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From open hearth to fitted kitchen

County View

County View
John Healy

If the Museum of Country Life is one of the crowns of the county, then the current exhibition, ‘Kitchen Power: women’s experience of rural electrification’ is one of the jewels in that crown.
Opened recently by former President, Mary Robinson, the exhibition is centred on the ESB rural electrification programme, which ran from 1946 to 1964 and transformed the standard of living in rural Ireland. But greatest of all was the impact it had on domestic life, and it is a journey through time to view again the appliances and inventions which today are commonplace but which back then were almost the stuff of science fiction.
The ESB was more than just the generator and provider of electricity across the nation, successful as it was in that role. It was the promoter of a new way of life, an agent for social change, an entity which would turn on its head the way we lived, and which closed the gap between rural Ireland and its urban cousins. As the exhibition remind us, it played a significant part in changing the lot of rural women, and in bringing to an end the unremitting drudgery of unending domestic chores in the days before the coming of ‘the light’. In its own way, the rural electrification scheme helped reduce the flow of emigration among young women who began to discover that the transition from hearth to fitted kitchen would change forever the role of the rural housewife.
We live in an era where every mod con is taken for granted, where toil and laborious hard work are long since eliminated, where subsistence living is a distant memory. The modern generation of children would find it hard to envisage a time when the advent of hot and cold water, an electric kettle, irons, fridges, vacuum cleaners and washing machines were the height of luxury. And all of which is a good reason why a visit to ‘Kitchen Power’ might be a timely reminder of how far we have come in the course of 50 years.
A fascinating aspect of the exhibition is how the ESB went about its business of being an electrical retailer, and of how it promoted its range of appliances to a population which was at times suspicious of these new fangled inventions. With the priceless support of the Irish Countrywomens’ Association, the ESB embarked on a range of promotional strategies to introduce the benefits of electricity, from model kitchens and mobile van displays to in home visit demonstrations and large scale, week-long exhibitions in regional centres, all of which are fully replicated at the Turlough exhibition.
Curated by Dr Sorcha O’Brien of Kingston University and Noel Campbell of the Turlough Museum staff, the exhibition is a must-see both for the generation which lived the experience, and for the generation which will find it hard to believe what things were like back then.
An interesting side story of the exhibition is that, on the formation of the ESB in 1927, Mayo had ten local electricity suppliers. These were providers who had permits to supply electricity to three or more houses or premises. They varied greatly in size and reach, from Joseph Murphy in Ballina (3), B T Lynch, Ballyhaunis (4) and John Conway, Ballyhaunis (6), to McIntyres of Belmullet (11), Michael Snee, Kilkelly (20), Griffiths of Ballindine (25), and P P Condon of Achonry, who supplied 98 premises in Charlestown.
By far the largest were Swinford Board of Health (118 connections), Josie Bourke in Castlebar (173) and the Ballinrobe Electrical and Woollen Company, which had 278 subscribers when it was finally subsumed into the ESB in 1948.