The switching on ceremony was the celebratory pivotal moment of rural electrification. In the early years, the connection of a small remote parish captured the imagination of the media and full coverage was reported in local, national newspapers and on radio. The reporting of the switch on dwindled as the scheme became more widespread.
The switch on was a date not to be missed in a rural area, typically there was a gathering of the community in the local hall with the local leaders all in attendance, most notably, the local clergy, county councillors and one or two senior representatives of ESB. On special noteworthy occasions, a Government minister attended.
It was usually arranged that the switch on the stage simultaneously switched on all the village houses and street lights, as well as the lights in the hall. Where this was not feasible, a signal to strategically placed operators achieved the same result.
Speeches were made, paying tribute to the organising committee and to ESB staff. The historic importance of the occasion was noted and hopes were expressed that the coming of the light was symbolic of the dawn of a new era of enlightenment and prosperity for the community. Almost invariably the opening verses of the Gospel of St John were quoted ‘…and the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness hath not overcome it …’. A blessing was frequently made by the clergy of the different denominations, and the guest of honour was then invited to press the switch. Switch on was usually followed by a celebratory evening of entertainment, organised by the local committee and the crew as guests of honour.
Local businesses were among the first to appreciate and avail of the new power. In Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, one of the first of the newly developed fluorescent lights made its rural bow in a small thatched public house on the night of the switch on in summer 1948. In September 1950 ice cream was on sale in the village of Templetuohy, Co. Tipperary, one hour after the first consumer had been connected.
In the Ballinlough area on the Roscommon/Mayo border there were three separate switch ons, the first was held in Ballinlough itself as befitted the importance of the principal centre. This was quickly followed by a second in Cloonfad and a third in Garrnalahan, each occasion being marked by a supper and dance. In Drumlish, ‘the local committee provided an excellent supper which included fresh salmon and champagne, followed by an excellent musical programme’. Champagne was also produced at the switch on banquet in Woodford, Co. Galway, where afterwards two celebration dances were held simultaneously.
There were some very special switch ons to mark special milestones. In February 1952 the fifth anniversary of the connection of the first rural consumer was celebrated when the 55,000th consumer, the parish hall in Kilasaran, Co. Louth, was switched on by the parish priest, Fr. McEvoy, Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken and ESB Chairman, R.F. Browne. An exhibition of electrical equipment was mounted by REO and local traders. This included, for the first time, a television set as county Louth was on the fringe of the service area of the BBC’s Northern Ireland transmitter. It is recorded in the area report, however, that ‘unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately , it was a bad night for reception or he (the TV dealer) would have stolen the show’.
The switching on of the 100,000th rural consumer, the Ballinamult Creamery of the Knockmeal Co-Operative Society in County Waterford, by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass on 1 March 1954. On this occasion, as well as a large contingent of ESB chiefs, the attendance included all the local TDs, senators, county councillors and other public representatives and to quote REO News ‘all the residents within miles of Ballinamult’. Television continued to push itself to the fore as ‘with the co-operation of Pye (Ireland) Ltd. the complete proceedings were televised with receivers placed to show the ceremony to overflow crowds both inside and outside the building’
In May of the same year (1954) a very special ceremony took place in Rosmuc, Co. Galway when the Taoiseach, Éamonn de Valera, attended the switch on of the area which took place outside the former cottage of his friend Padraig Pearse. It is notable that this was the only occasion on which de Valera as Taoiseach participated in such a ceremony.
Perhaps the most original approach to a switch on was in Mountgordon in County Galway. At the request of Fr Hennelly, PP, a film of the event was made by the members of the camera club in Castlebar. Shots were also taken of the area crew at work during various stages of construction. The edited film was sent to America to play an important part in an appeal for funds for the building of a new church.
The construction crew also shared in the general euphoria of the occasion as an extract from an article in the final issue of REO News in 1961 notes:
‘Not all will perhaps admit it, but there were very few Rural Area Engineers who did not feel a glow of pride and satisfaction as they surveyed their first group of consumers after they had been switched on. This pride was also evident in the faces of the crew as they gathered, as was general in those early days, at the local church, hall or school and watched a local celebrity press a switch and listened to the gasps of delight as night was made into day; or as they strolled down a village street under the light of the new street lamps; or listened to the purr of a newly-installed electric motor carrying out its task of relieving some of the toil and drudgery of the country side’.