CORK woman Nora Herlihy’s name has become synonymous with the foundation of the credit union movement in Ireland.
She began promoting this institution in 1958 to encourage people to assert more control over their finances, and to curtail exploitation by money-lenders who maintained a persistent threat over the lives of the poor in 1950s Ireland.
Even more impressive was the fact she did this at a time when women were expected to assume a subservient role in society and leave financial matters to the men.
Born on February 27, 1910, in the village of Ballydesmond in north Cork, Nora was the third child in a family of 12. After attending boarding school at the Sisters of Mercy Secondary School in Newcastlewest, Nora followed in her father’s footsteps by training to become a teacher at Carysfort College.
She began her teaching career in Ferrybank, Co. Waterford, but it wasn’t until 1936 that she found a permanent position, at the Irish Sisters of Charity School at Basin Lane in Dublin. It was here that Nora first encountered the negative effects money-lending and pawn shops were having on the community.
Both urban and rural Ireland in the 1950s had been devastated by low wages. Fewer than 10% of the population had continued on to second-level education and only 2% had third-level qualifications.
The welfare state had barely commenced. Most people did not have access to affordable credit or mortgages and were being preyed upon by illegal money-lenders.
Deeply affected by this, Nora was spurred on to look for answers to the widespread problem of financial mismanagement and poverty.
A firm believer in life-long learning, Nora enrolled in the first adult education course to be set up in Ireland at UCD. It was here that she met Tomas O’Hogain, with whom she would first discuss the idea of the ‘financial co-operation’ that had been operating successfully in America since 1908.
Tomas invited Nora to a meeting about the co-operative system with Seamus P. MacEoin in December, 1953. Here, she discovered the possibilities a credit union could offer; by taking part in common activities and goals, individuals could reclaim their financial independence.
In 1954, Nora was asked by the US-based Credit Union National Association to form a sub-committee to examine the structure of credit unions and their prospective function in Ireland. The public’s unbridled enthusiasm for the credit union idea led Nora, Seamus and Sean Forde to form the Credit Union Extension Service (CUES).
After carrying out further extensive research on a voluntary basis, Nora concluded that credit unions had an important role to play in Ireland, and with that the Irish credit union movement was born.
In 1958, the first two Irish credit unions were founded under Nora’s guiding influence, one within a co-operative in Dublin and the other at Donore Avenue, a large urban community in the centre of Dublin city.
In what was to become a recurring occurrence around the country, the impetus for the founding of a credit union at Donore Avenue came from a group of women that included the sisters Eileen and Angela Ni Bhrion.
Nora, a member of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, established ties early on between the credit union movement and the Irish women’s movement, and she was invited to talk to various women’s groups throughout the country on the practicalities and benefits of credit unionism.
In 1960, Nora was instrumental in setting up the Civil Service Credit Union and the Irish League of Credit Unions.
She became secretary of the latter and operated out of the living-room of her house in Dublin for many years, where she is said to have worked morning, noon and night at this unpaid position.
The Irish credit union movement started off without any funds, relying solely on volunteers. While keeping on her position as a full-time teacher, Nora used her own money to fund the development of the movement. She played a large part in securing the 1966 Credit Union Act, and stood by President Éamon de Valera’s side as he signed into law the act that set out how the movement would be governed and controlled.
Nora encouraged credit unions to develop their role in employment creation and emphasised the importance of education. She became the first Irish person to be awarded a traineeship by the Credit Union National Association and was sent on a three-month training programme to the USA, where she visited Madison, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Toronto and New York.
Nora continued to promote and establish credit unions all over the country until her death on February 7, 1988, which happened to be the 28th anniversary of the founding of the Irish League of Credit Unions.
Nora’s pivotal role in ensuring the spread of the credit union movement throughout Ireland has enabled generations of Irish people to become more self-sufficient in their financial management.
Today, there are 3.6 million members nationwide.
At its meeting in March, 1963, the board of the Credit Union League of Ireland unanimously voted Nora Herlihy the person who had made the greatest individual contribution to the credit union movement in Ireland.
NEXT MONTH: The She's Inspirational series runs the last Wednesday in every month. Mary Aikenhead - Foundress of the Religious Sisters of Charity features on March 30.