Let there be light: ESB’s archives shed light on the electrification of Ireland
21 November 2017
Spiral casing of 36000 turbine, May 1929
In the early 1900s, the reality for most Irish people was a life of drudgery with no access to electricity. While electricity had been in place in Ireland since the end of the 19th century, it was provided by small, independent companies and some local authorities that provided limited public lighting and electricity for tram services.
Domestic and industrial chores were physically demanding and it was the responsibility of women and children, particularly in rural Ireland, to also take on farming chores.
Following years of economic and political upheaval, the future looked a little brighter when the Irish Free State was established in 1922. At this time, young Irish engineer Thomas McLaughlin gained employment with the German engineering firm, Siemens Schukert, in Berlin. He began researching the design of power plants in Europe.
McLaughlin firmly believed that electricity was ‘the great key to the economic uplift of the country’ and that electricity ‘must be provided on a national scale, cheap and abundant’. He soon convinced his colleagues in Siemens to look at the possibility of using Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, to generate electricity.
This was not a new idea. The proposal to harness the River Shannon was initially suggested as far back as 1844 by the Irish chemist, Sir Robert Kane.
A number of further proposed alternative schemes had been considered, but none had been implemented due to political and economic considerations.
An insight into McLaughlin’s vision and determination to bring the project to full fruition is reflected in an interview broadcast on Radio Éireann on 10 January 1931.
McLaughlin declared: “No sincere student could have lived through that whole period of intense national enthusiasm without feeling a passionate desire to do all in his power to assist in national reconstruction, and in the building up of the country by development from within.”
McLaughlin returned to Ireland in December 1923. A few days after Christmas, he informally met the new Irish Government, many of whom were his college friends, and presented Siemens’ plans to harness the River Shannon and build one of the largest engineering projects in Europe at that time.
The young Government members, while they liked the plans, were not 100% convinced, so they hired an international team of experts to review the proposal. The plans as set out were approved by the experts with some modifications, adopted into a Government White Paper and a formal contract was signed with Siemens.
Shannon Scheme at Ardnacrusha
The Shannon Scheme was approved and construction began in Ardnacrusha, Co Clare in August 1925. The state invested £5.2 million, which was 20% of the national budget, so no pressure at all on young Thomas! At a time of huge unemployment, the scheme provided jobs for 5,000 workers. It was an impressive collaboration and sharing of expertise between German and Irish engineers.
The logistics were spectacular. A temporary power station was needed to power the various workshops and an electric crane. Four bridges and nine rivers were constructed and many streams were diverted. Siemens also installed 100 kilometres of narrow gauge railway, with some 100 locomotives and 3,000 wagons to move the massive amounts of clay and rock that were excavated. A transmission and distribution network was also needed to bring the electricity to all the major cities and towns in Ireland.
Patrick McGilligan, the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, considered various options on how best to manage the Shannon Scheme. These included setting up a new Government department to oversee the activity, allowing a private enterprise in Ireland to take over responsibility, or putting a large foreign undertaking in charge.
McLaughlin urged the Government to consent to his view that such rapid development could only be achieved through unified control of production and distribution. This provided the impetus for the legislation in 1927 that created the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), the first semi-state body in Ireland. McLaughlin was the natural choice to become ESB’s first managing director.
While construction was in progress, McLaughlin also found time to visit the United States and began benchmarking against similar hydroelectric projects. He quickly came to the conclusion that he needed to advertise to ensure that customers would buy into this new commodity. He headhunted a Dublin journalist, Ned Lawlor, to become public relations officer, believed to be the first appointment of its kind in Europe.
Long before social media, television and commercial radio, the primary avenue to ensure ESB’s message was conveyed throughout Ireland was through national and local newspapers. ESB launched a national advertising campaign on 1 September 1928. Advertising messages were direct, particularly with regard to allaying the fears of the unknown. The headline ‘A child can do it’ (see right) was used to reassure readers that electricity was simple and safe.
