Memories of Rural Electrification and the Arrival of the ‘Electric’ in County Offaly An Oral History Project John Gibbons

 

SCAN0302In October 2014, following an introduction by Amanda Pedlow and Stephen Callaghan, an understanding was reached with the late Stephen McNeill, the then President and Micheal Byrne Secretary of the Offaly and Archaeology Society for them to assist and source interviewees in connection with my project to record persons talking about their memories of life around and about ‘The arrival of the rural’ in Offaly, to date I have recorded over 30 persons in Offaly. Since August 2016,utilising excepts from recordngs, a 45 minute audio/slide presentation which was shown by me to members of History Societies in Edenderry, Tullamore, Rhode, in March 2019 a fourth presentation was shown to members of the Ballinteer Active Retirement Association. A fifth presentation is scheduled for showing in Bury Quay, Tullamore in early 2020.
This Blog seeks to briefly explain aspects of the Rural Electrification Scheme in Ireland and what Michael Shiel in his book called The Quiet Revolution (Dublin 1984) [JPG0292]

SCAN0292

It was a catalyst for change in its introduction in Ireland. In Offaly it was introduced over a period of fifteen years from 1947 to 1962. Those recorded spoke of a time when people walked in the dark along country roads and of being comfortable with that experience. Most of those concerned are still living in Offaly, most in the original townland where they were living at the time of rural electrification.
The actual mechanics of getting the scheme off the ground and starting the ‘Rural’ during the war years was not possible. Tribute must be paid to those men and women who were able to get it all together to make a start to Rural Electrification in 1946, but it was only getting going when the weather got very bad, the worst it had been for many years. [JPG0307]

SCAN0307
The R.E. Scheme in Offaly itself appears to have started in and around the Lusmagh area in 1947 and then spread to other parts of the county over the next fifteen years to finish in Lisdowney in 1962. Over 4,245 premises were connected using 25, 863 poles, and 2,317 Km of line [Offaly Rural Electrification information, sourced on-line at http://www.esbarchives.ie].
In 1947, when the Scheme reached Offaly, the ESB had developed a practical operational plan. Vincent Fahy, a retired Rural ESB Engineer recalls the system and how it worked in his experience; ’The job of a Rural Engineer in those days was to be in charge of a gang, bringing electricity to designated areas, each of which was about the size of a parish and its purpose was to electrify each willing house in a parish’[Interviewee 17, p1].

John Kenny mentioned that he was ‘was born beyond Ballycumber, a place called Killantuber, typical rural area, a county council cottage, slate roof, and like most of the houses in the area, in the years of the War, our main source of lighting was paraffin oil. During the War years, paraffin oil was scarce, it was rationed, I remember, at one stage, we had a ration of half a gallon a month, had to be spared. At night the lamp had to be turned down, candles were available but you were warned not to waste the candle, they were scarce, but beside the drop of paraffin oil which was used in the old hanging lamp, which hung on the wall. When the activity of the evening would have toned down, the light would be turned down, you had that dim light and the light of the fire, the heart would be blazing, it would throw out a very good light’ [interviewee 13, p1].
Owen Malone from Croghan talked about how he avoided emigration, ‘in about 55’-56’, that sort of time, I was going to go to Australia, with a pal of mine, the Lord have mercy, he’s dead since. . . . and of course my parents did not want me to go. What are we going to do, with no work, plenty of work but nothing for it, so we bought a tractor, a little tractor and I started drawing turf for hire. On the road night and day, had to borrow the price of the old tractor, a new tractor, but to pay for it and to keep things going I used to work long hours, but thank’s bit to God I worked it through. That was really before the ESB came’ [Interviewee 7, pp 7 & 11]..
Margaret Barton talked about that she was ‘from the Parish of Lusmagh and we were switched on very early in 1947, December 47. I don’t actually remember the switching on, I remember all the aftermath, I remember all the lights going, we had a light in each room and the one in the kitchen had a white shade on it. We had a grand uncle living with us who died in 1953, aged 97, and every time you switched on the light, he’d say ‘‘the glory of heaven to us all’’, you put your finger on a switch there and a light goes on over there and he said it, evening after evening’ [Interviewee 30, p2].

Even in those years, jokes about the tax man abounded as Peter Doolan of Ballybrittan recalled when talking about ESB working methods ‘The poles were left in different areas and there was a man up the road here, the Lord have mercy on him, Seamus Leonard, he pulled the poles in to the fields with a horse, and they said at that time it was the first horse that was paying tax. Anyway, he pulled in all of them, and it was big job, it wasn’t a simple job, it was a great, a woeful boost, everyone, there’d be a lot of lads on the farm on the dole and that they be taken off it and then go and work for the ESB’ [Interviewee 22, p 2].
With all this activity, employment became more available: Charles Finlay from Clonmore, remembers when he started working in Gilson’s in 1959, learning to work on repairing electrical equipment while also helping out in the shop, ‘I’d open up the shop in the morning at ten-to-nine, there was motor bikes and I’d leave them outside, some bicycles, we’d put them outside the door. Tom would come in, maybe at half-nine, I’d go into the back then. I worked with Charlie Pidgeon, we’d repair the electric kettles, radios, put valves into radios, repair flex’s and put plugs on to flex’s’[Interviewee 28, p3]. [JPG0291]
SCAN0291
Martina Kenny recollected that she had the unique experience of having lived in three houses in the early sixties that were connected to the Scheme; Bracka, in 1961, Shannon Harbour in 1963 and Esker in 1965 [interviewee 30, pp 2-3].
To Conclude:
Of all of the counties effected by the Scheme, it can be said that Offaly benefitted economically over and above the other counties, having the greatest number of Power Stations installed within a county. During the fifteen years that the Scheme was operating in Offaly, from 1947 to 1962, local men were employed and some of them went on to work in the ESB for all their working lives. [JPG0295]

SCAN0295
Please note this project is ongoing, if you are interested in being recorded, please contact
John Gibbons @: john_f_gibbons @hotmail.com