August 25, 2019
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: A light from heaven? Not in my back yard!

‘A light from heaven,’ was how a woman, born in the 1870s, described the electricity brought to her home by the rural electrification scheme which began in the 1940s and continued for two decades.

Her words feature in a very interesting exhibition running at the National Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

It is called ‘Kitchen Power’ and focuses, in particular, on the huge change electricity brought to the lives of rural women, freeing them from much of the heavy labour and drudgery that housework had involved.

By today’s standards, the kitchen implements of the time were primitive and still involved a lot of manual labour. But to housewives used to washing by hand and cooking over a hearth, sometimes by the light of a paraffin lamp, the change must have seemed heaven-sent indeed.

The exhibition makes a great sequel to one run last year by the ESB to mark the 90th anniversary of the Shannon Hydro-Electric scheme, without which, rural electrification would not have been possible.

That scheme, with its hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha, was a courageous act of faith by the new Free State government and, even by today’s standards, a formidable feat of engineering.

As well as the power station and hydro dam, it involved the construction of canals, four new bridges, and a complex system of culverts and sluices. With the help of the German company Siemens and 5,000 workers, the job was completed in just four years.

Today, the process of seeking planning permission would probably take four years by itself, and I doubt if the work would ever be done.

The Shannon scheme involved diverting and damming the river. It brought major construction work to quiet places, untouched by any previous development. The electrification scheme meant pylons and poles, and the installation of cables all across the country.

Today, the outcry against such works would be huge and I doubt if any political party would have the courage to ride out the protests.

But it was a wonderful development which utterly transformed the country and saved rural Ireland, then in even greater danger of decay than it is now.

Ninety years ago, people thought in terms of the country, not just their own back yards, and could put aside parochialism for the greater good.

Today, people who complain loudest about rural decline are often among those who most strongly oppose developments that could help reverse it.

We find gas off our west coast, people object to bringing it ashore. Some TDs try to ban fossil fuel exploration here, yet they voted against a carbon tax in the Dáil. The ban on exploration would ensure continued importation of oil and gas.

Some of us don’t want the windmills which help provide a renewable source of energy, while others don’t want the pylons needed to carry that energy across the country.

There is a strong demand for improved broadband. But some of the people demanding it are out protesting against the introduction of 5G, which could help provide it.

We object to landfill dumps and object to the incinerators that can replace them. We protest about homelessness and object to the modular housing that might help ease the problem.

A crematorium opened last year on a site beside a cemetery in Co Clare. It took twelve years to get through the planning process and around the many protests of residents who objected to the development.

Twelve years! That’s three times longer than it took to construct the entire hydroelectric scheme.

Ironically, the crematorium is near Shannon. If its residents had thought that way in 1929, this 21st century problem would not have arisen – there would be no power now for a crematorium or anything else.

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