POLE TO POLE Electricity poles being erected during the Rural Electrification Scheme. Pic: www.ESBarchives.ie
Here we go again. Soon we’ll be busy threading fairy lights through the branches of trees, over doors and around windows, our televisions will beam familiar films into warm sitting rooms, stereos will pump out seasonal tunes and we’ll gear up once more for the monumental cooking fest that will see stoves, ovens, fridges, freezers, blenders, whisks and dishwashers on overdrive. It’s the usual crazy, comforting cacophony of Christmas.
Seventy years ago, Nollaig in rural Ireland was a much quieter affair. Sure, fires were lit, songs were sung, meals were cooked and dishes were washed – but not at the flick of a switch. However, that was all about to change, and not just for Christmas.
On November 5, 1946, the first of more than 1 million poles was hauled into place in a field in Killsalaghan, to the north of Dublin Airport. De Valera had promised to bring electricity down every highroad and byroad of the fledgling independent nation, and this was the beginning. The Rural Electrification Scheme would soon be in full swing, and in its well-lit wake would follow the most monumental social change that Ireland was yet to witness.
The task that lay ahead of the Electricity Supply Board was mammoth, the biggest project in the history of the State. It took several decades and 75,000 miles of cable to complete. Logistical challenges included shipping the wooden poles from Finland and offloading them in often tiny ports around the coastline, less-than-accurate maps of routes along which poles should be staked 18 metres apart and in as a straight line as possible, and training an able-bodied mobile army of workers to build the supply network as it moved through village and remote outpost.
In Mayo, work began in 1947 in Murrisk, finally finishing in Ballycroy in 1964. By then, a total of 55,669 poles and 4,826 kilometres of cable connected 14,624 of the county’s premises.
The arrival of electricity was broadly welcomed, not least by the young women of Ireland, who found the male ranks of their local dances temporarily swollen with fine young ESB workers. However, the illumination of Ireland was not necessarily greeted with open arms by all, with fears ranging from ESB poles disturbing the faeries to people being burned alive in their beds or dying from drinking ‘electrified water’.
The fascinating story of the roll-out of electricity throughout the land has now been captured in a poignant book of memories gathered from eyewitnesses, ESB employees and the general public: ‘Then There Was Light – Stories behind the installation of Ireland’s Rural Electrification Scheme’, co-edited by PJ Cunningham and Dr Joe Kearney.
The stories of six Mayo people feature prominently. Rhoda Twombly offers a lyrical description of the arrival of electricity in Inishlyre – but only at the turn of the century. She may like the modernity that it has brought, but she still has plenty of grá for a power cut.
Vincent Fahy, an ESB engineer and official from the early ’50s, fondly recalls returning to his native Mayo to oversee work on various areas from Crossmolina to Belmullet through Bangor Erris.
The stories of Mayo-born Mark McGaugh, now living in Surrey, England, and Anna Jacob Tolan help recreate the awe-inspiring promise of light and power, while Hollymount’s Joe Keane’s contribution has a sense of scene-setting and mischief in equal measure.
Clogher-based Seán Hallinan’s story, ‘Solus Ar Bharr Bata’, beautifully interweaves ‘the coming of the light’ with stories about ‘the big decision to get electricity into the family home’ and the general excitement that the dawning of a new era generated.
One of the book’s editors, PJ Cunningham, told The Mayo News what prompted himself and Joe Kearney to record the stories and take the approach they did: “We felt that if we didn’t do it now, on the 70th anniversary, we might lose an awful lot of eye-witness accounts by the time the 75th or subsequent anniversaries came around.
“Many of the people who we interviewed were in their late seventies, or eighties and nineties. It was important for future generations that we got a collection of ordinary, everyday stories which gave a flavour of the Ireland of that time. It is an anthology that was time-sensitive, and I’m glad we got so many perspectives down for posterity.”
Of the many captivating stories between its covers, did any in particular stand out for Cunningham, for its poignancy? “I think the story of Bridie O’Connor from Galway, who was going out with an ESB crew member but then broke it off when she overheard two girls gossiping in her shop, more or less stating that he had been seen with other women,” he says. “When Bridie put this to him, the man, Bill Jones, denied it. But she didn’t believe him. Now 70 years later she accepts that she was wrong and wonders if he is still alive so that she can seek his forgiveness.”
In the years that followed the roll-out of electricity, life changed immeasurably. Women’s lives, for example, were transformed and to some degree liberated with the introduction of washing machines, irons, ovens and more.
“Ireland had changed little in two centuries,” explains Cunningham. “The arrival of the electricity brought it from being a Third World country based on subsistence farming to a thoroughly modern one. Power allowed homes and farms and businesses to modernise and become much better places to live or work in.”
However, Cunningham can see some drawbacks too. “We lost the ramblers who told stories to while away the long nights around a log fire with only a tilly lamp or candle as other lighting. We also allowed a box – in the first instance a radio but later a TV – to hypnotise us instead of actively participating in talk and banter.”
As Seán Hallinan puts it, “One could say it was also the end of the piseogs, fear of the fairies and pookey men. The Seanachie and his ghost stories just didn’t sound or feel the same when related in the full glare of electric light, even with just a 25 watt bulb.”
What better reminder to us all, ahead of Christmas, to switch off the telly for a while, maybe light a candle or two and take the time to listen to tales told and yarns spun by the ones we love. We might even raise a glass to the hardy ESB workers and their blushing local belles, before heading off to bed feeling thankful for the light on the stairs and the warmth of the electric blanket.
‘Then There Was Light – Stories behind the installation of Ireland’s Rural Electrification Scheme’ (€14.99), co-edited by PJ Cunningham and Dr Joe Kearney, is published by Ballpoint Press.