Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1927 – Ardnacrusha hydroelectric scheme

The bold infrastructure project was a heroic realisation of Padraig Pearse’s vision in modernist form

 Casing for turbines under construction at Ardnacrusha in the 1920s

Casing for turbines under construction at Ardnacrusha in the 1920s

 

Ardnacrusha: the name resounds with the heroic – an image of brave-new-world engineering, reinforced-concrete architecture and early Free State aspirations.

Ardnacrusha is the short name for the Shannon hydroelectric scheme, in Co Clare, initiated by the Cumann na nGaedhael government in 1924 and undertaken by a team of Irish and German engineers (from Siemens-Schuckert) and labourers between 1925 and 1929.

The scheme led to the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board in 1927 and brought electricity to thousands of predominately rural homes by the end of the 1920s.

Arguably its success led to the immediate development of ESB dam complexes along the River Liffey, completed through the later 1930s and 1940s at Poulaphouca, Golden Falls and Leixlip.

Ardnacrusha became the byword for infrastructure in the new state. It echoed in built form Pádraig Pearse’s call, in 1913, for a “free Ireland” that would “drain the bogs, would harness the rivers, would plant the wastes, would nationalise the railways and the waterways”.

In 1920s Ireland, modern visual language struggled to find acceptance unless it came in a form that promised work, progress and a badly needed boost to national morale. Ardnacrusha’s industrial poetry and national significance were not lost on its contemporaries: the ESB commissioned the artist Seán Keating to capture its construction in a painting cycle, The Shannon Scheme, full of both realist observation and allegorical poses.

The Irish public embraced the scheme with touristic fervour; posters advertising group trips to the river site implored: “Visit the Shannon Works! See this Mighty Project in the making.”

The monumental engineering structures – 170,000 cubic metres of concrete were cast from 43,000 tonnes of cement, as if carved from rock – clearly captured Ireland’s collective imagination.

A riverine infrastructure of dams, weirs, bridges, canals and embankments was given structure through a decidedly modernist design language. The power station, comprising an elegantly lit steel-framed turbine hall and navigation lock, was integrated into the embankments and situated at the base of the concrete dam.

Even during construction Ardnacrusha had become a symbol of national progress, largely attributable to a young engineer, Thomas McLaughlin, who overturned plans to build a series of power stations along the River Shannon. (Plans to use the river’s resources for power had been mooted since Robert Kane’s suggestions in 1844.)

Instead McLaughlin proposed that this singular infrastructure be placed at the river’s biggest drop – 30m – so as to maximise the water’s power. Employed at the time by Siemens-Schuckert, McLaughlin persuaded the authorities to work in partnership with the German firm.

Keating’s allegory Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out, from 1929, depicts a young family – Ireland’s future – pointing excitedly to the rising concrete monolith. A candle flickers in the foreground; a gas lamp hangs precariously. Soon Ardnacrusha would make such technology redundant.

And the power station’s potency was felt through to the middle of the 20th century. For here, in 1920s Free State Ireland, was an industrial complex in a rural location, harnessing the indigenous resources of limestone for concrete and water for electricity. It was the realisation of Pearse’s vision in modernist form.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; see ria.ie

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