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Sunday 25 August 2019

Electric 'heaven': How women escaped drudgery of domesticity

Change: The National Museum is showcasing ‘Kitchen Power’ through rural electrification. Picture courtesy of the ESB Archive
Change: The National Museum is showcasing ‘Kitchen Power’ through rural electrification. Picture courtesy of the ESB Archive
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

The Rural Electrification Scheme promised to 'light up the minds, and homes' of Irish people.

However, for many women it offered something else.

It gave them the chance to escape the drudgery of domesticity, and move closer to 'heaven'.

A new exhibition titled 'Kitchen Power' at the National Museum of Country Life in Co Mayo chronicles the effect of rural electrification on women.

Although many rural women worked outside the home, prevailing cultural attitudes meant many women's experiences of rural electrification took place at home, and in particular in the kitchen.

The exhibition relies on 60 oral testimonials from those who lived through the lighting up of Ireland.

Servis supertwin MK II twin tub. Picture from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life
Servis supertwin MK II twin tub. Picture from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life
Hoover Spinarinse spin drier. Picture from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life
Revo green cooker. Picture from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life
Cylinder Hoover. Picture from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life

"I can always remember my mother saying, 'This is heaven, this has to be heaven'," Maureen Gavan, from Clones, Co Monaghan, said. "Because it took the drudgery out of the hard work people had to do".

Noreen Durken, from Co Mayo, described the arrival of electricity as "the single greatest blessing" for people in the 50s and 60s.

Electricity revolutionised domestic life in a multitude of ways.

Household chores were no longer dictated by daylight, and heating and cooking no longer depended on timber and turf.

Examples of how people were shown the benefits of electricity. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland & Woman’s Way
Examples of how people were shown the benefits of electricity. Picture courtesy of the National Library of Ireland & Woman’s Way

There had been concerns and trepidation in households prior to the programme being rolled out in 1946. For example, people wondered if food would taste differently prepared in a cooker, as opposed to over an open flame.

To alleviate concerns, a team of electrical demonstrators would travel the country showing women the advantages of electricity.

The glaring 100W light bulb may have cast a harsh light compared to the soft glow of an oil lamp, they told housewives, but it would result in a cleaner home.

The exhibition features appliance displays, press cuttings, video footage and a 1950s replica kitchen.

It also shows how the advent of nationwide rural electricity resulted in the evolution of kitchen design from the traditional hearth to the fitted kitchen.

It also initiated a change in women's role in society.

"Access to electricity contributed greatly to the efficiency of running a household, and it propelled the shift of women into the paid workforce," chair of the Board of the National Museum of Ireland Catherine Heaney said.

A twin-tub washing machine, primrose yellow iron and green enamel cooker are all on display for visitors to see.

Former President Mary Robinson launched the exhibition. Her father worked as a doctor in Mayo and his practice was greatly improved by the introduction of electricity - particularly when assisting in childbirth.

Irish Independent

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