Monday 21 January 2019

Power to the people

The building of the Shannon hydroelectric scheme was a symbol of our new-found independence and showcased what we could achieve, writes sorcha O'BRIEN, whose book gives a glimpse behind the scenes of this iconic project

Constructing the spiral casings in June 1926. PHOTO: ESB archive
Constructing the spiral casings in June 1926. PHOTO: ESB archive
Testing lift capacity in 1929. PHOTO: ESB archive
Installation of turbine II. PHOTO: ESB archive
Powering the Nation - Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland by Sorcha O'Brien
An Eason postcard of the plant from the early 1930s. PHOTO: ESB archive

The Shannon Scheme was a foundational project for the Irish State, in both literal and figurative senses it created an important part of the infrastructure of the new Irish Free State, but it also played a significant role as a symbol of independence. It demonstrated what the new state was capable of, and in a time of nation-building, asserted the importance of the practical and pragmatic to the new government, as well as its links to tradition and the Gaelic past.

The power station was constructed by two branches of the German engineering giant Siemens. Irish engineer Thomas McLaughlin, who trained in UCD, had spent the early 1920s working for Siemens in Pomerania (now part of Poland) and his proposal of using the drop from Lough Derg to the mouth of the Shannon to power a hydro-electric generation station was taken up by the government. This was not without opposition at the time, but the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan, was tenacious in his support of the project and the need to provide not just enough electricity for Dublin, but for the whole country.

The German engineering expertise was augmented by the staff of Shannon Power Development, led by Frank Sharman Rishworth, an experienced Irish engineer who had worked on the Aswan Dam in Egypt. This small organisation was the seed for the Electricity Supply Board, which was set up in 1927 to run both the power station and the brand new national grid. Its formation as a semi-state body, rather than a government department or private company, was the result of long deliberation about the best way to run the country's developing infrastructure, and was the first of a series of semi-state bodies such as RTÉ, Aer Lingus and CIE.

The images in the newly published book Powering the Nation reflect the official story of both the buildings themselves and the complex of locks and canals, as well as the unofficial story of workers and visitors. The project involved engineers, architects and skilled construction workers from Germany, as well as thousands of Irish workers who poured concrete, dug canals and helped shift thousands of tons of earth to reshape the Clare countryside. The personal photographs of one German digger driver, Otto Rampf, have survived in the ESB Archives, and they give a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a community of ex-patriot workers a long way from home.

The ESB Public Relations department was ahead of its time, not only organising tours from Limerick city centre out to the construction site, but promoting the project through a series of advertisements in newspapers and trade magazines. Headed by Ned Lawler, who had previously worked for the Irish Independent, the PR department commissioned artwork from Dublin cartoonist Gordon Brewster and organised the site tours from 1928, where almost 38,000 people visited in the first month alone.

The official Siemens photographs were reprinted in newspapers all over Germany and Ireland, as well as on postcards and cigarette cards by TC Carroll, a Limerick stationer - but it was the tours of the construction site that stayed with many visitors as the most impressive spectacle. Indeed, the size and scale of the construction was so great that a Fox film crew left in despair in 1929, saying that it was unfilmable. These tours are recorded in many private photo albums from that time, including Limerick local historian Ernest Bennis, whose photographs appear in the new title.

Alongside the well-known paintings of Seán Keating, the scheme was also captured in etchings by George Atkinson, the head of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (now NCAD), and watercolours by the young student Brigid O'Brien (later Brigid Ganly).

The project demonstrated a delicate balancing act between ideas about national identity and modern technology in Ireland in the 1920s - while the Shannon Scheme was undoubtedly a technological marvel, it was one that became accepted as a symbol of the Irish nation. The images reflect this in a very visible way, ranging from photographs of machinery to symbolic Celtic charioteers, as the artists and photographers tried to work out what a technological Ireland might actually look like, a long time before it really happened.

Powering the Nation - Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland by Sorcha O'Brien is published by Irish Academic Press

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