We are going to put into the homes of our people in rural areas a light which will light up their minds as well as their homes
– Deputy James Larkin Junior, 7 March 1945
The Rural Electrification Scheme began in Ireland 70 years ago, described as the greatest social revolution since the Land Reforms of the 1880s and 1890s. The coming of electricity to rural Ireland brought about fundamental changes in the lives of people and opened up unlimited opportunities for rural development.
A dream of rural electrification
The electrification of rural Ireland had been envisaged since work first began on the Shannon Scheme in 1925. Dr Thomas McLaughlin, the founding father of ESB, believed that rural electrification represented ‘the application of modern science and engineering to raise the standard of rural living and to get to the root of the social evil of the “flight from the land”.‘
However, the financial resources were not available to extend electricity to rural Ireland in the first days of the newly formed Irish free state and in the 1920s and 1930s. Electricity from the Shannon Scheme was supplied to roughly 240,000 premises in towns and cities only, leaving over 400,000 rural dwellings without power. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, ESB and the government began working on broad plans for rural electrification, and the state agreed to subsidise its roll out. However, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 delayed the process, and work could not start on the scheme until after its end in 1945.
Life before rural electrification
It can be hard to imagine how difficult life was in rural Ireland before electricity supply was widely available:
- Activity on the farm and in rural households was dictated by the availability of daylight. After dark, limited lighting was provided by oil lamps or candles.
- Water had to be drawn from a well, and carried home by foot or by cart.
- Clothes had to be washed by hand, or with a hand-powered ‘wringer washer’.
- Heating and cooking depended on solid fuel, such as timber and turf, often cut and harvested by the family. Cooking was confined to an open hearth or range.
- Food safety was difficult to ensure without any form of refrigeration, a particular difficulty on the farm and in the dairy.
- Industrial development was not feasible without a supply of electricity.
Connecting rural Ireland
The Rural Electrification Office (REO) was established to oversee the roll out of the scheme, based at 42 Merrion Square, Dublin. The first phase of rural electrification ran from 1946-1965, bringing electricity to 81% of rural Ireland. After 1965, work continued to connect the last remaining areas to the national grid, with 99% connection by 1975. The last area to receive electricity was remote Blackvalley, Co. Kerry, in 1978. Click here for more information on this process.
Life after rural electrification
The immediate impact of electricity was apparent, greatly reducing the drudgery associated with many home and farm tasks:
- Rural homes now enjoyed light at the turn of a switch, as well as a range of modern conveniences – electric kettles, irons, heaters and corn grinders.
- Electric water pumps brought running water on tap, eliminating the chore of drawing water from the well and enabling the development of group water schemes from the 1950s.
- Farmers could now utilise modern farm technology, such as infrared heaters for piglets and chickens, outdoor lighting to enable him to work past dusk, feed grinders, electric welders … the options were limitless.
- Rural Ireland was now a viable location for new industries, providing employment, reducing emigration and boosting local economies.
Ultimately, electrification offered rural Ireland the opportunities for a quality of life appropriate for the twentieth century.
Click the image on the left to view a brochure produced for the 50th anniversary of the scheme in 1996, outlining further information relating to the domestic, commercial and industrial benefits of rural electrification.