The success of rural electrification was in no doubt due to the successful collaboration between ESB and local communities in rural Ireland. In an interview in 1980 with Michael Shiel, author of the Quiet Revolution, William Roe stated:
the original parishes were formed by monks sent out from the monasteries ….. We chopped the parishes around somewhat, but tried to keep them as the nucleus of each Rural Area. We found the GAA idea was a great help, because most of their teams were parish teams…their loyalty was owed to the parish and in this way we had rivalry between the parishes as to which should get the electricity first.
The Government in its approval of the scheme in August 1943, stressed that priority should be given to the most remunerative areas with the stipulation that initially one area must be developed in each county. For reasons of efficiency and control, the work was decentralised within the framework of ten ESB ‘country’ administrative districts and after the initial selection of one area in each county, the contest for priority was between areas within each ESB district.
The main advocates and influencers in the community for rural electrification were farmers, clergy, teachers, shopkeepers, public employees and other rural dwellers who were more aware of the benefits of electrification, both to themselves and to their community. In most cases the early selection of an area depended on their influencing skills in persuading their more reluctant neighbours to sign up along with the local rural electrification committee consisting mainly from voluntary organisations such as Muintir na Tíre, Macra na Feirme, Macra na Tuaithe and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA).
Muintir na Tíre
William Roe had been an active member of Muintir na Tíre since its foundation in 1938. He was a personal friend of the founder, Canon John Hayes and the two collaborated and shared the same ideals to ensure the success of rural electrification. It was through this mutual belief that the idea of the parish rural electrification committee was established.
The composition of these local communities varied. Sometimes they evolved from the local guild of Muintir na Tíre, sometimes from Macra na Feirme, the local co-operative society or the parish council; in many cases some local people simply came together and formed an ad hoc group. Every effort was made to avoid identifying the committee with any political party or denomination.
The main function of the committee was to carry out the preliminary assessment of demand for electricity in an area and submit this to ESB in the form of a memorial signed by all householders who embraced the installation of electricity in their homes. Where the response was highest an official canvas was then carried out by an REO Area Organiser who measured up the premises, determined the fixed charges and secured householders to sign official application forms. From the very start there was a very high degree of co-operation between Muintir and REO. The parish guilds were crucial in initiating and organising the preliminary canvass to establish the priority for the official ESB canvas.
In the Irish Press on 5 February 1949, Ora EC Kilroe outlines an account from West of the Shannon:
Two young men descend on us like a heavenly visitation. They are a deputation from the local Committee and want to know if we will take the electric! I can hardly believe my ears. What a boon and solace it would be and how miraculously it would lighten the unrelenting drudgery of a farmhouse. I walk about all day in a dream of immersion heaters, electric irons, churns, incubators and husband happily contemplates oatcrushers. We hear only one in the District has refused it, a hardy old dame of 85 who says indeed she will will not have it and be setting fire to the hatch’.
REO participated in the annual highlight of Muintir Rural Week and in 1947 Roe was invited to give a talk on rural electrification. An exhibition of electrical appliances was mounted at St. McCartan’s Diocesan College, Maynooth. Subsequently REO participated in many rural weeks. The following year at Carlow the main REO theme concentrated on the steps necessary for inclusion on the scheme. In 1952 at Summerhill College, Sligo, there were demonstrations in electric cooking.
A film ‘Running Water’ was also shown each day to promote the concept of water on tap in the house and farmyard. In 1956 at Killarney rural week the emphasis was placed on power tools suitable for farmers where manufacturers mounted exhibitions and working demonstrations on the benefits to local industry which included drilling, sawing, welding, brazing, ceramics and small stained-glass work. The close co-operation in rural weeks continued until 1970 when the weeks were replaced with an annual national conference.
Macra na Feirme and Macra na Tuaithe
Farmers discussion groups were first formed in 1942 and soon led to the formation of a national organisation of young farmers clubs, with a central executive in 1944. In September 1947 a national headquarters was opened by Seán T. O’Kelly, President of Ireland in Athy. In December Macra na Feirme was officially adopted. Young Farmers Journal, a fortnightly paper was launched in 1948, the forerunner of the Irish Farmers Journal.
Macra na Feirme was established to promote the educational, cultural and social interests of young farmers. In 1955 a separate organisation, the National Farmers Association, later re-named the Irish Farmers’ Association, was founded to look after the economic interests of farmers.
