Roche, Eamonn (1884–1952), co-operative manager and republican, was born Edmond Roche on 22 August 1884 in Fihertagh, Bansha, Co. Tipperary, the second son and second child among seven surviving children of Laurence Roche, a farmer of Fihertagh, and his wife Elizabeth (née Keating). His nationalist family was heavily involved in the land war of the 1880s during which his mother's family was evicted from their homestead. Eamonn left school aged 12 and by 1906 was living in Tipperary town with his older brother Thomas, a merchant. He worked as a coal merchant's manager and was active in the town branches of the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin.
Following in his younger brother Patrick's footsteps, he pursued a career as a co-operative creamery manager, the co-operative movement having developed into an extension of the land struggle, as dairy farmers organised themselves against the mainly English- or protestant-owned private creameries. (Another brother, Laurence, also later managed a creamery.) Eamonn became manager of the newly established Bruree Co-operative Creamery in Co. Limerick in 1913, as such acquiring a branch creamery at Banogue, Co. Limerick, in 1915, and experimented with making pasteurised milk in 1914 and cheese in 1918. In 1913 he married Alice Harding of Solohead, Co. Tipperary. They had a daughter, who died in childhood, and three sons.
Involved with the local Volunteer movement from its inception in 1914, he reorganised the Bruree company after becoming its head in 1917. Elected to Limerick County Council as a Sinn Féin candidate in June 1920, he was by then effectively acting as the local IRA's quartermaster, and soon went on the run as the military targeted known republicans in retaliation for IRA ambushes. After eluding several raids, he was arrested near his home at Bruree on 7 September and sentenced by court martial to two years' imprisonment. He was held in England at Wandsworth prison, London, where he maintained a lengthy hunger strike, and then at Leicester prison. Prior to his release in August 1921, he was returned unopposed as a TD for Kerry and Limerick West in the May general election.
Like most Bruree republicans, he supported Éamon de Valera (qv), who was raised in the village, and accordingly voted against the Anglo–Irish treaty in the dáil. In 1922 he was returned, again unopposed, for Kerry and Limerick West, as an anti-treaty TD in the 'pact election'. Although he stayed out of the civil war, the Free State authorities interned him in Gormanstown camp, Co. Meath, where he befriended fellow prisoner and future Irish president Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) before their release under the general amnesty in November 1923. He did not stand in the 1923 general election and resumed his position at Bruree.
In 1925 he was appointed by the Mitchelstown Co-operative, Co. Cork, as manger of its newly established creamery following a very close shareholder vote, presumably reflecting concerns about his anti-treaty views. Dissatisfied with the milk prices they were receiving from the regionally dominant (and English-owned) Newmarket Dairy Company, local dairy farmers turned belatedly to the co-operative movement and Roche bowed to intense pressure by establishing a further four branch creameries around Mitchelstown during 1925–6.
His nous enabled Mitchelstown creameries to survive an initial period of cutthroat competition from the deep-pocketed Newmarket Dairy combine in the context of an unsustainable regional proliferation of creameries. When the state bought out the private creameries in 1927 and either closed them down or offered them for sale at discounted prices to co-operatives, the Mitchelstown creameries acquired another four branches, gaining dominance of the fertile fifteen-mile valley between the Galtee and Knockmealdown mountains.
Thanks to Roche's connections with the newly elected Fianna Fáil government, the Mitchelstown creameries were awarded the monopoly for making processed or packaged cheese in 1932. At King Square he established a primitive cheese-making factory beside his residence at Gardenhurst and had a door broken through the factory into his garden. The first Irish creamery to have cheese, accounting for half its milk, as its main activity, Mitchelstown's 'Galtee' cheddar cheese and 'Whitethorn' gruyére cheese, joined in 1936 by its 'Three Counties' cream cheese, annexed a captive national market, overcoming consumer resistance deriving from the previously inept standard of indigenous cheese-making. Roche had a readymade and invaluable outlet in the Monument Creameries, a chain of thirty grocers in Dublin owned by his sister-in-law Agnes Ryan (qv). Before long, Mitchelstown was offering the best milk prices in Ireland, as Roche's pioneering efforts helped double national cheese consumption during the 1930s, thereby alleviating a milk glut.
