Energising the Irish public: Demonstrations and Exhibitions

So the physical work of rural electrification was almost done – the poles were up, the line was laid, and more and more premises in the area were being connected every day. But the success of the scheme depended on more than just the ‘switch on’ of the lights – as Michael Shiel notes, ‘it was essential that the new customers should not only be shown how to make the best use of the new power but should be actively encouraged to do so’.

With this in mind, REO undertook ‘a widespread programme of education, demonstration and promotion’, focusing on the benefits of electricity both at home and on the farm.

Mobile demonstration, 1951

Mobile demonstration, 1951

 

Watt a difference! The roll out of the 100W bulb

The three light sources of an Irish rural home, 1966

Mrs Nellie Long of Cahirfelane with the three light sources of an Irish rural home, 1966

In the homes of rural Ireland, the change from the soft glow of an oil lamp to the much harsher light of the electric bulb was a big one. Low watt bulbs were often preferred, to minimise both the contrast with the familiar oil lamp and the perceived high cost of electricity.

In order to change such perceptions, a free 100W bulb was offered to each premises under the scheme. In Mount Delvin, Co. Galway, 60% of consumers replaced this bulb with one of a lower wattage, because they felt it made them feel sick, and even that it ‘tended to put out the fire’. It was further disliked for its merciless betrayal of poor housekeeping skills. However, one Rural Area Engineer in Co. Tipperary discovered that if he first installed a 60W bulb, then replaced it with a 100W bulb a few weeks later, ‘by then, they had got used to the 60 watt level of lighting so the jump to 100 watt was not so great’.

REO News, October 1958, p. 13

REO News, October 1958, p. 13

 

Generating a buzz about electricity

Despite increasing installation of the 100W bulb in the rural kitchens of Ireland, the REO was keen to impress upon the Irish public the many benefits of electricity beyond just ‘the light’. For many, electricity at home and in the farm brought entirely new ways of living and working, as described by one blacksmith in Tinryland, Co. Carlow:

REO News, November 1948, p. 6

REO News, November 1948, p. 6

How then did the REO succeed in generating a buzz about electricity in rural Ireland? As the below extract from REO News illustrates, it was recognised early on that the far-reaching benefits of electricity had to be ‘seen to be believed’:

REO News, March 1948, p. 5

REO News, March 1948, p. 5

The REO, and more specifically the Area Organiser (AO), at first took a ‘gentle’ approach in the community, building relationships with customers, as well as local committees, voluntary organisations and the clergy, before launching a full-on sales-pitch. Click here for a closer look at the approach adopted by the AO in engaging the rural public.

Male demonstrator and two interested housewives, c1960s

Male demonstrator and two interested housewives, c1950s

REO developed a variety of demonstration types to reach a wider audience. All approaches had a strong customer focus and were sales driven – the success of a demonstration was measured by the resulting sale of appliances. These events had a dual focus: firstly, to combat the ‘high-cost’ image of electricity; and secondly, to promote the broad range of benefits offered by electricity, including those that may not have been readily apparent, such as the provision of running water in the home.

One appliance in particular was promoted by the REO, the 1/4 horse power (hp) motor. This item was particularly valuable for the farm, as it used only 1 unit per hour hours of work, ‘in which time it could perform better than the strongest worker’. Shiel notes the important influence of the younger generations in adopting such new technologies to ease rural life:

At one venue the operation of a root pulper by the tiny 1/4hp motor was being demonstrated to a cautious farmer … the farmer’s young son was observed trying to persuade his father to invest and simultaneously urging the REO man to intensify his efforts when Dad appeared to hesitate. Evidently his interest sprang from the fact that he was responsible for pulping on the farm.

Cookery demonstration, c1950s

Cookery demonstration, c1950s

Demonstrators were highly trained by the REO. Each was issued with a detailed file containing all the information they needed to get a community excited about electricity. The below extracts give us an insight into why demonstrations were important, and how they were approached by the staff:

 

Going the extra mile

During the implementation of the rural electrification scheme, the REO staff worked hard to establish themselves within the community, to foster lasting relationships with consumers, and to position themselves as ‘experts’ all things electric. Maintaining such a status required a lot of work, and the REO News contains various examples of REO staff ‘going the extra mile’ for the customer.

In The Quiet Revolution, Shiel highlights an incident where a woman in Kerry wished to purchase an electric cooker in time to host the Stations of the Cross a few days later. This was duly organised, and the appliance delivered and installed with two days to spare. However, fearing that the lady of the house may not have remembered all the instructions to operate the cooker, the AO called to the house on the morning of the event. Sure enough, he found her ‘in state of desperation’:

Too late, I considered … so I donned an apron, secured pots, pans, eggs, bread for toasting etc. and I cooked the breakfast for twenty people, including two priests, clerks, [and] farmers with big appetites.

 

Spreading the message

To compliment the work of the AOs and Demonstrators in the community, REO launched a large scale PR campaign, seizing every available opportunity to generate publicity for the scheme.

In 1961, for An Rás Tailteann, a national multi-stage cycle race organised by the National Cycling Association, an REO demonstration van accompanied the competitors, washing and drying 500 items of soiled clothing in front of a large audience at each stop. The van was adorned with the slogan ‘Electricity Leads in the Race for Cleanliness’.

REO also produced a range of pamphlets and booklets on all aspects of electricity, and took out ads in 56 daily and evening newspapers, farming weeklies, and weekly and monthly magazines, all the while positioning electricity as the mark of modernity and the vanquisher of the drudgery of rural life.

An early morning creamery demonstration, and a breakfast of tea and sausages served by the AO

An early morning creamery demonstration, and a breakfast of tea and sausages served by the AO

ESB were extremely active in reaching out to local communities and voluntary organisations. This led to the establishment of a number of highly successful projects, including the long-running rural exhibition at the RDS in Dublin, and the National Wholemeal Breadmaking Championships.

 

A cyclical process

So did all of this work? The figures show that it did – consumption and demand for electricity was a cyclical process. In 1964, the average installation was 2.5 sockets per household, but by 1974 this had risen to 5.5 sockets. The tables below, taken from The Quiet Revolution, demonstrate the increasing interest and consumption of electricity, as well as the most popular electrical appliances:

ESB’s sustained programme of education, demonstration and promotion had succeeded in making electricity ubiquitous, an essential component of rural as well as urban life in Ireland.

 


References:
1. Rural Electrification Collection, ESB Archives.
2. REO News, December 1947 – November 1961
3. Michael Shiel, The Quiet Revolution (O’Brien’s Press, 2003).

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