Powering the Nation Part 1: A worker’s view of the Shannon Scheme
17 April 2018
Ardnacrusha turbine hall. Image: ESB Archives
The Shannon Scheme was a foundational project for the country, in both literal and figurative senses – it created an important part of the infrastructure of the Irish Free State, but it also played a significant role as a symbol of independence. It demonstrated what the new state was capable of, and in a time of nation building, asserted the importance of the practical and pragmatic to the new government, as well as its links to tradition and the Gaelic past.
The power station was constructed by two branches of the German engineering giant, Siemens. Irish engineer Thomas McLaughlin, who trained at University College Dublin, had spent the early 1920s working for Siemens in Pomerania (now part of Poland) and his proposal to use the drop from Lough Derg to the mouth of the Shannon to power a hydro-electric generation station was taken up by the government. This was not without opposition at the time, but the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan, was tenacious in his support of the project and the need to provide not just enough electricity for Dublin, but for the whole country.
Experienced Irish engineer who had worked on the Aswan Dam
The German engineering expertise was augmented by the staff of Shannon Power Development, led by Frank Sharman Rishworth, an experienced Irish engineer who had worked on the Aswan Dam. This small organisation was the seed for the Electricity Supply Board, which was set up in 1927 to run both the power station and the brand new national grid. Its formation as a semi-state body, rather than a government department or private company, was the result of long deliberation about the best way to run the country’s developing infrastructure, and was the first of a series of semi-state bodies such as RTÉ, Aer Lingus and CIE.
The images in the recently published book Powering the Nation reflect the official story of both the buildings themselves and the complex of locks and canals, as well as the unofficial story of workers and visitors. The project involved engineers, architects and skilled construction workers from Germany, as well as thousands of Irish workers who poured concrete, dug canals and helped shift thousands of tons of earth to reshape the Clare countryside.
The ESB public relations department was ahead of its time, not only organising tours from Limerick city centre out to the construction site, but promoting the project through a series of advertisements in newspapers and trade magazines. Headed by Ned Lawler, who had previously worked for the ‘Irish Independent’, the PR department commissioned artwork from Dublin cartoonist Gordon Brewster and organised the site tours from 1928, where almost 38,000 people visited in the first month alone.
The official Siemens photographs were reprinted in newspapers all over Germany and Ireland, as well as on postcards and cigarette cards by TC Carroll, a Limerick stationer – but it was the tours of the construction site that stayed with many visitors as the most impressive spectacle. Indeed, the size and scale of the construction was so great, that a Fox film crew left in despair in 1929, saying that it was unfilmable.
These tours are recorded in many private photo albums from that time, including Limerick local historian Ernest Bennis, whose photographs appear in the new title. Alongside the well-known paintings of Seán Keating, the scheme was also captured in etchings by George Atkinson, the head of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD), and watercolours by the young student Brigid O’Brien (later Brigid Ganly).
Shannon Scheme became accepted as a symbol of the Irish nation
The project demonstrated a delicate balancing act between ideas about national identity and modern technology in Ireland in the 1920s – while the scheme was undoubtedly a technological marvel, it was one that became accepted as a symbol of the Irish nation. The images reflect this in a very visible way, ranging from photographs of machinery to symbolic Celtic charioteers, as artists and photographers tried to work out what a technological Ireland might actually look like, a long time before it really happened.
Within this wide range of images of the Shannon Scheme, the personal photographs of one German digger driver, Otto Rampf, who worked on the scheme from 1928 to 1929, give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a community of ex-patriot workers a long way from home. Working on the scheme was not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination, but the experience has attracted far less attention than the national and political aspects of the scheme.
Most of the existing discussion about the lives of both German and Irish workers centres around the labour issues and strikes that devilled the project throughout most of its construction, with the role played by Joe McGrath, the ex-Labour party minister, in breaking the 1925 strike as Labour adviser to Siemens given a prominent role.
The lack of an existing pool of Irish industrial labourers meant that the local unskilled labourers were perceived to be used to the yearly rhythms and lower intensity of agricultural labour, and there were constant complaints from Siemens about the availability of trained workmen, and large numbers of dismissals, appeals and disputes.
