The Electricity Supply Board was the first semi-state body in Ireland and was set up in 1927. Prior to that there was only a very limited supply of electricity available primarily in urban areas so that only about 1% of the Irish population had access to electricity. This made life very difficult for people and there was much hardship in carrying out everyday chores.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
It was a young NUIG PhD engineering graduate, Thomas McLoughlin, who was working in Berlin with Siemens who realised the importance of electricity for economic growth.
He convinced Siemens to look at the possibility of using the Shannon river to generate electricity and to build Ireland’s first national hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha, Co Clare.
In 1923 he met up with members of the young Irish government to present this proposal and to share his and Siemens plan with them. Although enthusiastic, the government decided to hire a group of international experts to review the plan.
The final plan was accepted and a contract was signed. In August 1925 work on the Ardnacrusha project began.
The State invested a massive 5.2 million pounds in the project which was 20% of the national budget at that time. The project was a huge success in this mainly agricultural country and employed around 4,000 labourers and 1000 Irish and German engineers. The logistics were huge and we are fortunate that the ESB has archived the history of the project including the 39 progress reports prepared by Siemens that outline all aspects of this incredible undertaking.
Workers were accommodated in specially built camps and wooden houses and many Germans brought their families to live here. A German teacher was recruited to teach their children. Facilities for sports and recreation were provided including hurling, gaelic football and soccer and a Mass was celebrated every Sunday in camp, to provide for the spiritual needs of the workers.
FORMATION OF ESB
In August 1927 when the ESB semi-state body was formally established, Thomas McLoughlin was appointed as its first Managing Director. McLoughlin checked out similar schemes in the United States and quickly became aware of the need to advertise and educate people and future customers about this new commodity that was due to come on stream in 1929. He appointed the first public relations officer who set about advertising in the local newspapers, one of the few means of communication at the time!
Buses were used to bring tourists and people to the Ardnacrusha site of this exciting new scheme. There was massive interest in the project and in the first nine months of operation 85,000 people had visited the ESB site in Ardnacrusha.
In the initial stages there was a great fear of electricity, hence the huge information and educational support that needed to be provided. The language used in the advertisements was primarily geared at the safety and the simplicity of use of electricity.
The Shannon scheme was officially opened by W T Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, in July 1929 with the usual dignitaries including the Bishop of Killaloe, members of the government and representatives of those involved in the project attending. The power generated from the Shannon project was transported to the newly built distribution networks throughout the country and within five months of the launch, over 40,000 homes and businesses were connected. Towns and cities were the first to be connected leaving two-thirds of the country, mostly rural areas, still without electricity.
In 1946 the ESB embarked on the Rural Electrification Scheme which was described as the greatest social revolution in Ireland since the land reform in the 1880s and 1890s. Raw materials were scarce and the ESB imported over one million poles from Finland. Workers then travelled right across the country setting the poles in place, doing much of the work by hand.
Ireland was divided into 792 rural areas for the Rural Electrification Scheme, similar to the parish boundaries we have today. In preparation for the work required, the ESB apprenticeship scheme began in 1939. Officials moved into an area to assess the local interest in getting connected, discuss the benefits and to provide information about the wiring required and measure up the houses. Then houses would either accept or refuse to proceed with the work. When an area was completed, there was a switch-on event for the area, and this was an important celebration receiving huge coverage in the local and national newspapers.
The ESB then worked with local farming and community groups to promote the use of electricity and its benefits. Free cooking demonstrations were held in parishes to show the benefits of electricity and to promote the sale of appliances. Initially some houses had only one plug in the house, a far cry from the situation today.
The Scheme ended in 1978 and by that time over 300,000 homes were connected throughout rural Ireland and in 1979 the ESB celebrated its having one million customers. There is no doubt that the Rural Electrification scheme transformed the entire country.
WOODFORD AREA SCHEME
It was 1952 before Abbey was earmarked for electricity and included in the Rural Electrification Scheme as part of the Woodford Area Scheme.
This scheme started in May 1952 and ended in September 1953. The scheme connected 344 premises, 1380 poles were used and 118 km of line was laid.
Many local people remember the arrival of ESB to Abbey and the excitement it generated. The workers stayed in the local area and Dolans of Ballygowan was one of the houses that accommodated many of the ESB engineers and workers. Not every family in the village and surrounding area signed up initially but those who did were loud in their praise of the benefits of this wonderful labour-saving investment. One of our local senior citizens, Tommie Goonan, remembers the events of the time. He could tell us that the local men involved in wiring the houses were Seán Morrissey, Jay Kelly, Vincent Conroy and Laurence Dwyer and surprisingly he knew the date that Abbey was actually connected to the electricity supply system – “Switch-on took place on a Friday evening, 10th April 1953, and was a cause of great excitement!” What a memory!
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY
This was not the motto of the ESB! The District Office workers integrated well with the local people and got involved in sporting and other activities. As Abbey/Woodford was primarily a hurling area, football was a novelty and was promoted by some of the Tuam and north Galway arrivals. One name from that time, Colm Stapleton, is remembered as a great footballer who was keen to share his skills and to introduce the local men to football! Very interesting articles from the archives show the rivalry between the visiting ESB District Office footballers and the less experienced local players. You can read accounts of the matches between Woodford Rural Area v District Office in the next article! Tommy Abberton’s field in Abbey was the location for one of these matches and is remembered in particular, as it was the only occasion that a football match was held in Abbey – date 21st June 1953!
A report written for the ESB at the time highlighting the benefits of the scheme to the area included this summary:
“The increase in the utilisation of electrical appliances and the prosperity that electricity brings was well demonstrated in Woodford town. In the few months following switch-in a Hairdressing Saloon for ladies, and a garage started up. The Cinema and Church installed heaters – possibly increased attendances – the Dancehall became an Electrical Showpiece. The streets were lit and darkness and misery transformed into brightness and safety. The last remaining thatched cottage in the main street vanished and was replaced by a fine two-storey slated building. In short, the town stepped forward about three decades.” (Courtesy: ESB archives)
Editor’s Note: Abbey Heritage is indebted to Tanya Keyes, Senior Archivist of Engineering and Major Projects with the ESB for her help in providing all the photographs used in this article.