Herlihy, Nora (1910–88), founder of the Irish credit union movement, was born 27 February 1910 at Ballydesmond, Co. Cork, the third of twelve children of Denis Herlihy, a teacher, and Nora Herlihy (née Mulcahy). Having taught firstly in Belmullet, Co. Mayo, Nora's father was appointed principal of Kingwilliamstown, the local school at Ballydesmond, where she received her first formal education before being sent as a boarder to the Sisters of Mercy convent at Newcastle West in Co. Limerick, subsequently transferring to the Mercy Convent school in Navan, where she secured first place in her teacher training entrance examination. From 1929 to 1931 she was a student at the teacher training college in Carysfort, Blackrock, Co. Dublin. Her first teaching post was at the Sacred Heart school in Ferrybank, Co. Waterford, and in October 1936 she was employed at the Irish Sisters of Charity school in Basin Lane, Dublin, the same year in which she began studying at night for an arts degree at UCD.
Throughout her life, Herlihy was exceptionally religious and a staunch upholder of catholic values; in 1941 she resigned from her teaching position and spent ten months at a missionary congregation in Cavan, but was advised she had no vocation, a discovery that traumatised her. She returned to teaching at Our Lady's Mount convent school in Harold's Cross, Dublin, and in November 1948, transferred to the northside of the city to the teaching staff of the orthopaedic hospital for children at Clontarf. To facilitate this type of specialist teaching she enrolled for a Montessori course by correspondence and passed her exams in 1954. The following year she took up a position at St Joseph's girls' national school in West Liffey Street, Dublin, where she remained for the rest of her teaching career, becoming principal in January 1965. Always showing a particular devotion to underprivileged students, she was appalled by the levels of unemployment, emigration, and debt which she observed.
Although not particularly ideological, she seems to have been influenced by Christian social theory, a family oriented approach to socio-economic problems which sought to find a middle way between socialism and market capitalism. Two men who thought likewise, Tomás Ó Hogáin and Seamus Mac Eoin, invited her to chair a meeting in 1954 on the origins and principles of the co-operative movement. She subsequently became secretary of the Dublin Central Co-operative Society, designed to create work and productive industry, which in turn, with the encouragement of Muriel Gahan (qv), Canon Peter McKevitt (d. 1976) and others led to the establishment of the National Co-operative Council. Some of those involved at this time, such as Sean Forde and Denis Byrne, were imbued with the co-operative ideology while studying for the diploma in economic and social studies under the Jesuit Fr Edward Coyne (qv) at UCD, the content of the course having also been influenced by the academic Alfred O'Rahilly (qv), another prominent catholic social theorist. Herlihy established an exploratory group, the Credit Union Extensive Services, at her house in Phibsborough, Dublin, and encouraged a group of neighbours to form Ireland's first credit union in Donore Avenue, Dublin, in 1958.
Given the success of the credit union movement in the USA, American influence was pivotal to the embryonic Irish movement, and Herlihy cultivated contacts with the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) in Wisconsin. She also extensively researched the history and philosophy of the co-operative movement and its implications for the rights of consumers, and was particularly influenced by the writings of D. M. Coady, founder of the co-operative movement in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, as well as the experiences of Paddy ‘The Cope’ Gallagher (qv) of Dungloe, Co. Donegal, George Russell (qv) and Horace Plunkett (qv). From the beginning, Herlihy was aware that any effort to organise consumers was often presented as an infringement on the rights of small traders. Her constant insistence was on the need for education in co-operative philosophy. Despite the belief of contemporary economic gurus such as D. T. K. Whitaker, who insisted in his seminal White Paper on Economic Development that ‘history affords no support for the belief that co-operative credit societies can be successfully established’, small credit unions began to be successfully established, particularly in Dublin, Cork, and Monaghan.
In 1960, a federation of the existing credit unions was established in a body called the Credit Union League of Ireland, which was affiliated to CUNA, with Herlihy first acting as secretary and later managing director. At the invitation of CUNA, she then travelled to the USA and Canada, and on her return, further organisational endeavour resulted in the formation of 19 new credit unions in 1962. Although Herlihy was now in a position to supply exhaustive advice and direction, the real problem was the absence of legislation to ensure the legal status of the new bodies. The Taoiseach Seán Lemass (qv) responded by facilitating the formation of an exploratory committee on co-operative societies. It reported in June 1963, leading to the Credit Union Act of 1966, which became operative in 1967, providing for the registration of credit unions, and was very much a lobbying triumph for Herlihy and her colleagues. One of the provisions of the new act stipulated the formation of an advisory committee to the minister for industry and commerce, and Herlihy was appointed first chairperson.
As the movement expanded, however, there was increasing doubt about Herlihy's exact status, and in 1966 she faced the ignominy of being voted out of her role as managing director. Viewing this as a blatant attempt to sideline and neutralise her influence, she deeply resented the move, which was also no doubt a product of an ingrained sexism. In the 1970s relations within the Credit Union League worsened, and a high court case in 1976 between two members of the insurance committee of the league greatly distressed her. In 1979 she admitted that her relations with the league were ‘practically non-existent’.
She retired from her teaching position in 1974 and moved to a house in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, where she spent the remainder of her life living frugally with an almost monastic routine. She died 7 February 1988 in Dalkey and was buried at Ballydesmond. Notwithstanding its management difficulties, the credit union movement became phenomenally successful: in 1975 there were 453 credit unions in operation, including 93 in Northern Ireland, performing, in the words of Horace Plunkett, ‘the apparent miracle of giving solvency to a community composed almost entirely of insolvent individuals’. At the time of Herlihy's death the league could claim almost one million members in more than 500 branches.