Photo by Caroline Brady

The Convergence, Ireland’s sustainable-living festival, has come to town. Or, at least, some of it has.

To celebrate its 20th year, the festival will have 20 events this year. One was in Dublin Monday, and there’ll be four more in the city before the end of the month.

This year’s theme? Cooperatives and how they can play a role in sustainable living.

Energy, housing and food cooperatives, community-owned pubs and shops, will all be discussed throughout the festival, which runs until Halloween.

“We’re just trying to show that there’s something happening here that could actually be a lot more sustainable,” said Davie Philip, one of the event’s organisers, who also works for a cooperative called Cultivate.

He means sustainable in all kinds of ways: good for the environment, stable through recessions, and with resilient communities.

The aim of the festival, Philip said, is to get people to move from having an interest in co-ops to taking action.

What Exactly Is a Co-op?

For some people, the word cooperative might bring to mind a cluster of hipsters drinking coffee. Others might picture hippies in a commune growing vegetables in the United States somewhere.

They might not realise that 3 million Irish people are already members of cooperatives. Credit unions account for 2.5 million of these. But from financial co-ops to food co-ops, there are another 5,000 around Ireland providing various services.

“The principle is coming together for either purchasing power or to achieve efficiency or to have greater bargaining,” says Siobhán Mehigan of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), which promotes cooperatives and helps new ones set up.

Any enterprise – for-profit or not-for-profit – set up by a group of people for their mutual economic or social benefit can be considered a co-op.

A Re-emerging Trend?

It’s hard, of course, to gauge how much serious interest there is in cooperative movements.

Philip said he feels like a trend towards this tradition is emerging again. And Mehigan says she hears more discussion and inquiries about co-ops.

“I haven’t seen a massive bump in registrations on my end,” she said. “But I’ve definitely noticed a bigger increase in interest and that will only lead to more registrations.”

The Dublin Food Co-op in Newmarket has definitely grown in recent years, says Joe Zefran of the Co-op. Even during the recession, its sales went up, he says.

Community-supported Agriculture

When it comes to food, Dublin’s cooperative presence is strong. The Dublin Food Co-op has stood as a resilient example since 1983, but smaller community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups have also appeared around the city.

One of these is the Dublin CSA, which meets in Smithfield every Tuesday. It’s been going for three years, has 20 members, and, as member Daniele Ponzo tells it, is all about sustaining the farmer.

Members not only buy whatever the farmer produces, they also go visit the farm a couple of times a year to help out. That cuts the farmer’s costs and the members’ costs.

And it is a good excuse for a social event. He likes seeing his food grow and being so involved he can have a pint with the farmer.

Last month, Dublin CSA and some other CSAs set up an Irish network, and Ponzo hopes they can help new groups start up by sharing their experiences. As part of Convergence, Dublin CSA will have a stall at next Monday’s event in the Dublin Food Co-op.

If you can’t wait until then, you can also catch Davie Philip tonight in the Fumbally, where he’ll be spilling all on how to get set up as a food co-op.

“This could happen anywhere, whether it’s Ranelagh or a rural area,” he says.

From Grub to Pubs

Though we have a strong presence of food co-ops, we don’t have any cooperatively owned pubs or breweries.

In the UK, on the other hand, the government has introduced a range of supports to help communities to buy their ailing locals and run them as cooperatives. There are more than 30 cooperatively owned pubs in the UK.

Zefran says that could be done here too. “Over here in D8 there’s a lot – there definitely would be a lot of demand for it,” he says. Dublin Food Co-op has looked at it as an option, he says.

Convergence festival began on Monday, and the Dublin-based events continue with two more today and two more next week. Check them out here.

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