He had to overcome meddling from the continuously bickering shareholders, as the mid-1930s resurgence of civil-war-era divisions nearly tore the co-operative apart. Despite turning Mitchelstown into Ireland's preeminent co-operative, he was poorly paid and only fully appreciated by members after his death. There were also union difficulties, culminating in late July 1938 when Roche refused to bring wages into line with other creameries in the locality and to compel employees to join a union. After a week-long standoff, a strike was narrowly averted and Roche, who had been unyielding throughout, grudgingly agreed not to dismiss certain employees. Despite his autocratic manner, the workers respected 'Boss Roche' for his unceasing focus on creating employment. Humourless, reticent and religious, he had an ascetic lifestyle and was a member of the third order of St Francis.
Although David Walsh was nominally the co-operative manager, he concentrated on running the co-operative's store and otherwise deferred to Roche. Upon Walsh's death in 1943, Roche's dominance was confirmed by his succession as co-operative secretary. Roche's inwardness with Fianna Fáil further enhanced his authority within the co-operative. He was prominent in interactions between the dairy sector and the government, and was included in the Irish delegation sent to negotiate trading terms with Britain in 1941.
In 1938–9, his foresighted purchase of a large supply of cheese-making ingredients, a powerful diesel generator and a new fleet of lorries, enabled Mitchelstown to maintain its cheese production for most of the war. His stockpiling of oil, petrol, diesel, coal and other fuels was undone, however, by the government's appropriation of fuels under the Emergency Powers Act, 1939. From 1941 he directed the co-operative's acquisition of bog lands in the Galtee mountains, hiring workers to cut the turf and build roads up the mountains.
The cheese-making process produced large quantities of whey, which caused pollution when dumped in rivers but was useful for fattening pigs. He moved the co-operative into mass pig husbandry, ultimately popularising it in Ireland, using for this purpose 165 acres of the former Mitchelstown demesne purchased in 1942. As well as housing some 2,000 (eventually 6,000) pigs during peak season, the land was also used to grow crops for pig feeding. Pig meal was cheaply available after the war, so the farm was used for cultivating grass with pig manure and silage. It developed into a strikingly progressive model dairy farm that was at the forefront of the late 1940s introduction into Ireland of Friesian cattle and artificial insemination. Both innovations were controversial – the first for threatening beef farmers, the second for being regarded as contrary to catholic doctrine – but enthusiastically promoted by Roche who guided the development of a pedigree Friesian herd and the country's most modern breeding station.
After the war, relations with the Fianna Fáil government deteriorated, and when Mitchelstown accumulated a huge stock of cheese owing to the weak post-war recovery in consumer demand, Roche's requests for an export licence were repeatedly denied. Only the changed attitude of the inter-party government elected in 1948 prevented huge losses. Export markets were subsequently developed in Britain and America comprising one-third of output. Before losing power, Fianna Fáil had in 1947 ended Mitchelstown's domestic monopoly by granting a licence to make processed cheese to the Golden Vale Food Products Co-operative.
Latterly, Roche's co-operative employed over 500 workers and had a turnover of £2 million, bringing prosperity to Mitchelstown. His final project represented an act of republican triumphalism: the construction of a chocolate crumb factory, completed in 1953, on the site of the ruined Mitchelstown castle. Once the nationalist fervour of that era subsided, there was much hand-wringing over the manner in which the attractive features of the Mitchelstown demesne succumbed to the demands of political symbolism and industrial progress.
In 1951 an American company sued Mitchelstown Co-operative in the high court for delivering cheese unfit for human consumption. Contesting this, Roche maintained that the cheese had been tested by the Irish Department of Agriculture and was badly handled upon arrival before being stored in unsanitary conditions. The case against Mitchelstown was struck out in December 1952, but not before claims that rat hair had been found in the consignment were aired, causing a collapse in cheese sales.
In the midst of this crisis, Roche died suddenly on 7 September 1952 in Baggot Street, Dublin. A keen GAA fan, he was in Dublin to see the all-Ireland hurling final. He was buried in St Michael's cemetery, Bansha. His son Kevin (b. 1922) was a renowned architect in the USA, winning the 1982 Pritzker Architecture Prize.