From the very start Macra na Feirme gave very strong support to the concept of rural electrification. Like Muintir na Tíre, it helped to organise local canvases and to support REO in the official canvass and selection process. There was a great deal of dual membership and in many cases the two organisations worked closely together to try to ensure early selection of their parish or area. REO staff attended with films and demonstrations at various Macra functions, gave lectures on the applications of electricity at their winter programmes and co-operated in organising competiitons, while Macra members strongly supported REO’s efforts to extend and develop the scheme. On at least one occasion the REO stand at the RDS Spring Show was designed and staffed by members of Macra.
In 1951 the idea of a junior Macra to cater for the 12-18 age group was born. The new organisation was given the title of Macra na Tuaithe. It was broadly based on the same concept as the American 4H Clubs with strong emphasis on the principle of learning by doing.
Throughout the country, Macra benefited from a grant of £30,000 over a five year period in 1958 by the American WK Kellogg Foundation to help promote its purpose. The National Youth Foundation was established to ensure the continued finances of Macra when the initial Kellog grant came to its expiry date in 1963. Irish industries and commercial entities were invited to contribute an annual sum.
Over 200 companies responded positively. ESB became a member of the Foundation from its inception and participated in a scheme of national awards, which had been founded to encourage initiative and effort among its members. In addition to its membership of the foundation, ESB sponsored an annual Home Improvement Award for Macra members. The award was for the planning and carrying out of an interior decoration scheme, and was jointly sponsorship by Wallpapers Ltd.
In the same year, ESB contributed towards the costs of an annual Macra Leadership course involving 50 participants, at the ICA residential college at An Grianán. In 1967 the Home Improvement Award was discontinued owing to difficulties associated with its supervision and was replaced in 1968 with a new competition sponsored by ESB entitled ‘Know Your Area’. The Irish Farmers Journal also joined in on the project. From 1971 onwards ESB were the sole sponsors of the event. It unearthed a formidable array of talent among the youth of rural Ireland. In 1981 Macra na Tuaithe changed its name to Foróige or the National Youth Foundation, to reflect the fact that it was no longer an exclusively rural body.
Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA)
The ICA was founded in May 1910 by Anita Lett. It was first named the United Irishwomen, later renamed Irish Countrywomen’s Association. The purpose of the ICA was to organise women in every district in Ireland for community service and to improve the country’s domestic and reconstruct its social life. ICA embraced the onset of rural electrification and formed a great working relationship with ESB. In particular the advent of rural electrification brought nearer the prospect of piped water to rural Ireland and the association threw itself into a full scale campaign to promote this specific benefit in addition to promoting the benefits of electrification as a whole.
ESB mounted a special display at the ICA annual fair at the Mansion House on 8th and 9th November 1950, with water as the central theme. The centre-piece, designed to make a strong initial impact, was a huge aluminium water tap out of which water was gushing at the rate of 2,500 gallons per hour. James Dillon, Minister for Agriculture in his closing remarks at the fair stated:
Young ladies of the country; make it known that there will be no more marriages until there is hot and cold water on tap in in the kitchen
Apart from water, the importance of good design and layout in the achievement of a labour-saving home was continuously stressed by the ICA. ESB and ICA worked collaboratively at the annual RDS Spring Shows with exhibitions of a typical farm kitchen, designed by architect Eleanor Butler. The displays were such a success that a mobile version of the rural kitchen was taken out on the road and travelled the length and breath of the country. Schoolchildren took part in essay competitions on what aspects of the kitchen impressed them most!
In 1954, ICA were presented with their headquarters at An Grianán by the Kellogg Foundation. The design of the mobile kitchen was incorporated into the new headquarters and used as a training kitchen for young rural housewives. ESB provided the electrical equipment and awarded fifty-four scholarships annually from 1954 to cover six-week courses for secondary school students.
A further set of twenty-seven annual scholarships were sponsored by ESB for senior ICA members, in homemaking, with emphasis on the use of electrical aids to improve the standard of household management.
In 1960 ICA launched a national campaign at their Head Office in Stephens Green to develop rural water supplies. The Farmers Gazette of 3rd September 1960 recorded the announcement of the ICA campaign: ‘every Irish countrywoman must become a preacher in this campaign. If each and every one of us lifts her voice and demands water for rural homes, the present scandal will be remedied, for it is a scandal that only 12 per cent of rural homes, have a piped water supply’.
Throughout rural electrification, ESB and ICA fostered a mutually beneficially working relationship which was reflected throughout many of ESB’s internal publications.