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Rural Electrification Ireland

Updated: May 21, 2021

I looked at a recent TV series about the Great Irish Famine of 1847. We were a wretched starving people then and millions of our forebears were forced to emigrate across the globe

I jump forward from that sad era and think of the rural Ireland of my youth. Thousands of families lived without the basic necessities of life such as electricity, running water or sewage schemes. There were few phones and we certainly had not heard of laptops or TV . Some people were still going barefoot to school. We had the Pye radio and Micheal O Hehir. I can clearly remember grown men listening to the 1955 All Ireland football final in our back yard. It was a great day when Kerry won and the captain was local boy John Dowling.

My late mother loved Dear Frankie, sponsored by Jacobs. Frankie Byrne’s own sad life-story and her daughter’s adoption is for another day.

We were happy enough with our situation at home but there were vast swathes of Rural Ireland living with very limited facilities in the late forties and early fifties.

I heard Ardnacrusha mentioned as being the saviour of Ireland. This scheme harnessing the River Shannon started supplying Electricity to towns and villages in Ireland in 1929.

In rural Ireland it was a different story. I can clearly remember going to my aunt’s house in the country and lighting the Tilley lamps. I remember the wicks, the distinctive smells of paraffin and methylated spirit, the battery radio . We still have a couple of relics of that era at home. They moved them about and in the dark winter evenings the cows were milked with only the light of the Tilley lamp to guide them along the cobbled paths to the cowhouse.

My aunt baked the bread over the open fire in the big bacús or pot oven .This was a big cast iron pot for baking bread or roasting meat. It was about a foot in diameter and about seven inches tall, with an overlapping lid. She would swing it in and out over the fire on the pot hooks to check to see whether the loaf was baked, or meat cooked. There were always a few extra sods of turf thrown on top of the lid to help the yeast rise or meat to cook. That was such a performance. The freshly baked bread always tasted super when liberally covered with home- made salty country butter melting into the hot bread. The addition of blackberry and apple jam, or rhubarb and ginger in season made it taste even more delicious.

Then there was the ritual of washing the clothes. These were first soaked in a bath of warm water .They were then taken out as individual pieces and scrubbed on the washing board using the big bar of Lifebuoy soap and then re rinsed and hung out to dry on the line in the shed.

I mentioned Ardnacrusha already.It played a major transformative role in changing Ireland. We can thank a gentleman named Thomas Mc Loughlin for his great pioneering work in the supply of electricity. He left Ireland in 1922 to work for Siemens and returned to Ireland using his experience gained in Germany to start up the fledgling ESB. He did most of the research work himself before putting the proposal to harness the River Shannon to produce electricity, to the government at the time. This was despite many requests that the Liffey should be harnessed first. On the 13th of August 1925 the contract was signed between the Government and Siemens Schuckert . It cost £5.2 million and the official opening was on 22nd of July 1929.

At this stage we must remember that the Irish free state was in a very depressed , distressed condition. We were just after the throes of World War 1, The war of Independence and The Civil War.

Prior to the ESB coming on stream we had the Dublin Electric Light Company, set up in 1880 and in 1881 seventeen public lights were set up around Kildare Street, Dawson Street and St Stephens Green.

The first public lighting in a provincial town was in Carlow in 1891 when Charles Stewart Parnell made the speech on the new lights being a symbol of a new and free Ireland.

The rural electrification started in the forties. Country people were genuinely afraid of it. My aunt spoke about it as if some demon from another planet was about to invade them.

I remember when the great electric event happened in my aunt’s house. We were all invited to the switch on. Her husband stayed outside the house, lest there should be a flash, or the house blow up, while I flicked on the switch. There was no great flash except for the gentle glow of light illuminating the house and shed . It was a great moment. There were similar great moments for the first cooker, fridge and the ultimate arrival of the twin tub. There was gazing and awe as to how this wondrous machine could replace the washing board and Lifebuoy soap, but it did.

The ESB can be thanked for the greatest social revolution in Ireland since the land wars. They transformed Ireland truly bringing us out of the dark ages.

The ESB ,as we now know it was established on August 11th, 1927, with many towns being connected on to a uniform system.

In May 1939 that great visionary and statesman ,Sean Lemass, requested the ESB to prepare plans for rural electrification but unfortunately World War 2 disrupted all the plans. It was finally started in 1946 and continued for 30 years until its 98 percent completion in 1976.

An interesting quote from the Senate debate of March 7th, 1945 when the Minister spoke about the role of Electricity in rural Ireland.

‘I can see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer, she will not check headage but rather the appliances she will require like , electric light, water heater, an electric clothes boiler, a vacuum cleaner and even a refrigerator.” It was such a romantic statement.

In the real world,meanwhile,crews of men put up ESB poles and erected lengths of cable climbing wooden poles with their crampons, connecting the whole of Ireland. It was a mammoth task.

They had huge advance crews making plans for cable, sub stations, street lighting etc.

It was a great sight to see them roaming the country lugging big poles across open countryside . It was great business for local hostelries as a lot of these men lodged locally.

One of the most interesting advance groups were, what we called ‘The Persuaders”. Their job was to get people to sign up to accept this new thing in their lives. It was known that ,in some areas they called for divine intervention in asking clergy to extol the virtues of this newcomer lighting up their lives. Some helped but some balked at this evil influence that was introduced into Rural Ireland.

The first rural electrification was in Oldtown, north County Dublin on January 15th, 1947.when up on stage sat the Parish Priest and senior ESB officials for the big switch on. The lights came on and the electric gramophone came to life and played Molly Malone, pure magic for those assembled for the let there be light moment.

The introduction of electricity also stopped those lovely romantic trips to the well. There would be no more Jack and Jill going up the hill to fetch a pail of water. We had the power to pump water into things called taps and cisterns for toilets and washing machines.

Then the bills came. I heard a lovely story about the bills. A young lady lived near her father and they were after getting in the electric. The father needed help with the book-keeping, and she noticed that her father’s bill was much lower than hers. She asked him how his ESB bill was so low. He told her he only used the electric when he was lighting the Tilley.

The first of the group water schemes was in Manor Kilbride in County Wicklow in 1957 when a young local curate Rev Joseph Collins organised a group water scheme for 13 local families. In 1959 they added a further 44 houses using 9 miles of piping and so rural water schemes were established. At this stage they also received bigger government grants.

I remember also that so many people started wondering about another new species in their lives, namely the cobwebs. They had never seen them with the dull light of the tillies but now the extra lumens showed up all these messy webs in rooms and houses.

We have made great progress in those 73 years since 1947.Let’s drink some aqua pura to all the advances we have made. More power to you all.

Cheers and Deo Gratias.

My reference guide for this article was“The Quiet Revolution”, The electrification of rural Ireland by Michael Shiel published by O Brien Press in 1984 .

Mick O Callaghan 25/01/2021

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