Let there be light: the day all Ireland went electric
In our new series, we look at how people reacted to the arrival of electricity 70 years ago
The first pole being erected at Kilsallaghan, Co Dublin, on November 5th, 1946. Photograph: ESB Archives
On January 1st, 1948, the Irish Times columnist Quidnunc reviewed some of the events of the previous 12 months. He concluded: “How many of these things will be remembered in, say, 2047? I dare swear that if any event is recorded in the history books, it will be none of those I have mentioned.”
What the writer guessed would instead be most significant was the fact that in 1947 “somebody – I cannot remember who – switched on the lights in some village – I cannot remember where – and rural electrification took her bow. And if that does not mean more to the country than all the rest of the year’s events put together I shall be very surprised indeed.”
The first pole in the first phase of rural electrification had gone up on November 5th, 1946, at Kilsallaghan, in north Co Dublin. The first lights of the scheme were switched on at Oldtown, Co Dublin, in January 1947. At the time more than 400,000 homes in rural Ireland had no electricity.
Quidnunc was entirely correct in his prediction about the importance of rural electrification. It transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, made farming and household tasks less challenging and helped to reduce social isolation.
The project, carried out by the Electricity Supply Board, was enormous. The State was divided into 792 areas – roughly along parish boundaries, as the ESB wanted at least one local influencer in each area who could encourage people to sign up to get connected. Priests talked about the project from the pulpit, encouraging their parishioners to participate. Although it would never be economically viable to connect some sparsely populated areas, the more people who wanted a connection the sooner their area would be visited.
It is possible to track the whole process of rural electrification, over the years and decades of the project, because for each of the 792 areas there is a box relating to it in the ESB archives. Every one is a gem of social history, containing not only maps and records of how much each area cost to connect but also a fascinating variety of letters from the public and politicians, in addition to handwritten reports of how initial information meetings went.
The approach in every district was the same. The ESB asked householders if they wanted to sign up for electricity, then held local information meetings. In the first long phase of electrification, which ran from 1946 to 1965, it was sometimes your hard luck if you wanted to be connected but your nearest neighbours did not. The ESB deemed it uneconomic to run lines to just one house. The areas with the highest take-up were first to be connected.
Although some people did not want change, and others worried about whether the wires might set their thatch on fire, most people who refused connection did so for financial reasons. That “uneconomic acceptance” was a category on the forms showed how widespread rural poverty was.
The scheme was heavily subsidised, but, depending on the size of the premises, householders had to pay a connection fee, along with future bills, and to wire their homes before they were connected.
The people who first agreed to sign up but then changed their minds were called backsliders. In May 1954, in Ballivor, Co Meath, 290 people said they wanted electricity. Nineteen changed their minds, for reasons that are stark examples of poverty in 1950s rural Ireland: “No funds. House semi-derelict.” “Refused supply due to lack of funds.” “Has large family and could not pay fixed charge.” “Both labourers out of work.” “Recently widowed. No funds.”
Explore the map to see when your area switched on
Ballycroy, Co Mayo, was the last place in the country to be connected in the first phase. It was April 1964 before electricity came to Ballycroy, 17 years after it had arrived in Oldtown.
The first document in the Ballycroy box is the record of a parliamentary question asked by Phelim Calleary on October 22nd, 1956. He asked “if the Minister for Industry and Commerce will take steps to extend rural electrification to the Ballycroy parish”. Further questions were asked in 1958, 1959 and 1960 – the last of these was a joint question from Calleary and his fellow TD Seán Doherty – and then again in 1963.
It wasn’t only local politicians who lobbied. In July 1957 the parish priest of Ballycroy wrote to the Rural Electrification Office. He said that his parishioners were anxious and that they believed he could influence decisions at the Dublin head office. “Sometimes people get an idea that the PP isn’t taking any interest in these matters. I need not add that I have a very deep interest in the light coming to Ballycroy.”
“The amount of fixed charge revenue which would be forthcoming would give a very poor return on the capital cost of extending supply to the area,” it wrote to the priest. “This is due mainly to the fact that the area is very sparsely populated. It appears that there are only about seven houses to the square mile, whereas in the rural areas being developed we find from 15 to 20 houses to the square mile.”
When Ballycroy was eventually connected it was thanks to a 100 per cent subsidy. Even then people struggled to afford the ongoing costs. In July that year a person of standing in the community wrote to the Rural Electrification Office on behalf of his neighbour.
“He is a very small farmer who has managed to raise a family of 11. He is most anxious to install electricity, but he has been informed that his line will terminate at his next neighbour’s house and he will only be connected on payment of a special rental. The figure he tells me is £5 every two months. Such a sum is entirely beyond his means. I am writing to enquire if it would be possible to give him electricity on some less onerous terms.”
It was, unfortunately, not possible, the ESB replied. He had already been quoted the lowest possible price. There is no further communication about this farmer and whether he was ever able to afford the connection.
The documents in the Ballycroy box go all the way up to the 1970s. In 1974 a householder wrote to head office to complain.
“I have to appeal to you concerning the ESB supply to our house all this winter. Even though I switch off lights, I cannot get a picture if the telly is on. If any other person other than ourselves uses a high power drill or gadget, we have poor light and no pictures on the telly every second night. I hope you will see we get better service; this is why I am writing to Dublin.”
Once a community was connected, or about to be connected, the ESB held public demonstrations of household appliances; it also sold them: irons, kettles, stoves and so on.
The demonstration evening in Glenamaddy was held in January 1951. The handwritten report records that it took place “in the very fine Esker Ballroom”; these events were social occasions that brought communities together. The Glenamaddy evening “was attended by about 90, including 50 women. As is usual, the women appeared to be more keen than the men and more inclined to ask questions (and to argue). After the demonstration, a melodeon player turned up and an impromptu dance got under way.”
It was also, of course, the era of ballrooms. In November 1968 a businessman sought a quote for a new ballroom near Westport, “which is claimed will be one of the largest in the country”; it was to hold one dance a week. The response to his letter was prescient about rural ballrooms, which were to enter their slow decline in the 1970s.
“With respect to the long term prospects, I find it hard to say, because there is another very large ballroom in Castlebar some 10 miles away with yet a third one in Pontoon a further 15 miles away again in the east.” It was uncertain, the writer noted, whether so many ballrooms could survive so close to one another.
Twenty-six years after the demonstration of domestic appliances in Glenamaddy a woman in nearby Williamstown was still without power. A copy of the letter she sent in January 1977 to her former TD is in the Glenamaddy archive box.
“I do wish you could get the light sooner for me,” she wrote. “As you know, I am living on my own so it is lonely for me. I am nervous living on my own and not having the light as was promised to me by the ESB. I am sure you know how dangerous it is living alone without light. Please, would you try and get it sooner for me?”
“Last year, the ESB quoted a figure of about £350 as the cost of providing him with electricity. This would be away above what he could afford. He could, he says, afford to contribute about £50 towards the costs. I am asking you to consider the possibility of having the cost of electricity revised to the figure he could afford.”
The reply said there had been a “recent revision in the terms of supply”. The connection fee would now involve a deposit of £107 plus 30 payments of £15.69 – a total of £577.70. There is no further correspondence about the case, but it can only be hoped that this bachelor in rural Ireland did indeed receive the light into his home back in 1978.
If you would like to find out more about when rural electrification came to your area, interactive maps and information on each of the 792 areas connected between 1946 and 1965 are online at esbarchives.ie