Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

How the lights were turned off when the men were milking the cows - to save electricity

The introduction of electricity in rural Ireland was not always welcomed.
The introduction of electricity in rural Ireland was not always welcomed.
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

"To save power, he would get the men in under the cows milking and then turn off the electric light until they were finished about eight minutes later. He would then briefly turn on the light for them to strain the milk, and turn it off again between each cow milking."

This passage is from a story by Luke McGuinness of Meath, contained in an anthology of personal memories of rural electrification entitled Then There was Light, which has been published to mark the scheme's 70th anniversary.

I laughed at Luke's story, about a neighbour of his, which encapsulates one of the big obstacles to the scheme's roll-out, cost.

Rural dwellers of the era are often portrayed or regarded as mean but the country had been through tough times and people were wary of any wasteful behaviour.

The role of women

Women played a key role in the marketing of the scheme, recognising the potential to enhance their own lives. Farmers were often slow to see beyond the cost until they were asked by young ladies at dances whether they had "got the electricity in?"

Now when there is talk about restraining electricity use, is it more likely to be posited on environmental grounds than financial ones?

This is a delightful book, with its lively and moving evocation of the many events, suspicions and excitement associated with rural electrification. It is also a reminder of, excuse the pun, Ireland's darker days, with mention of fairies and superstitions. There is plenty of straight talk and colourful characters, such as Tadhg the Hill and Batt the Lift.

Also Read

Electric fence keeps irritating visitors out

Pauline Brew from Cork tells how an encounter with an electric fence led to the permanent departure of an irritating visitor while Rhoda Twombly describes life before the arrival of power on the Mayo island of Inishlyre in 2000.

91-year-old Bridie O'Connor from Galway tells how distrust of her rural electrification ganger boyfriend led to their breakup and how it still hurts, 70 years later.

Then there is the one where a parish priest meets his match. A woman in the parish has a workman living under the same roof which he believes is a scandal. She challenges him, saying "Isn't your housekeeper living under the same roof as you and is that not a bigger scandal." The writer Vincent Fahy is unsure whether the priest was more upset that people might think like this or that the woman stood up to him on the issue.

Getting permission to lay poles

A key element of the scheme was the laying of poles. This required the permission of the landowners concerned, which was not always easy.

Former ESB worker John Fitzpatrick of Laois tells how his successful intervention in the calving of a heifer won over a Kildare farmer who had been refusing to let the poles go across his land. "There is nothing better to gladden the heart of a farmer than to see a potential loss turned into a tangible gain."

Another former ESB worker, Alo Brady, who played football for Offaly and later Sligo and now lives in Dublin, tells of a woman who refused to let the poles across, fearing it would also give access to light to "that crowd of traitors across the way." It turned out that she believed the neighbour's family had betrayed United Irishman Michael Dwyer in 1798.

Oh, a footnote to Luke's story. Apparently the yard light in the farm once got left on all day by mistake and the farmer was livid. But when the next ESB bill came and he saw it hadn't broke the bank, "he eased back on his battle against the light."

Then There Was Light is published by Ballpoint Press, priced €14.99. A documentary containing stories from the book is being compiled by co-editors Dr Joe Kearney and PJ Cunningham. and will air on RTE Radio 1 on November 5.

Indo Farming