The Shannon Scheme was opened by President of the Executive Council W.T.Cosgrove on 22 July 1929. It was the first fully integrated (generation, transmission, distribution, marketing and sales) national electricity system in the world.
On 21 October 1929, the power generated from the mighty Shannon began to be exported to ESB’s newly built distribution network, connecting the cities, towns and many large villages to the national grid. Within five months, over 40,000 homes and businesses were connected.
Priority was given to towns that had no previous electric power from private undertakings. Towns that had electricity before the Shannon Scheme normally took longer to be connected to the grid, as they often required a re-engineering of their local network and installations. Approximately 160 local private undertakings also had to be acquired by ESB. Over time, the small local stations were decommissioned as the local network became connected to the grid.
Rural Electrification Scheme
While the Shannon Scheme was completed and towns and cities were electrified, two thirds of the country – some 400,000 mostly rural homes – was still without electricity. McLaughlin firmly believed that rural electrification represented “the application of modern science and engineering to raise the standard of rural living and to get to the root of the social evil of the ‘flight from the land'”.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, ESB and the Government began working on broad plans for rural electrification, and the State agreed to subsidise its rollout. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 delayed the process and work could not commence until the end of the ‘Emergency’. In Kilsallaghan, Co Dublin, the first pole of the Rural Electrification Scheme was raised on 5 November 1946.
Every county was divided into rural areas of about 25-30 sq miles (typically based on parish boundaries). Initially, one area in each county was chosen for connection. A Rural Electrification Office was established to canvass householders in the area to sign up for electricity supply.
Some rural dwellers were enthusiastic, but many more were sceptical or fearful. The active support of organisations such as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, farming groups and the local clergy was crucial in securing sufficient numbers signing up to make each area viable for ESB to commence the labour-intensive rollout.
As each area was canvassed, the line crews moved in – surveying and pegging out the routes for the main lines, erecting poles, stringing cables and installing transformers. At the same time, people were required to have their houses, farms and shops wired. As the project developed and those in newly connected areas spread the news about the changes that electricity brought, resistance to ‘getting in the electric’ gradually receded. The demand for connections grew, reaching a peak in the mid-1950s.
In 1957, ESB set about extending supply to the islands of Arranmore, Co. Donegal, and Valentia and Bere Islands off the coast of Kerry and West Cork respectively. The overhead networks on the islands were constructed to a high strength specification to provide a reliable electricity supply to islanders in circumstances of continuous exposure to severe Atlantic gales and salt-spray contamination.
By the end of the first phase of the Rural Electrification Scheme in 1965, over 300,000 homes were connected using over one million poles mainly imported from Finland. By 1978, some 99% of Irish homes were connected to the grid.
The Shannon Scheme is perhaps the most significant industrial project ever completed in the independent Irish State. To this day, the legacy of this mammoth undertaking continues to supply the same 86MW of clean energy as in 1929, making a lasting contribution to the industrial, commercial and social development of the country.
Both the Shannon and Rural Electrification Schemes provide inspiration as ESB embrace the energy challenges of the coming decades, seeking to create a brighter future in leading Ireland’s transition towards a low-carbon society. For further information, visit www.esbarchives.ie.
Deirdre McParland was appointed senior archivist for ESB Archives in October 2015. She has published papers in the Archives and Records Association, Irish Archives Journal, Irish Roots and Irish Central and is a regular guest speaker at national and international conferences and seminars. McParland has also collaborated and curated on several exhibitions including Little Museum of Dublin, St Patrick’s Festival and most recently with University of Hertfordshire.
The data in this article is compiled from company records and ESB Archives would love to hear from people who have further photos, facts or stories of electricity in their locality. For further information, visit esbarchives.ie; email firstname.lastname@example.org, follow @ESBArchives or phone + 353 1 6042146.https://www.engineersjournal.ie/2017/11/21/shannon-scheme-esb-archives-electrification-ireland/https://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Spiral-casing-of-36000-turbine-May-1929-1024x774.pnghttps://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Spiral-casing-of-36000-turbine-May-1929-300x300.pngElecelectricity,ESB,heritage