The gentle revolution

Notes from the Western Periphery

DRAWING A CROWD Connecting houses in Dromiskin, Co Louth, in 1949 – a scene that was replicated throught rural Ireland. Connecting houses in Dromiskin, Co Louth, in 1949 – a scene that was replicated throught rural Ireland.

Rural electrification re-visited

John Bradley

We live in a world of instant global communication, so it’s difficult to believe that there was a time when communication was by word of mouth or by post. A world where running a household involved endless, backbreaking chores. Where small farmers had no electro-mechanical aids to ease the burden of work or increase productivity. Yet that was the world of rural Ireland before 1946 when the process of rural electrification started. This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of an action that changed everything.
Electricity had arrived in urban Ireland in the latter years of the 19th century. The Dublin Electric Light Company was established in 1880. In 1889, Carlow was the first provincial town to have public electric lighting. By 1925, there were 161 separate electricity undertakings in the State when, at the urging of a young Irish engineer Dr Thomas McLaughlin, the Government signed the contract for the construction of the Shannon (Ardnacrusha) Scheme.
In today’s prices, the cost was about €3 billion. The ambition of the project and the establishment of a semi-state body, the ESB, to run it on a national basis, raised howls of protest and ridicule. It was described as ‘the first fruits of Bolshevism’ by one newspaper. The British media, furious that the contract was awarded to a German firm (Siemens Schuckert), poured scorn on the pretensions of the Irish.

Rural reluctance
By 1946 there were about 250,000 urban electricity consumers, mostly in eastern and southern regions. However, almost 400,000 isolated rural dwellings and farms were excluded, since the capital costs of extending the distribution network to embrace them were deemed to be too high and the potential revenue from electricity usage too low.
It would be easy to portray the delay in rural electrification as neglect by an uncaring, urban-centred government. But the truth is very different.
A crucial aspect of rural electrification, when it was eventually rolled out after 1946, was the task of persuading an adequate number of households in each rural parish to sign up for the service and to pay a regular, modest, ‘fixed’ charge as well as a ‘usage’ charge that – with large State capital grants and some cross-subsidisation from urban consumers – would ensure the continued financial viability of the ESB.
As recounted by Michael Shiel in his book ‘The Quiet Revolution: The Electrification of Rural Ireland 1946-1976’ (The O’Brien Press, 1984): “It was the knocking on the farmer’s door by the rural electrification canvasser that first sounded the knell of those old, entrenched, conservative and cautious attitudes, which had kept so many small farmers in the subsistence bracket, their wives condemned to a life of drudgery and so many of their children fated to take passage on the emigrant ship.”
In today’s enlightened times we can look back with amusement at some of the efforts made to justify the huge capital expenditure. For example, Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass, said in the Senate in March 1945:
“I hope to see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer she will enquire not so much about the number of cows but rather concerning the electrical appliances she will require before she gives her consent.”
In its time, this was advanced thinking. As Shiel writes: “Not all husbands could see a necessity to ease the traditional drudgery of the farm housewife.”

Impressive rollout
Policymakers were well aware that supplying electricity to rural areas in Europe and North America had transformed attitudes, living standards and productivity. In those heavily industrialised countries the proportion of rural dwellers was small and the urban consumers could easily cross-subsidise them. But Ireland was a specially challenging case that required serious state funding and a tariff that would permit many small, subsistence farms to sign up to a first step on the path to modernisation.
The State’s commitment to finance rural electrification and the efficiency and dedication with which it was executed by the ESB is massively impressive, particularly in light of the troubled start of the new state in 1922, the devastating consequences of the economic war with Britain, the global depression of 1929, the constraints imposed during the Second World War, and the post-war surge in inflation.
In its immediate aftermath, it became clear that the early benefits of rural electrification were more social than economic. Electricity improved the quality of life in rural areas, but population continued to decline between 1946 and 1961, by 15 percent in Connacht, by 17 percent in Mayo. While it was just about financially feasible to electrify rural areas, this was not enough by itself to level the regional development playing field. Rural towns of the northwest remained small and population remained scattered.
The absence of an integrated regional development strategy to take up where rural electrification left off meant that the regional development challenge was never tackled in any focused or effective way.
Cities and towns on the east, south and south-west coasts, which had benefitted from early electrification, grew steadily, while those in the western and northwestern region declined in relative terms. The dispersed settlement pattern that had originated during the Plantations and the Penal Laws of the 18th century, constrained development and continues to cast a long shadow today. But what a great beginning that Ardnacrusha contract was!

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.