FIFTY years on from the completion of the massive project to bring the benefits of electricity to rural Ireland, it is hard for us to grasp the drudgery of life in the countryside before the advent of the Rural Electrification Scheme. Over 20 years, 15,000 Mayo premises were connected for electricity, starting with Murrisk in 1947 and finishing with Ballycroy in 1974.
It was a massive operation, nor was it as if the ESB was dealing with a captive market or that the new service was being welcomed with open arms by a population deprived of what people in the towns had enjoyed for many years. Quite the contrary. In many rural areas, there was an inbuilt suspicion of ‘the electric’; scare stories of the damage which this new fangled invention could inflict on home and farm were widespread. Little wonder then that the ESB personnel had first of all to persuade dubious customers to sign up in advance before the lorry loads of poles trundled across remote areas to bring supply to a generation whose lives would be changed forever. And little wonder that the archived ESB reports for each area reflect the frustration of the engineers at the number of ‘backsliders’ - those who had initially agreed to take the service only to change their minds when the work was ready to start.
This pre-promotional work to tie down consumers was almost as challenging as the work itself. The ESB adopted the wise tactic of first winning the support of community leaders - councillors, merchants, progressive farmers and, most of all, the Parish Priest, in selling the message.
The written reports from senior staff on the ground as each area was completed in Mayo makes for interesting reading. Some are concise and factual, others are stylish and wide ranging, giving an overview of the social and economic conditions in the particular locality, but all reflect the efficiency and dedication of an ESB staff which took enormous pride in what they had achieved.
The report from Achill, for example, completed in 1963, records that 767 premises were connected, despite the fact that ‘77 completely recalcitrant backsliders were encountered’. Special pride is taken in the report of how the difficulties in making the crossing at Achill Sound were dealt with, before the writer goes on to muse on the origins of the Achill habitation. He speculates that most of the families - Sweeneys, Gallaghers, McNultys and McFaddens - had arrived by the sea route from the north at the time of the Ulster Plantation.
Unusually, too, the report singles out a particular consumer for special mention - Martin Gallagher, who had the foresight to instal a soil warming unit in his glasshouse for tomato production.
The Mulrany report comments critically on the large number of backsliders in the Currane area who reneged on their commitments, but there was high praise for the progressive attitude of customers in the Belcarra area. Here, in addition to the usual sale of appliances such as electric kettles and irons, one new customer invested in an all-electric laundry, a dishwasher, and a large refrigerator.
In the Parke area, north of Castlebar, the switch-on was held on a Sunday morning to meet the wishes of the Parish Priest, Fr Hennelly, who made a film of the event assisted by members of Castlebar Camera Club. The completed film was then sent to America by Fr Hennelly, to play its part in an appeal for funds for a new church.
And in Hollymount, the supply was switched on by Rev Fr King, PP, where the ceremony concluded with the recital of a decade of the Rosary.
Changed times, indeed.