Opinion: as the disappearance of the lamplighters from our cities showed, energy transitions have a huge bearing on how we earn a living 

Look around today and you will see wind turbines in the countryside, solar panels on roofs and electric cars on the streets. These new technologies are all part of an energy transition to a low carbon or (even better) zero carbon energy system. Many more technologies will be needed before we reach that goal.

But energy transitions are not just about technology - they are also about people’s lifestyles, life choices and livelihoods. When looking at past energy transitions, this is easy to see. For example, a daily shower is now the norm thanks to electricity and the widespread use of electric showers. Many people live in the suburbs or countryside on the basis of having a car that enables them to travel around. The lamplighters,the profession that used to light up our streets, have disappeared.

The rise and fall of lamplighters is an excellent way to tell the story of a past energy transition. It's a story of energy supply disruptions, technological innovation, new business models, new jobs appearing, old jobs disappearing and the unintended consequences of new technology. During the early 1800s, the only home lighting most people could afford was from candles and the level of public street lighting was severely limited by the high cost of the whale oil used to light the lanterns. City streets were dark and dangerous.

The future of energy supply is blowing in the wind

As continuous whale hunting depleted the global stock of whales, the price of whale oil became so volatile that it spurred efforts at innovation to develop gas from coal (called town gas) as a safer and cheaper alternative for lighting. This shift away from using whale oil may have saved whales from complete extinction, but the subsequent exploitation of fossil fuel alternatives (oil, coal and natural gas) led to global warming.

As city populations grew rapidly throughout the 1800s, city authorities gradually took on the responsibility for greatly expanding public street lighting into all areas of the city, in part to address the perception of high levels of crime in the dark and crowded streets. This required a new lighting infrastructure and labour force - the lamplighters - to operate them. A century ago, if you walked around Dublin at dusk, you would almost certainly have seen a lamplighter walking or cycling around. The Lamplighter, an elegiac poem published in 1929, describes their nightly routine: At evening comes the lamplighter/With measured steps, without a sound/He treads the unalterable round

At the time, there were about 4,400 gas lamps in the city and 25 lamplighters employed by Dublin Corporation. At each lamp, the lamplighter had to delicately maneuver his torch, lifted up on his five-foot Malacca cane pole. Soundlessly touching one by one/The waiting posts that stand to take/The faint blue bubbles in his wake.

As the number of lamplighters was declining, the number of workers in the new energy sector of electricity was booming

Throughout the night, lamplighters often met strange characters. For example, they were sometimes trailed by bug collectors who wanted to catch the unusual insects congregating in their lamps. Other times, they saw terrible events: a lamplighter was witness to the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain in 1920.

Their nightshift status also made lamplighters unique: when curfews were imposed during the War of Independence, lamplighters were one of the few groups allowed out and some were secretly recruited by the IRA to convey messages and smuggle guns, sometimes hiding them inside their lamps.

In the depths of the night, lamplighters occasionally witnessed things the society at the time would have preferred to keep in the dark, in one case, a drunken priest soliciting a prostitute. In the words of one late lamplighter, they "knew everything … seen everything". Their nightly routine ended with all the lamps being manually extinguished too. And when the night begins to wane/He comes to take them back again/Before the chilly dawn can blightThe delicate frail buds of light.

Once electricity began displacing gas in the early 1900s, the lamplighters became a victim of automation. In Dublin, the phaseout of gas lighting began in 1912 and ended in 1957, though it was preserved in the Phoenix Park until the 1980s for heritage reasons.

Lamplighter Paddy Hunter in the Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1989. Photo: Dublin City Council Photographic Collection

But as the number of lamplighters was declining, the number of workers in the new energy sector of electricity was booming. The construction of Ireland’s first hydroelectric power plant in Ardnacrusha in 1929 involved 3000 new jobs, the new utility of ESB became a very large employer, the Rural Electrification scheme of the 1950s involved thousands of workers all over the country, and the electricity meter readers became the dedicated foot soldiers of the new energy regime.

What are the jobs today that might change in a low carbon energy transition? The roll-out of smart meters is likely to end the meter reader, though meter readers have been declining in the past decade as more and more people submit their own meter readings via the internet.

From RTÉ Archives, The Late Late Show in 1996 marks 50 years of rural electrification with writer Alice Taylor and sports commentator Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh.

As a recent SEAI report shows, Ireland has a high share of houses using oil for central heating, which points to the oil delivery man being at risk. Jobs associated with peat have been declining for some time as Bord na Móna transitions from peat to renewables. Appropriate retraining and supports, especially considering the broader trends of automation affecting jobs and employment, are vital to make today’s energy transition a fair and minimally disruptive process.

A transition to a low carbon energy system will have many opportunities. These will arise in such sectors as alternative energy supply chains (such as bioenergy), renewable electricity maintenance (especially wind generation), new business models such as virtual power plants and home energy storage, and retrofitting our homes to make them more comfortable and efficient. The energy system is a human system and people need to be at the heart of how we think about energy transitions.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