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

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.

Another rural Luddite baffled the ESB boffins with his ludicrously low consumption of electricity. A customer liaison officer was dispatched and the codger explained that he only turned on the electric light to find his matches. He then lit his oil lamp and turned off the light switch.

Most towns had been electrified by the 1930s (Dublin had electricity from the 1880s). The infant Free State had pushed through, against stiff opposition, the Shannon Hydroelectric scheme, the largest in the world.

Noted Dr Séamas Mac Philib of the National Museum of Ireland: “Few technological innovations had as much impact on the Irish countryside as rural electrification. It removed a lot of the drudge from home and farm life. Pumps could be electrified and dairying revolutionised. Rural industry could now develop with much better prospects of survival.

“The life of many households was transformed and the overall social effects cannot be overstated. The small towns and the countryside became literally brighter and the residual belief in fairies which once had such a grip on the folk-mind was increasingly banished. A chink began to appear in the armour of all sorts of supernatural belief systems.”

By 1965 some 80 per cent of rural households were connected including my beloved granny in rural Lavey, Co Cavan. Her reaction to the new energy source was mixed. She refused to have a new-fangled television set installed and when my mother sent out from town her top-loading electric Servis washing machine, she had her own ideas regarding its use. She filled it with milk,turned it into an electric churn and made butter!

Adds Dr Séamas Mac Philib: “Some folklorists have bemoaned the modernising effects of electricity and other mass innovations like the motor engine. The pre-electric, pre-engine, age has been viewed as a sort of Amish-like Hibernian arcadia where people provided their own food and entertainment and were largely self-sufficient in small but culturally rich local communities. Undoubtedly, mass-electricity – through its offspring of cinema, radio and television – did spread huge influences from abroad, in particular from Britain and America. However, it must not be forgotten that native culture used the new media to diffuse itself too. In particular, Gaelic sports, Irish music and even the Irish language gained a second life. Arguably the Irish language may well have become virtually dead but for its adaptation in radio, the newsreel, television and now through information technology.”

And what would my long gone pre-electric age granny make of the proposed giant whirring wind turbines in the Midlands miraculously making power for export? Light years distant from her new-fangled dry batteries.