PATRICK Gallagher (1871-1966) – to give the legendary “Paddy the Cope” his proper Sunday name – is a figure who for many has the status of working-class hero in both Scotland and Ireland.

It was Paddy’s experiences as a shale-miner in West Lothian which led him into social revolution when he returned to his native Donegal to found the Templecrone Co-operative Society in 1906. “The Cope”, as it became known, was to improve vastly the impoverished lives of the people of West Donegal.

With the sustained (and crucial) support of the Scottish Co-operative Movement, Paddy was to take on the “Gombeen” merchants – the post-Famine monopolists and usurers who helped keep the peasantry in abject poverty – and the imperial powers of Dublin Castle, as well as, during the War of Independence (1918-21) the British Army and the infamous Black and Tans who sought to destroy the nascent Co-operative Movement.

The establishment of the Cope was inspired by Paddy’s membership of the West Calder Co-op which he joined at its Pumpherston Branch; and it was the £800 savings he and his wife Sally had eventually accrued there which was to provide the initial capital to launch the Cope (which today has an annual turnover in excess of €17 million) when they finally returned to Dungloe and the Rosses in 1905. Paddy began his working life as a child-labourer aged nine: one of the many children hired out across the more fertile Protestant owned farms of the Laggan in East Donegal (established as a “Plantation Precinct” in the C17th) to earn a pittance to help pay the rents and the Gombeen debts. Bought for a handful of shillings – and if they were lucky a pair of shoes – they worked these scattered farms six months at a time. It was in all but name child slavery.

Paddy first came to Scotland as a teenage farm labourer in the Borders before being drawn to the booming shale-oil industry in West Lothian where the work was hard and dangerous but better paid. And it was here he was mainly to work and, with his wife Sally at the helm, to learn the virtues of co-operation before they returned to their native Donegal to foment a social revolution.

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His childhood experiences of poverty, injustice and slavery left an indelible mark on him. But it’s clear from his colourful, humorous, and vibrant autobiography My Story: Paddy the Cope that it was Scotland (as well as Sally) that helped make Paddy the profoundly principled man of action that he became and set him on his near incredible journey spreading successfully the spirit of communal effort in spite of being threatened, harassed, attacked, blockaded and jailed, and almost ending up in gruesome and deadly Ballykinlar, the first British mass internment camp in Ireland, during the War of Independence.

What saw him through? He had a deeply Catholic sense of social justice. He had Sally. He had (eventually) strong local backing. He had the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society always in support. And (he believed) he had Tuatha de Danann (of whom Yeats and Lady Gregory often spoke) at his side. He was the most rational of men but he disdained anyone who denied the existence of these Fairy Folk (in local habitation and name: “the Wee Princes of Cleendra”).

When, for example, he “accidentally” liberated a consignment of arms and ammunition bound for the blockading British military forces in Dungloe he took it out to the Fairy Rock in Cleendra and hid it under a holly bush in the safe keeping of the Wee Princes until Peadar O’Donnell and the local volunteers could secure it and make good use of it themselves…

Like the writer Patrick MacGill (another Donegal man, of course), Paddy is part of the fabric of Scottish (as well as Irish) working-class culture and history.

I first came over his “legend” growing up in the shale country of West Lothian (where my maternal grandfather, Jimmy Coyne – who hailed from County Mayo – worked in some of the same mines around the same time as Paddy). Paddy’s autobiography, like MacGill’s novels of navvy life in Scotland (such as Children of the Dead End and Moleskin Joe) would be passed from hand to hand, house to house in the miners’ rows and council houses in the 1950s and 60s.

FIRST published in London (1939) and New York (1942), Paddy’s best-selling autobiography was to see several updated editions and many reprints in both Ireland and the USA. Indeed, the film director and producer Michael Powell optioned the book in 1946: but the film (which was to star Cyril Cusack) unfortunately never came to fruition.

Paddy does, however, remain a legendary figure whose name still resonates in Scotland although the actual details of his life and character are less well-known, all of which suggests the time is ripe for his return to Scotland; and for Scottish audiences to be inspired by his spirit through a dramatic evocation of his life and times, particularly his formative experiences in Scotland and his embodiment of the international co-operative ethos of which we have much need today.

Paddy’s fame did spread far and wide in his own day.

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The whole stadium stood to applaud him when he was Guest of Honour at the All Ireland at Croke Park, New York, in 1947 (the only time the game was played outside Ireland, this was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Famine).

That certainly goes some way to measuring the achievement of the man who once received a letter from America simply addressed to “Paddy the Cope, Ireland”.

The World Premiere (Edinburgh Festival Fringe) of Paddy the Cope (written and directed by Raymond Ross, presented by the Objektiv Collective with John McColl as Paddy and Sue Muir as the Fairy Fiddler) is at the Netherbow Theatre, Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh Aug 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 24, 26, 30 at 7pm (matinee Aug 20, 4pm).

Box office: 0131 556 9579

The author acknowledges with gratitude The Templecrone Press, Dungloe, Ireland for copyright permissions and Creative Scotland for their support for his writing

of the script