This is a story from my childhood in the 1950s. We lived on a farm in a place called Clerhane about two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge. We did not have electricity or indeed running water. The Rural Electrification Scheme in county Offaly which lasted from 1947 until 1962, was very much in vogue and was a topic of everyday conversation in the early 50s. Our farm was contiguous to the river Shannon, which had been the source of electricity since the opening of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme in 1929 by W.T. Cosgrove, President of the Executive. However, notwithstanding this, it was remote to our lives.
My grandfather, a man born in 1868 in a place called Bloomhill near Ballinahown, could best be described as settled in his ways. He was very wary of this new-fangled idea. He was in his eighties and had gotten on perfectly well without it all his life. Anytime my mother or uncle would start setting out the reasons for getting the electricity, the topic was changed, and certainly was not encouraged. We could discuss the Korean War, the price of butter or whatever, but not the supply of electricity.
Master Molloy of Clonmacnoise moves from the Press to the Independent
The timing of this may not have been the most opportune, as at this time he was agitated with Master Patrick C. Molloy the teacher in Clonmacnoise School. This little difficulty arose over the supply of the daily newspaper. There was a shop in Clonmacnoise at that time run by Merrigans, and they sold a daily newspaper. I would bring the Irish Press home from school each day. My grandfather was a de Valera /Fianna Fáil man, so the Irish Press was most welcome. He would always say `what`s the leading article?` As a very young child I did not know what he meant. However, one day I was told that in future, Merrigans would only stock the Irish Independent. When this was queried, we were told that Master Molloy wanted the Irish Independent, and that Merrigans could not stock both. He was furious over this. For back in those days the V.I.Ps in the parish were of course the Parish Priest, the school Master, the Garda Sergeant and the doctor. We did not have a doctor in the parish. Anyway, the say-so of the Master prevailed, and grandfather lost his daily Irish Press.
So he was not in the best humour when we started to pester him about the possibility of getting electricity.
Trimming the wick on the oil lamp
The light we had was supplied by an oil lamp and of course candles, together with whatever light the open fire might give. My grandfather had a daily ritual with the oil lamp, which was the trimming of the wick. This was not a simple matter, and would take a fair bit of time. He used to get a pot, and would use the rim of the pot as a template to get a perfect curve on the wick. This was vital, as if it was not done to perfection the flame would burn unevenly, and would cause smudges on the globe. You had to be careful not to turn the flame up too much, as this could result in the globe breaking, and the resultant bother in replacing it. One also had to ensure that you had a supply of paraffin oil for the lamp, which was purchased from Moran`s in the local village of Shannonbridge. The oil lamp was used in the living room, while candles were used in the bedrooms. Looking at it from today`s viewpoint, this of course was less than satisfactory. The light given by the lamp was not very bright and of course the candles had the ever present danger of fire, if left un-monitored. What amazes me, as I look back, is that with this rather limited light, my mother and my grandmother were able to knit the most wonderful garments, sometimes even using black wool which must have been difficult. Perhaps one`s eyes adjust to the light available.
1. The lamp wick. My grandfather spent hours trimming this item.
2. An oil lamp in common use before the arrival of electricity.
Grandfather did not see the light
My mother, who had lived with the benefit of electricity in Dublin during the forties, took the lead in prompting and promoting the idea of getting the electricity as soon as its availability was on the horizon. Tactfully as she could, she listed out the benefits that would appeal to a man first. We could have lighting in the outhouses and sheds, which would enable us to work a longer day, for in the short winter days we were very much house-bound from four o`clock onwards. We would be able to work up until ten o`clock. Grandfather just mumbled a non-committal response. Having let that idea settle, she moved on to the water supply. We got our water from a well some distance from the house. With electricity we could have it pumped into the house and indeed the outhouses, so we would have a supply on tap. This would be a great boon she said. He listened but said nothing.
The radio and the wet battery
The next item she promoted was the wireless. We had a wireless set that needed a dry battery and a wet battery. The wet battery was a right nuisance as it needed to be charged. It is hard to imagine in this day and age when there are charging points everywhere to top up our mobile phones, how awkward this was. This involved bringing the battery into Fitzpatrick`s in Shannonbridge, who had a facility to charge the battery. The radio was needed mostly for the news and of course football and hurling matches. Also I remember a sponsored programme promoting the Irish Hospital Sweep. I recall neighbours coming over on Sunday afternoons, to listen to the various football and hurling games.
The wet battery hung over us on Sundays like the sword of Damocles, because there was always the possibility the battery would go dead with the consequent loss of the commentary. A major problem we had, was there was no way of knowing when the battery was running low as it had no calibration. To emphasise this point, my mother mentioned that she heard that Tommy Coleman in the village where they had electricity, never bothered to turn off the radio during the day as its running cost was so low. Grandfather was not too impressed with this waste. Mention of the wireless, I recall another occasion when we tuned in to an event which was out of kilter for us. We were a strong Fianna Fáil family with Republican views, yet I recall the morning of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, my mother spending ages tuning into B.B.C to get the coverage of the event. I recall the radio reception being very crackly.
Cycling two miles to get the time of day
A slight aside here, while my grandfather loved the radio, and listened to the news religiously, oddly he seemed not to trust its ability to tell the time. The only time he would believe was what we called `Brian`s time`. Brian Flannery who lived in Creevagh had a pocket watch, and everybody in the area relied on it. I remember being sent down on a bike to Brain Flannery to get the time, even though the radio gave out the time on the hour. When I think back on this, it is funny as Brian Flannery lived just over a mile away, so I had to travel a distance of two miles to get the time. On another occasion I have a clear recollection of coming home from school, dropping into Kieran Daly of Creevagh. He asked his daughter May to go down to Brian Flannery to get the time.
