Last one into Bantry, please turn off the lights

Sat, Mar 10, 2012, 00:00

Next weekend the Cork town will celebrate life before electrification. Once seen as a dark age, it is now viewed by some as idyllic, writes LOUISE ROSEINGRAVE

VISITORS TO BANTRY, in west Cork this St Patrick’s weekend could be forgiven for thinking they have entered a lost realm. The Fadó festival in the town seeks to rekindle the days before the introduction of electricity, interpreting it as a kind of magical era when stories were told in the dancing shadows of candlelight. Bars will reek of burning turf and street lights will be decommissioned for novelty effect.

The town, steeped in history and folklore, is well placed to recreate the pre-electrification era, as Toby Campbell, a member of the organising committee, explains. The rush and bustle of modern living are pushing society to its limits, creating a vacuum of desire for a less demanding lifestyle, he says.

“It’s time to get back to our roots, to leave behind the frustrations of mobile phones, congested roads, endless queues and slow computers. We have set out to rediscover a time ‘fadó’ when life was much simpler,” he says.

The aim is to create a journey backwards through time for a generation who witnessed one of the greatest changes of modern living, while offering an insight to people who have never lived without a light switch.

Ironically, in the hinterlands surrounding Bantry, many were suspicious of the rural electrification project of the late 1950s. Resistance was commonplace, and some residents held out without power until 1968, using bottled gas for cooking and paraffin and Tilley lamps to light their homes.

“The ESB would only bring the national grid out to these rural areas if all residents agreed to sign up but many resisted it. The huge demand for electricians left a suspicion that workmanship was not quite professional. People wanted to see how others fared first,” Campbell says.

Fadó opens on Friday 16th with the ancient Bantry Fair, a huge draw for cattle and pig traders 100 years ago and the precursor to the colourful weekly market that continues today.

Local GP Denis Cotter has collected hundreds of photographs of old-time Bantry for a new book and offered them for an exhibition to coincide with the festival. Many of the townspeople are identifiable in the collection.

The pre-electrification theme is drawing plenty of interest, Campbell says.

Colin Campbell (no relation), an Oxford-educated petrogeologist who lives in the village of Ballydehob, nine miles from Bantry, has just produced a book, Peak Oil Personalities.

Now an expert in peak oil, his first graduate assignment was to map the hills and valleys of rugged Connemara in the 1950s. Based in stone cottages and farmhouses around Leenane, he witnessed “pre-electrified Ireland” at first hand.

“They had no running water, no electricity, a couple of cows and a few chickens and they cooked on open turf fires. . . and they enjoyed it as far as I could judge,” he says.

Colin Campbell subsequently embarked on a career in the oil industry, travelling the world in search of new supplies, and is now a commentator on peak oil. “Petroleum man becomes extinct at the end of the century; everything will be gone by then. There might be a little sniff of oil somewhere but nothing significant,” he says.

Governments and financial experts appear to have difficulty grasping the concept of peak oil, according to Campbell, but to ordinary folk, it makes sense. “A simple farmer in the hills knows the limits of his fields. People who have simple eyes can see the limits.”

The Government, he says, needs to reform the system that writes off a corporate electricity bill against tax, to encourage “people in business to turn the lights off”.


The Fadó Festival takes place in Bantry from March 16th to 18th. See iti.ms/yonPkY