And then there was light: Electrification in rural Ireland

A town promotes the rural electrification drive.

By John Joe McGinley

Daily life in rural Ireland before the onset of electrification was best described as a constant struggle just to complete the mundane tasks that we all take for granted today.

Farm work had to be done by hand and in daylight. Any water required had to be drawn from a well. Most homes cooked every meal on an open fire and food could not be refrigerated. Clothes had to be washed by hand and the washing and toilet facilities were primitive to say the least.

The Early days of electricity in Ireland

Thomas Edison produced the first reliable and commercially usable electric light bulb in 1879 and the history of electricity in Ireland began soon after in 1880, when the first public electric light was installed at Princes Street in Dublin at the Freeman’s Journal offices.

In the same year, the Dublin electrical service vendors and the municipal council created the  Dublin electric light company to provide public street lighting. By 1882, the Dublin Electric Light Company operated three coal-fired generation stations in the city at Fade Street, Schoolhouse Lane and Liffey Street. (1)

The first public electric lighting was installed in Dublin in the 1880s.

In 1884, there was a proposal that the lower Shannon area should become the industrial hub of Ireland. The River Shannon had long been the focus of various plans to bring electricity to Ireland. Early iterations of the project were deemed unfeasible and were delayed by political unrest in Ireland and by the outbreak of World War one.

Dublin Corporation constructed a coal-fired power station at the Pigeon House in Ringsend in 1904 using imported coal as fuel.

A bright vision for the future

The hydroelectric dam at Shannon, completed in 1929.

In 1923, a young engineer from Drogheda called Thomas McLaughlin returned to Ireland after a period working abroad with Siemens in Berlin and studying hydroelectric schemes throughout Europe. With this knowledge, he proposed damming the River Shannon and building an electric power station at Ardnacrusha in County Clare to bring power to towns and cities all around Ireland.

During his time in Germany, McLaughlin concluded that peat or coal were not viable solutions to Ireland’s future energy needs, and together with his colleagues in Siemens, he suggested that hydro-electric power was a more realistic option for utilising the native resources available in the fledgling Irish Free State. (2)

In 1925, in collaboration with the Siemens company and Patrick McGilligan TD, the minister for Industry and Commerce, McLaughlin succeeded in getting a ‘White Paper’ on the scheme accepted by the Irish government.  A budget of £5.1 million was allocated to the ambitious project – 20% of Ireland’s national revenue for that time.

The hydroelectric station at Shannon was a prestige project for the new Irish state and was built in partnership with German company Siemens

A bill labelled the “Shannon Water and Electricity Power Act”, that proposed the diversion of water from the Shannon to a canal in Doonas was passed in 1925 and work began on the Shannon Scheme in August of that year.

Siemens was handed the contract and the project involved work at two major locations in County Clare, at a generating station at Ardnacrusha and a weir at Parteen. During construction, 4,000 Irish and 1,000 Germans worked and lived on-site.

An overarching body was required to take electricity forward in Ireland. This was because the Irish electricity service was totally fragmented with more than 300 different suppliers concerned with generating and supplying electricity in different parts of the country, including 16 local authorities and five major private companies.

While several options for the management of the new Shannon Scheme were considered, McLaughlin, passionately believed that rapid progress could only be achieved through unified control of production and distribution. This approach provided the impetus for the passing of the Electricity Supply Act in 1927, which created the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), the first semi-state body in Ireland, and with McLaughlin as its first Managing Director. (3)

Shannon comes online.

In July 1929, the Shannon scheme was completed and officially opened by Premier W T Cosgrove. It was generating electricity in October of the same year.  By 1935 it was producing 80 per cent of Ireland’s electricity.

The scale of the project and the vision of its sponsors should not be underestimated and at the time, it was the largest hydroelectric station in the world, though this was soon superseded by the Hoover Dam, which commenced construction in 1930.

The Financial times was also impressed with the completed project saying:

“They have thrown on their shoulders the not easy task of breaking what is in reality an enormous inferiority complex and the Shannon Scheme is one – and probably the most vital – of their methods of doing it” (4)

Electricity from the Shannon Scheme was supplied to roughly 240,000 premises in towns and cities only, leaving over 400,000 rural dwellings without power.

Electricity from the Shannon Scheme was supplied to 240,000 homes in urban areas by the 1930s, but left over 400,000 rural dwellings without power.