Perhaps he was right to be sceptical about the radio time, for there were two other occasions in the year when the radio time was not heeded. This was when Summer and Winter time came in. We never changed our clocks until the Priest announced the start of the altered time during Mass, which was generally a week late. This left the amusing situation where Protestants and Catholics in the parish had different times. As the saying goes, ` they had the power.`
My mother, perhaps losing the run of herself, mentioned the possibility of getting a milking machine which would be a great help with the cattle. My grandfather would have seen milking machines while visiting his daughter Sr. Monica a nun in Gallen Priory, Ferbane. This did nothing to interest him.
Next my mother moved on to more dodgy ground, listing a number of services that would appeal to women. It would be wonderful to have an electric cooker. The controls would make cooking much simpler, no topping up the fire or adding coals to the lid of the oven while baking. We could have an electric iron for the clothes, no more heating the iron on the fire coals. We might get a washing machine which would end the back breaking labour of the hand wash. She did not push it as far as a dryer. She did however continue to soften him up at any opportunity that presented.
People were wary of the price of the new service
In fairness to my grandfather, people were wary of this new service. No one wanted to be the first to commit to getting it. They were concerned about safety, and of course the price. The installation price depended very much on the size of the buildings to be wired. The ESB Ground Rent calculation was a matter of great importance. Potential customers would watch the engineer carrying out the survey like a hawk.
The Electricity Board needed to box very cleverly, so as to get folk interested. Initially they used locals to go around the area and canvass for customers to ascertain the level of interest. At a later stage, they used to send very well briefed staff around to all the houses that had shown an interest.
Fr Donohue of Shannonbridge
I recall the Parish Priest at that time a Fr. Frank Donohue announcing one Sunday that this process would be taking place soon, and that it would be wise to give these canvassers a good hearing. Fr. Donohue was a very progressive man who did a lot during his incumbency in Shannonbridge, to improve the lot of the locals. He was very effective in putting pressure on politicians to get some improvements, such as roads, public lighting etc etc. He must have had a jaundiced opinion of politicians though. I recall on one visit to our home, the name of the Fine Gael politician Oliver J. Flanagan came up, my grandfather mentioned that Oliver J. was a great vote winner. `Oh that lad can write with both hands` Fr. Donohue said in a manner that was not complimentary. He told us about one occasion when he was up in Dublin lobbying for some cause or other in the Dáil, when Alfie Byrne T.D. known as the shaking hand of Dublin, introduced himself to Fr. Donohue offering his hand. Fr. Donohue took pleasure in retorting `I never heard of you`. He liked that and we all smiled at his joke. My mother tried to soften the attack on Alfie by saying `sure he is married to Tom Heagney`s daughter from Tullamore`. This made no impression. He lauded the Rural Electrification Scheme as great sign of progress, and mentioned that it would reduce the drudgery of farm life.
This imminent visit became a topic of conversation. Who would they be? Various names were tossed around.
Eventually one evening there was a rattle on the door and two men walked in. Strangely, as I look at it from today’s perspective, it seems most odd that no one locked their front doors back then. Hard to believe, in these days when violent rural crime is prevalent.
The two men were Kieran McGuinness and Jimmy Flannery. They were both well known to us. Kieran McGuinness was a farmer from Cloniffe and in fact used to ramble in our house every Tuesday to play cards. We used to play the game of 25, which kept us occupied. Jimmy Flannery was from Corrigeen, a farmer and a very useful plasterer. We knew him well and indeed he had done some plaster work for my grandfather. They were both real gentlemen and well suited for the task they were about.
After the initial exchange of pleasantries, which included declining a cup of tea, to the horror of my grandmother, they got down to business.
They explained that the electricity would be coming to our area if it was viable. This meant that it was essential that sufficient customers were prepared to indicate an interest in it. Jimmy and Kieran went through the litany of benefits that the service would bring, very much a carbon copy of my mother`s suggestions.
They `knew` that they could rely of Mr. Claffey signing up. Mr. Claffey was not so sure. My grandfather set about his interrogation. `Would Captain Kelly be getting it?` `ah I think so` said Kieran, `he sounded positive.` How about Mick Shrahan?` `Very likely` said Jimmy. This went on and on, as we went through all our neighbours, Paddy Daly, Paddy McGuinness, Joe Egan, Joe Mannion, Joe Gaffey and so on. Jimmy and Kieran were giving us positive vibes but no straight answers. Grandfather raised the matter of the price, `it would depend`. So we danced around this for a while. Poor Jimmy and Kieran must have been getting fed up with all the questions. Eventually, my grandfather threw in what appeared to be an innocent question. `Well, tell me now, where will they put the poles`? `Oh, in the ground Mr. Claffey` answered Jimmy. We all laughed at the bit of humour. However my grandfather took exception to what he saw as a smart alec reply. The interviews ended there and then, and Jimmy and Kieran were sent on their way. My grandfather mumbled on about the youth of today, no manners like in his day. He lit his pipe and said no more.
No electricity and a sad sequel
Sadly, electricity was never installed in the Claffey house. My mother and I came to live in Dublin in 1955. My grandfather died in 1958, with his wife passing in 1961. My uncle emigrated in 1964, when he moved to London. The house which was a thatched house deteriorated over time and went into ruin, without ever having had electricity installed.
A sad personal sequel to this story is the death of my father`s sister Catherine Turley who lived in Carrowkeel, Clonfanlough. She had lived with her late sister Molly in Clonfanlough. They had never gotten the electricity supply connected to their home. I am not sure why, it could have been a concern over safety. Tragically one November night in 1975 the house went on fire and she lost her life. She had a paraffin oil lamp which it seems she accidently overturned.