The story before the Shannon Scheme

Michael Faraday invented the electric dynamo in 1831, succeeded by the invention of the incandescent lightbulb by Thomas Edison in 1879. This invention kick-started a more widespread use of electricity across the world, replacing gas street lights and opening up a range of opportunities for commercial, industrial and domestic developments.

Street lighting in Dublin

The Five Lamps, at the junction of Amiens Street and North Strand Road, early examples of late 19th century lighting in Dublin. Originally used as gas lamps

The Five Lamps, at the junction of Amiens Street and North Strand Road, early examples of late 19th century gas lighting in Dublin

In Dublin, the first electric arc lamp was established outside the offices of the Freeman’s Journal on Prince’s Street in 1860. Subsequently, the Dublin Electric Light Company was established in 1880, with a small generating station at Schoolhouse Lane. It was given permission to erect a number of electric lights around the city, including Stephen’s Green and Nassau Street. By 1881 there were 17 arc lamps in use in Dublin, rising to 114 a year later. While arc lamps were used to light the main streets of the city, side streets continued to be lit mainly by gas lamps until the more efficient tungsten filament gas filled lamp became available. Read more about street lighting and costs of early electricity in ESB’s annual reports.

In 1892, Dublin Corporation opened a new generating station at Fleet Street with an output of 0.9 megawatts, which was soon replaced by a new station at Pigeon House Fort on the estuary of the River Liffey in 1903, which had a generating capacity of 3 megawatts.

Original equipment at Pigeon House plant

Original equipment at Pigeon House plant

The first electric light aroused considerable public interest especially among leading businessmen who, like their contemporaries in England, were quickly becoming aware of the commercial possibilities of electricity, and a number of small commercial companies began to supply electricity in their localities. Read more about the history of electricity in Ireland here.

Early electricity in rural Ireland

Dublin City power station at Fleet Street c. 1900

Dublin City power station at Fleet Street c1900

The first provincial town in Ireland to have public lighting was Carlow, generated by a flour mill in the village of Milford, owned by Major Alexander. The Carlow system, commissioned in 1889, was opened in 1891 on a night when Charles Stewart Parnell, was addressing a meeting there.

By the early 1920s electricity consumption in Ireland was running at nearly 50 megawatt (MW), 75 per cent of which was used in Dublin. When ESB was established in 1927, the Irish electricity industry had been in existence for over forty years with over 300 small electricity producers around the State, mostly hydro-powered and generating direct current, which could be transmitted only a few hundred metres.

The rate of progress during those early years had been slow, prices were high and consumer numbers were small by international standards. Apart from lighting and heating, little use had been found for electricity in either industry or agriculture.


However, demand for electricity was rapidly growing in 1920s Ireland, and the new Irish Free State government began to consider a large hydroelectricity station. Sir John Purser Griffith, proposed a ‘Liffey Scheme’ with a reservoir at Blessington and power station at Poulaphouca. This would be easy to build, be close to the main electricity market in Dublin, and the reservoir could double as a water supply for the city.

Ireland’s first hydroelectric power station at Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, on the River Shannon, opened in 1929. Ref: PG.SS.PH.326.21

Meanwhile, Dr Thomas McLaughlin, a young graduate engineer from Drogheda, looked towards a solution that would serve the whole country, the River Shannon. This idea had previously been suggested in 1844 by the Irish chemist, Sir Robert Kane, but early plans for a Shannon Scheme were deemed unfeasible, and in any case were delayed by political unrest at home and abroad at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1923, McLaughlin, along with his colleagues at Siemens and his Irish contemporaries began to work seriously on a set of proposals for the scheme – and the rest, as they say, is history.