New hydroelectric plants were commissioned, and peat was considered as an alternative fuel source for electricity generation in parallel with the goal of rural electrification policies. However, the financial resources were not available to extend electricity to rural Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s.

As the 30s drew to an end, the  ESB and The Irish government began working on broad plans for rural electrification, and the state agreed to subsidise its roll out. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 delayed the process.

With coal rationed, peat was promoted as a viable alternative; one that included the benefits of being indigenous, widely available and, from a socio-economic point of view, advantageous to rural Ireland.

The case for Rural electrification

Work did not start on rural electrification until the end of the Second World War or as it was called in Ireland the ‘Emergency’.

It was not until the Rural Electrification Scheme (1946) and the Electricity Supply Amendment Act (1955) were passed that the electricity network started to reach the most rural and isolated communities in the country.

Dr Thomas McLaughlin,  the driving force behind the Shannon project and now the Managing Director of the ESB 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”.(5)

It was hoped that electrification would ‘raise the standard of rural living and get to the root of the social evil of the “flight from the land”.

The task that faced the ESB was herculean, a suitable modern-day comparison would be the challenge the state has in installing rural broadband. Thankfully in the ESB the state had an organisation with men and women up to the task.

The State was divided into 792 areas – roughly along parish boundaries. This was a clever strategy as the ESB recruited at least one local influencer in each area who could encourage their friends and neighbours to sign up to get connected to the new network.

Rural electrification began in earnest when the first pole in phase one was raised on November 5th, 1946, at Kilsallaghan, in north Co Dublin. The first lights of the scheme were switched on at Oldtown, Co Dublin, in January 1947. (6)

Promoting Electricity to Rural Ireland

One of the most potent propaganda tools in rural Ireland at the time was the parish priest in the pulpit. Throughout rural Ireland the ESB worked with the local clergy, who were then used to extoll the virtues of the new technology and the benefits of electrification.

Although it would never be economically viable to connect some sparsely populated areas the strategy was simple, the more people who wanted a connection the sooner their area would be visited and worked upon.

The approach in every district was the same. The ESB asked householders if they wanted to sign up for electricity, then held local information meetings.

In the first long phase of electrification, which ran from 1946 to 1965, it was sometimes your hard luck if you wanted to be connected but your nearest neighbours did not.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, householders signed up voluntarily to be connected to electricity. Not all wanted, or could afford to.

This was because the ESB deemed it uneconomic to run lines to just one house. The areas with the highest take-up were first to be connected.

Although some people did not want change, and others worried about whether the wires might set their thatch roofs on fire, most people who refused connection did so for financial reasons.

That “uneconomic acceptance” was a category on the forms which showed how widespread rural poverty was. The scheme was heavily subsidised, but, depending on the size of the premises, householders had to pay a connection fee, along with future bills, and to wire their homes before they were connected.

The people who first agreed to sign up but then changed their minds were called ‘backsliders’.

In May 1954, in Ballivor, Co Meath, 290 people said they wanted electricity. Nineteen changed their minds, for reasons that are stark examples of poverty in 1950s rural Ireland such as:

“No funds. House semi-derelict.” “Refused supply due to lack of funds.” “Has large family and could not pay fixed charge.” “Both labourers out of work.” “Recently widowed. No funds.” (7)

Throughout the length and breadth of Ireland politicians of all political shades lobbied the ESB for their area to be electrified. It wasn’t just politicians who tried to exert their influence

In July 1957, the parish priest of Ballycroy county Mayo wrote to the Rural Electrification Office. He said that his parishioners were anxious and that they believed he could influence decisions at the Dublin head office. “Sometimes people get an idea that the PP isn’t taking any interest in these matters. I need not add that I have a very deep interest in the light coming to Ballycroy.” (8)

Sadly, his appeal fell on deaf ears, due to economics and it wasn’t until April 1964 before electricity at last came to the parish.

A Herculean effort

Workmen ‘electrify’ a rural village.

The Rural Electric Scheme was a massive project, the work would require over 1 million poles erected with 78,754km of wire used. It would eventually cost £36m equivalent to €1.5bn today.

The first phase of the scheme ended in 1965 and by then, over 300,000 homes were connected.

Post-development plans and extensions ran until 1978 when Blackvalley, Co Kerry received electricity. By 1975, 99% of Irish homes were connected to the same electricity grid.

