Thomas McLaughlin

Dr Thomas McLaughlin, First Managing Director of ESB (1896-1971)

Dr Thomas McLaughlin, First Managing Director of ESB (1896-1971). Ref: PG.SS.PH.863

Thomas Anthony McLaughlin (1896-1971) was born in Drogheda, Co Louth.

McLaughlin graduated from UCD with a BSc (1916) and MSc (1918) in Physics, and following his transfer to engineering at UCG, a BEng (1922) and a PhD (1923).

While at UCG, McLaughlin studied under Prof Frank Sharman Rishworth, professor of civil engineering, who greatly influenced his later plans to develop the Shannon hydro-electric scheme.


McLaughlin joined the German firm Siemens-Schuckert in 1922, and moved to Berlin. This role provided the perfect opportunity for McLaughlin to study the design of power plants and the manufacture of electrical machinery across Europe and the United States.

During his time with Siemens, McLaughlin came to the conclusion that peat or coal were not a viable solution to Ireland’s future energy needs, and together with his colleagues in Siemens, came to the conclusion that hydro-electric power was a more realistic option for utilizing native resources in the Irish Free State.

1931 interview

In an interview with Radio Éireann on 10 January 1931, published in The Irish Times the following day, McLaughlin spoke about the birth the Free State, and his motivation to do what he could to shape the future of his country:

No sincere student could have lived through that the whole period of intense national enthusiasm without feeling a passionate desire to do all in his power to assist in national reconstruction, and in the building up of the country by development from within… the ideal never for a moment left me until it brought me home again to see the Shannon Scheme realised… I could have no mental peace, no sense of self-fulfilment until my mission in life, as it had then become to me was realised. Everything I saw abroad, everything I read of, brought just one thing to my mind – can this development be applied at home? Could we have this in Ireland?

Government approval

McLaughlin returned to Ireland in December 1923, and was able to use his personal friendship with a number of Government ministers to secure a chance for Siemens to prepare a paper detailing its proposals for a hydroelectric scheme on the River Shannon. In 1925, together with Siemens and Patrick McGilligan TD, Minister for Industry and Commerce, McLaughlin succeeded in getting a ‘White Paper’ on the scheme accepted by the newly formed Free State government.

Group photo taken during the construction of the Shannon Scheme. Front row includes (L-R): Prof Frank Sharman Rishworth, Engineer; Patrick McGilligan TD, Minister for Industry and Commerce; John J Murphy, first Chairman of ESB; Dr Thomas McLaughlin, Engineer and first Managing Director of ESB; WT Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (Taoiseach); as well as a number of Siemens representatives. Ref: PG.SS.PH.362

ESB established

While several options for the management of the new Shannon Scheme were considered, McLaughlin, firmly believed that rapid progress could only be achieved through unified control of production and distribution. This approach provided the impetus for the passing of the Electricity Supply Act in 1927, which created the Electricity Supply Board, the first semi-state body in Ireland, and with McLaughlin as its first Managing Director.

Building a national network

The challenge McLaughlin faced was immense, overseeing the establishment of ESB and the acquisition of the newly built power station at Ardnacrusha, as well as a number of small privately-owned generating stations. The network had to be extended to towns and villages which had no electricity.  More complex were the areas where limited electricity had been available prior to the establishment of ESB, the distribution system had to be converted from direct to alternating current. Domestic wiring systems had to be re-configured, and promotional tariff rates were devised. McLaughlin appointed contractual engineers with international experience, vital in the knowledge-transfer to Ireland’s newly recruited engineering staff.

Public relations

McLaughlin appointed  Ned Lawler as his public-relations manager; the first appointment of its kind in Ireland. McLaughlin, Lawler and his senior management team quickly set about expanding consumer demand for the power that was due to come on stream from Ardnacrusha in October 1929. McLaughlin was also assisted by his wife, who later became the first President of the Irish Women’s Electrical Association, in promoting the use of electricity for household use. Read more about ESB’s publicity department here.

The growth of ESB

Under McLaughlin’s guidance, ESB rapidly expanded and by the end of 1931, the organisation had created thirteen new District Offices, each with a District Engineer and District Accountant. He remained an important figure during the roll out of the Shannon Scheme’s successor, the Rural Electrification Scheme in the 1940s. McLaughlin retired from ESB in 1958, serving as a director with Irish Shell, and as chairman of the board of Aspro-Nicholas (Ireland).

1967 interview

Watch an interview with McLaughlin from RTÉ documentary ‘Forty Light Years from Parteen’ (1967):

You can watch the rest of the documentary here.

References: Marie Coleman, ‘McLaughlin, Thomas Anthony’, Cambridge Dictionary of Irish Biography Online; Maurice Manning and Moore McDowell, Electricity supply in Ireland: The history of ESB.