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Sunday 4 December 2016

Lighting up the land - how electrification changed rural Ireland

Rural electrification, which began 70 years ago and finished in 1978, was an epic undertaking

PJ Cunningham

Published 12/10/2016 | 02:30

Two workers on a ladder at a house in Dromiskin, Co Louth are watched by schoolchildren during the hooking up of electricity for the village
Two workers on a ladder at a house in Dromiskin, Co Louth are watched by schoolchildren during the hooking up of electricity for the village
A family view an electric kettle during an ESB exhibition in May, 1954
A cable crew take a break behind drums of wire during the roll-out of the Rural Electrification Scheme
An ESB exhibition from the 1950s showcasing the many benefits of electricity on the farm
An advert for electricity

The Rural Electrification Scheme took Ireland out of the dark ages as one million poles were erected to carry light and power to every corner of the country.

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The roll out for that mammoth undertaking began 70 years ago this November and continued until 1978.

In that timespan, the countryside was transformed by ESB workers who brought electricity to the smallholdings and cottages and almost immediately by those same rural people who used the new resource to grow the wealth of the nation.

The historic installation by the ESB over more than 30 years spawned a myriad of stories, many of which are told for the first time in 'Then There Was Light'.

This is a collection of tales that arose during this seminal time in the making of modern Ireland. It is unique in that the anthology focuses on the recall from people who bought into the new venture as well as ESB staff and workers who were part of the major scheme.

Sometimes the communities and the staff got on well together and this led to new relationships and even marriage. In one story, two ESB staff who were staying in lodging over a pub while orchestrating the erection of polls across a county, took on a matchmaking role to get a shy publican up the aisle with the woman he loved but was afraid to seek out on his own.

On another occasion, as instanced in Con Foley's story 'Night of the Long Count in a Wicklow Village', the evening of the switch-on of power in Knockananna led to an all-night fracas between locals and ESB workers.

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At the centre of the fallout was an engineer who had a gift for making enemies. During the row, locals succeeded not only in giving him two black eyes but wrested the shirt off his back. It was later thrown up onto a tree, where it stayed for weeks, blowing in the wind as a reminder of what had happened.

Ireland was in the grip of another type of 'cloth' during those decades - and it was to the parish priests of rural Ireland that astute ESB officials turned to when they wanted to get polls across the land of uncooperative farmers. It usually worked.

However there was a quid pro quo for the clergy, particularly when occasions of sin or sex were involved.

One contributor, Alo Brady, who was also a leading official, recalls in his story how a parish priest ordered an ESB boss to take a dark, handsome young worker out of his parish as he had become a danger to "the purity of the ladies - both single and married".

The book contains scores of stories - sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and now and then, a little off the wall.

Pauline Brew tells how an electric fence was used to 'shock' an English cousin into desisting from further summer visits, while the sadness of a pregnancy outside of wedlock is detailed by TJ Byrne in his piece 'Of Love And Loss'.

Then there was the initial period when two young pranksters on getting the BBC into their house, would turn on for the chimes of Big Ben, leading to the workmen in the kitchen immediately standing up to recite the Angelus.

Humorous stories abound across the pages, including one where a farmer would allow his two workmen to begin milking cows with the lights on, then turn the lights in the byre off to save money, until they were ready to move onto the next animal for milking.

Then There Was Light, co-edited by PJ Cunningham and Dr Joe Kearney, is published by Ballpoint Press, priced at €14.99

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