Electricity and the Building of Irish Modernity

Ardnacrusha
Ardnacrusha: The 1920's biggest Irish tourist attraction

The country can’t afford it, it will take too long and what is more, there simply is not the demand. All excuses used to knock back, initially, Ireland’s first national power generation scheme, Ardnacrusha, in the 1920s and then the Rural Electrification Scheme in the forties.

Ardnacrusha was a monument to modernity, a huge concrete hydro plant built on Ireland’s largest waterway, the Shannon. And this in a country that had barely emerged from the fogs of Victorian colonialism. In fact, even that seems far too grand a concept for Saorstát Éireann in 1925, a newly forged country run by “young men standing amongst the ruins of one administration with the foundations of another not yet laid and with wild men screaming through the key-hole” to re-hash Kevin O’Higgins famous description of early government.

Ireland was a country with zero industry, zero money and outside of Dublin, zero electricity. And yet with the help of some vorsprung durch Siemens, it had the imagination and the willpower to sign off a nation changing capital project. The cost, £5m, 20% of the government’s annual budget at the time. What’s more, the project came in on time and went over-budget by a mere £150,000.

With memories of Ardnacrusha still alive, the Rural Electrification Scheme was conceived in 1945 to bring light to the majority of Ireland’s two million rural dwellers. Again, the scheme was described as madness. It took already 2,000 miles of line to supply Ireland’s towns and cities, it would take a further 75,000 miles to reach the parts other electricity schemes could not. 1,200 transformers existed in the country in 1945. Another 100,000 would be required to finish the job. And roughly one million wooden poles would have to be found somewhere (Finland!). Ireland was still an agrarian nation, the war had destroyed trade with its only market, the UK, and as in the 20s, it had not a pot to piss in. Yet 15 years later the scheme was nearly done, Ireland’s dispersed population had at last running water in their kitchens, lightbulbs in their hallways and the ability to serve Guinness Extra Cold in the local.

I recall all of this for two reasons, the first, I’ve spend the week reading the history of electricity in Ireland. It makes for a tidy case study of local and national identity, technology and politics. But more than that, it illustrates how the identity of Ireland was produced (indeed reflexively co-produced) in the mix of nationalism, ambition, engineering feat and civic pride that went into these crazy big projects. And maybe that pot needs to be stirred again.

The second reason, the week begun with a pair of regressive statements from leading members of Ireland’s commentariat, Myers and O’Toole. Myers produced an unusually il-informed libertarian monolgoue on the foolishness of investment in wind energy in light of this harshest of winters. O’Toole meanwhile would be the Hugo Chavez of Western Europe, bemoaning foreign ownership and low extraction taxes of hydrocarbons beneath Irish waters. Nationalise them all he didn’t quite say but was certainly well on the road. But in that he missed the big point, as did Myers. Ireland is in a position not entirely dissimilar to that of the 1920s. A tired old administration hasn’t even bothered ordering 2011 diaries, its work is done. The new government is going to be faced with some big choices, propping up banks, endorsing the EU-IMF deal, and as O’Toole alludes to, the hegemonic kowtowing to Big Oil engaged by their predecessors.

They will likely claim, as will governments elsewhere in Europe, that big capital projects are off the table for now. The rules of our new austerity prevent such dreaming. But that’s the thing about dreams, they’re usually the events of our histories re-imagined. And as oil heads back to $100 per barrel, if we were to bring out our pencil and squared paper, what would an energy-secure Ireland (or UK for that matter) look like now I wonder. Maybe, if their number can be found, it’s time to call back those nice men from Siemens.