The World Council of Credit Unions traces its roots to the humble beginning of credit unions in 19th century Europe. Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch established the first credit unions in the 1850s in Germany to give those lacking access to financial services the opportunity to borrow from the savings pooled by themselves and their fellow members, in order to achieve economic self sufficiency. Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen transported his version of the financial co-operative concept to rural Germany a decade later.

In the 1950s, international credit union development programs emphasised community development and had broad social, as well as economic objectives. This led in turn to the organisation of credit unions in nearly all parts of the world over the next two decades.

The driving force behind the Irish credit union movement, Nora Herlihy, Seamus MacEoin and Sean Forde, met at University College Dublin on an adult education course.