Instead, skilled workers, such as machinery operators, were imported alongside their equipment from Germany, where continuing economic instability and a shortage of work meant that the chance to work on Siemens’ high-profile overseas building project was an attractive proposition. Siemens also preferred to use German workers, where possible, as they were well used to both the strictly regulated culture of industrial work in general, and that of German industrial practice in particular.
Compared to Ireland, German work culture of the time was ‘high trust’
Compared to Ireland, German work culture of the time was ‘high trust’, with employers assuming that workers wanted to acquire sufficient knowledge about their jobs to be self-directed. Combined with the exacting nature of engineering work, this meant that the majority of skilled posts were filled by German staff who partook of this workplace culture and could work with minimal supervision, although the Irish government’s pressing need to provide work for its population meant that there was a continual negotiation about permits and replacements for dismissed workers.
Accommodation for workers was a constant issue – senior Siemens staff and visiting dignitaries stayed in the relatively palatial surroundings of Doonass House, whereas rows of pre-fabricated huts were purpose-built into work camps at Ardnacrusha, Clonlara and at Parteen Weir. A number of timber houses were also built for married German staff, whereas unmarried or lone workers shared concrete and timber huts, divided into 10-bed dormitories.
Siemens were careful to include photographs of the dormitories in their promotional magazine Siemens: Progress on the Shannon in 1927, although these camps fell far short of the volume of accommodation required, however, with thousands of unskilled workers left renting rooms in sheds and, on occasion, pigsties, as the local infrastructure failed to cope with the influx of workers.
The small collection of photographs donated to the ESB archive by the daughter of Otto Rampf depict an inside view of the life of a German worker on the project. Rampf’s photographs focus on three main themes: Rampf’s living situation, his workplace and his machinery. The photographs are marked and annotated to allow his family back in Germany to visualise his everyday life, and several have been made into postcards, although not posted.
A cross marks the window of the room he slept in, he notes excursions and colleagues, adding texture and depth to the Shannon Scheme, personalising it and allowing it to play a background role in the personal narrative of a life, something that the official photographs cannot do.
At least 33 workers were killed during the four years of the construction works
Rampf’s photographs illuminate the daily lives of the German skilled workers, recognising the harshness of the conditions of the canal-digging work, underpinning the historical documents about the conditions of labour in a visceral manner. The dangerous nature of Rampf’s work is underpinned by the note on the back of a photograph of a digger ‘In memory of Hans D.’, implying that this was either the deceased’s machinery or place of death (and possibly both). Michael McCarthy has worked out that at least 33 workers were killed during the four years of the construction works, emphasising the dangerous nature of the construction work in a time before hard hats and high-vis jackets.
Dangerous workplaces make for intense workplace socialisation, particularly if the community of workers is isolated, either by geography or unsocial working hours. This is particularly apparent in Rampf’s photographs of his co-workers in his workplace accommodation. These photographs record the friendships and camaraderie of the overseas worker, cut off from their place of origin and local people by linguistic and cultural barriers.
A pair of photos from early January 1929 record Rampf among a group of men in one of the wooden accommodation huts, raising glasses to the camera under a sign that translates as “We share good times and bad, in memory forever.” This shows the German ex-patriot workers forming their own community of practice, where shared experiences and work commitments forged a group of workers into a community over time, complete with ceremonies to mark special occasions.
The photographs of workers’ lives on the project give a very different view of it to that of the grand national narrative seen in the more official representations of the project. They provide a balance to this bigger national story, where we see what went on behind the scenes of the ‘great work’ of nation-building, to the everyday texture of life on the Shannon Scheme.
Part II of this article will cover the use of technical drawings of the Shannon Scheme as both a way of communicating the unbuilt form of the station and as a tool for planning and construction, particularly for resolving differences within the multinational project team.
Powering the Nation – Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland by Sorcha O’Brien is published by Irish Academic Press. Dr O’Brien is a senior lecturer in design history and theory at Kingston University, London, where she is currently an AHRC Leadership Fellow, working on a project on rural electrification in Ireland and its effects on women and the home. More information about the ESB Archive and the Siemens Historical Institute can be found at their websites.