Let there be light
An Irishman’s Diary: How rural electrification changed a way of life
Seamus Heaney: ‘Electrification is really the metaphor for a lot of things, a journey from backwardness into light.’ Photograph: Pat Langan
The arrival of electricity in the Co Mayo village of Cong in 1952 prompted a party in Ryan’s bar paid for by an unlikely benefactor: Hollywood star John Wayne.
Wayne was staying in nearby Ashford Castle with co-stars Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald and Victor McLaghlan filming John Ford’s classic The Quiet Man .
The government had fast-forwarded the rural electrification scheme to help Ford make his first on-location overseas movie for Republic Studios.The erection of poles and wires coincided with the shooting of The Quiet Man . It was sufficient excuse for the often thirsty John Wayne to raise a celebratory glass and pay for the locals to join him.
The now mostly forgotten Co Mayo shindig is just one of the more colourful footnotes in the remarkable history of the 53-year programme of rural electrification which, believe it or not, only celebrates the 10th anniversary of its completion this year.
While the rural electrification process was completed on the mainland in 1973 it wasn’t until 2003 that the last of the inhabited offshore islands, Inishturbot and Inishturk off the Connacht coast, were finally connected to the mains.
Older readers will recall the oil lamps and radios powered by cumbersome dry batteries which were a feature of most Irish farmhouses before the poles went up and the wires connected homes to the national grid.
As a child I remember accompanying my uncle on a fair day to Smyth’s shop in Cavan where the batteries were charged . He handed over the exhausted batteries and took possession of a fresh supply to allow my grandmother to sit in the pre-electric gloom of her kitchen listening to Radio Éireann.
Seamus Heaney has eloquently described the effect of the arrival of electric light on one Irish boy (“Electric Light”) “The journey from darkness into light”, he remarked. “Electrification is really the metaphor for a lot of things, a journey from backwardness into light.” Postponed by the second World War, the first pole in the scheme was erected in November 1946. Of the 400,000 farms and rural dwellings in Ireland, it was estimated that a supply could be offered at standard rates to 344,000 (86 per cent) and that, of these, 280,000 (or 69 per cent of the total) would, in the first instance, accept supply. At the end of December 1959, more than 250,000 rural consumers had been connected.
But there was resistance. Some older people didn’t trust this new miracle provider of light and heat. One old bachelor I knew outside Belturbet, Co Cavan covered all his new sockets with cut up flour bags. He feared that the electricity would leak into the house.