late 1990s.  Today, Castleisland Mart is described by many buyers from ‘up country’ as the finest, most efficient mart in the country. The only section let to building contractors was the office/canteen building.  This was competitively priced and constructed by local builders, The Lynch Brothers and Joe Sheehy. With the help of F.E.O.G.A. European grants, in a decade we had the mart that can be now seen, with magnificent catwalks, six long intake chutes and a covered intake point for calves in the bad days of early spring.


Along with this, total penning for about 2,000 cattle, a monument to Johnnie ‘Batty’ Cronin, his sons and helpers.  Unfortunately Jerh was called from his wife Nora and young family, and the mart in September 1989, far too soon, but his indelible mark will remain on Castleisland Mart far into the future.


At time of writing, the future for Castleisland Co-Op Mart looks secure in the capable hands of an elected committee, led by Timmy Horan, Chairman, and Neilus McAuliffe, Manager.[5] Timmy is son of Neilie Horan, first Chairman in 1957, and chairman again in 1967 when we reopened after the bank had taken control. Neilus started his mart experience as an employee with Richard, Jerh and myself in Castleisland before becoming a successful manager of Dingle Co-Op mart.


The trade is a flying trade, the mart is bursting at the seams with cattle of every hue, and management, committee and staff doing a magnificent job.


Hopefully we’ve seen the last reopening, and the future is bright.


[1] A collection of photographs from Castleisland Mart are held in the archive of Castleisland District Heritage (IE CDH 102).

[2] Ash Plant is an ash stick but it is from an ash growth not a branch.  When seasoned it is tough and light.  It was used to poke and direct the livestock.  To hit an animal in the street was tantamount to starting a stampede.  Cattle could not be controlled in public streets with bare hands.  It was also a good walking stick.  Picking and seasoning an ash plant was a skill in itself. 

[3] Castleisland District Heritage holds a copy of Macra na Feirme 1944-2019 A History in Pictures (Ref: IE CDH 110) compiled and edited by Joe Coffey.  The organisation is described as ‘the boldest voice for Ireland’s rural youth over the past 75 years.’  A very well produced book, with introductory words from Joe Coffey, Michael Berkery, Chairman FBD Trust, Thomas Duffy, Macra National President, Phil Hogan, EU Commissioner for Agriculture & Rural Development, Michael Creed TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.  The book displays the transition of photography from black and white to colour and photographic development in style.  Pages 282-283 carry head and shoulder shots of past presidents, beginning with William Bland (1947) to Thomas Duffy (2019).

[4] The Path to Power 60 Years of the Irish Farmers’ Association (2015) a lavishly illustrated book edited by Matt Dempsey is held in the archive of Castleisland District Heritage (Ref: IE CDH 146).  It contains 21 chapters, the first ‘Before the NFA,’ and represents a comprehensive account of the organisation during its 60 year history.  The front matter of the book includes an Address by IFA President Eddie Downey, and a Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny TD at the IFA AGM Dinner, Red Cow Hotel, Tuesday 27th January 2015.  Also an IFA 60th Anniversary Keynote Address by EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, Agriculture and Rural Development, 6th January 2015, Dublin, a Foreword by IFA Secretary Pat Smith, and a Personal Perspective on the IFA by Matt Dempsey.  The Introduction outlines how the National Farmers’ Association (NFA) was proposed by Dr Juan Greene at a meeting in January 1955 when a provisional executive was nominated to office. The following is taken from the back cover: ‘The Path to Power gives due and deserved recognition to the many people who have gone before us, reflecting the determination and commitment they displayed in representing farm families.  This book records the key events in IFA’s history and reminds us of the sacrifices made by different generations to bring about a modern agricultural sector that has seen its rightful role in our society and our economy restored.’  Born for Hardship, memoir of John Roche of Castleisland published in 2019 is a good companion to this formal history.

[5] Castleisland District Heritage holds a copy of Fruits of a Century An Illustrated Centenary History 1894-1994 (Ref: IE CDH 108) by the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society.  Foreword by Billy Nagle, President of ICOS.  Traces history of the movement from its founder Horace Plunkett to date of publication, ‘the Co-operative movement plays a major role in the food industry in Ireland in 1994.’