In Ireland, street lighting on any scale was unheard of before the middle of the 17th century. People going out after dark carried their own lights. The first recorded public electricity supply scheme in Dublin was outside the Freeman’s Journal offices on Prince’s Street with the establishment of the Dublin Electric Light Company with a paid up capital of £15,000. The company had a small experimental station in Schoolhouse Lane. In 1881 there were seventeen arc lamps in circuit and by 1882 this had increased to 114. Supply of current was exclusively for lighting and the new service was seen as offering little challenge as yet to gas, even though a number of large companies, including Pims and Jacobs, had switched on.
The invention of the electric dynamo by Michael Faraday brought in the era of the electric light. In 1892 Dublin Corporation opened a new generating station at Fleet Street designed to supply 81 electric arc lamps to light the principal streets of Dublin. The station had an output of 0.9 megawatts.
In July 1903 the Corporation opened a new station at Pigeon House Fort on the estuary of the river Liffey. It had a generating capacity of 3 megawatts. Soon after, the Fleet Street station closed down. Apart from the use of arc lamps on the main streets, the side streets continued to be lit mainly by gas lamps until the more efficient tungsten filament gas filled lamp became available.
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. Kildare Street, Dawson Street and part of Stephen’s Green were lighted with arc lamps on wooden posts.
The first provincial town in Ireland to have public lighting was Carlow. The system, though simple, was advanced for its time- a generating plant on the Barrow in the flour mill owned by Major Alexander in the village of Milford, four miles from Carlow. 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, 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.
Meanwhile, Thomas McLaughlin, a young graduate engineer from Drogheda, looked towards a solution that would serve the whole country, the River Shannon. This idea was previously put forward in 1844 by the Irish chemist, Sir Robert Kane. It was not until the end of the 19th century that interest in the Shannon Scheme was revived again with the development of hydroelectricity.
McLaughlin, an employee of the German firm Siemens-Schuckert since 1922, studied hydro-electric schemes in Europe and on his return to Ireland in December 1923, presented his findings to Government. After the plans were revisited and approved by an international team of experts, in June 1925 the contract for the development of the hydro-electric scheme on the Shannon began in earnest – the rest as they say is history.