The Rural Electrification Scheme employed up to 40 separate units of 50-100 workers, spread across 26,000 square miles. Many of these units were stationed in remote localities, and daily face-to-face communication was impossible. (9)

By 1975, 99% of Irish homes were connected to the same electricity grid.

Such a widely dispersed workforce presented the Rural Electrification Office (REO) with a challenge – how could it ensure fast and efficient communication among its staff?

The solution was suggested by the chief engineer in charge of the project William Roe who quickly recognised the vital importance of good communication across the nation to ensure the success of the scheme. He told the ESB:

“If a high standard of performance was to be achieved, the staff needed not alone to be well briefed and motivated from the start, but to be constantly refreshed with information on the progress of the scheme, advised of developments in all aspects of the work, sustained when difficulties arose and motivated to give of their best at all times” (10)

Roes’ solution was simple but innovative for the time he created a magazine for employees called REO news.

In December 1947, the first edition informed all those working on the scheme that:

“In order to keep the rural staff informed of the progress of the rural Electrification scheme it is intended to issue REO news monthly”. (11)

It covered a variety of topics, including personnel and transfers of staff; the delivery and distribution of materials; sales figures and league tables; area notes; engineer and progress reports; news items and articles of interest; as well as sports and social pages, letters to the editor, and photographs.

A focus on progress, staff league tables and sales figures all succeeded in instilling a sense of rivalry among the workers, inspiring them towards greater effort.

There were 168 issues of REO News published between December 1947 and November 1961, growing from 3 to over 20 pages. In 1953, the magazine was given a glossy cover, and included a number of black and white photographs, and by 1959, REO News was published in a fully printed format. From 1948, REO News also printed a special December issue. (11)

 Life after the switch on

Once a community was connected, or about to be connected, the ESB held public demonstrations of household appliances. These were then sold bringing electric irons, kettles, stoves to homes.

The demonstration evening in Glenamaddy was held in January 1951. The handwritten report records that it took place “in the very fine Esker Ballroom”; these events were social occasions that brought communities together. The Glenamaddy evening “was attended by about 90, including 50 women. As is usual, the women appeared to be more keen than the men and more inclined to ask questions (and to argue). After the demonstration, a melodeon player turned up and an impromptu dance got under way.” (12)

Some argued that the rural electrification process, rather than diluting the native Gaelic Irish culture, actually played an important part in saving the Irish language.

When electricity came to rural Ireland the lives of many were transformed life changed suddenly, from having to go to the shop to buy paraffin to being able to turn on the light at the flick of a switch.

Small towns and rural townlands became brighter and winters less harsh and Christmas more special as the fairy lights began to shine. It also gave rise to a rural Irish icon as every house had the Sacred Heart picture with the red lamp, many didn’t get a kettle and washing machine until later on.

While it may have made life easier it also had a deep cultural impact on rural Ireland.

The roll out of electricity allowed the growth of mass communication mediums such as cinema, radio and eventually television. These had massive influence spreading cultural norms from abroad especially America and the United Kingdom.

Despite the power of Catholic church, these influences began to change rural Ireland as young people began to absorb the new cultural messages and trends and took advantage of the new opportunities offered by the new technology.

However cultural historians have also argued that the rural electrification process rather than diluting the native Gaelic Irish culture actually played an important part in saving the Irish language.

“It must not be forgotten that native culture used the new media to diffuse itself too. Gaelic sports, Irish music and even the Irish language gained a second life. Arguably the Irish language may well have become virtually dead but for its adaptation in radio, the newsreel, television and now through information technology”. (13)

When you consider the scale of the project that the ESB undertook with rural electrification and the changes it made to so many lives, the people of Ireland owe a debt of gratitude to the visionaries like Thomas McLaughlin and the many men who raised the million poles that finally brought power to the homes and farms of rural Ireland.


1.      Ireland

2.      ESB Archives 2016

3.      ESB Archives 2016

4.      Financial Times July 1927

5.      ESB Archives 2016

6.      ESB Archives 2016

7.      Irish Times 29th October 2016

8.      Irish Times 29th October 2016

9.      ESB Archives 2016

10.  ESB Archives 2016

11.  ESB Archives 2016

12.  ESB Archives 2016

13.  Then there was light Ballpark press

14.   Dr Séamas Mac Philib






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