Analysis: the largest civil engineering project in the history of modern Ireland went into operation in Co Clare 90 years ago today

By Richard McElligott, UCD 

On July 22nd 1929, the President of the Irish Free State, W.T. Cosgrave, stepped onto the erected outdoor stage at Parteen, Co. Clare. After a brief speech to the assembled crowd, he ceremonially pushed an electric button to raise the gates of the recently completed intake weir. Seconds later, the first tonnes of water raced through a canal towards the hydro-electric plant at Ardnacrusha.

This simple ceremony marked the official opening of the Shannon Scheme. It represented the most audacious economic venture of Cosgrave's presidency and laid the foundations for a social revolution across the new Irish state.

WT Cosgrave and dignitaries at Ardnacrusha in 1929

 The success of the Scheme was all the more remarkable given the context in which it was conceived. By 1924, five years of incessant warfare had left the country bankrupt and its infrastructure in ruins. Despite the Free State's victory, a significant portion of the population still contested the legitimacy of the Cumann na nGaedheal government. Unemployment was chronic and for many hunger was ever present. During a Dáil debate which highlighted the desperate plight of thousands of jobless families as another winter approached, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Patrick McGilligan, unnervingly observed that "there are certain limited funds at our disposal. People may have to die in this country and may have to die through starvation."

Nevertheless, Cosgrave’s administration would now commit itself to the largest civil engineering project in the history of modern Ireland. Since the mid-19th century, proposals for harnessing the hydropower of the lower Shannon had been mooted. A Government taskforce had already identified a lack of electrical supply as the impregnable barrier to modern economic development. Little wonder, when Ireland consumed the second lowest percentage of electricity in western Europe.

Inside the spiral casing of the 36000 turbine in May 1929. Photo: used with kind permission of ESB Archives

The Shannon Scheme was ultimately the brainchild of Thomas McLaughlin, a young Irish engineer working for Siemens in Berlin. He envisaged the construction of a dam at Parteen at a point where the Shannon river dropped by 30 metres. This would channel water, via a canal, to an upstream power station at Ardnacrusha. The energy generated would be enough to supply electricity to every urban centre of over 500 inhabitants in the Free State.

An initially hesitant Cosgrave eventually endorsed McLaughlin’s vision and McGilligan was tasked with bringing it to fruition. His boundless enthusiasm and energy forced through the successful completion of a daunting project against notable public and political scepticism.

Unloading machinery for the Shannon Scheme at Limerick docks. Photo: used with kind permission of ESB Archives

For a regime noted for its social and economic conservatism, the Shannon Scheme represented a remarkable financial and economic gamble. That the Government was prepared to take this risk highlights how it was viewed as much more than a simple feat of engineering. It would be the personification of the new state's economic modernisation. It represented a monumental act of faith – that out of the darkness of Civil War, Ireland could see a brighter dawn, a better future.

More than this, it was the flagship of Cumann na nGaedheal’s nation-building exercise – their attempt to legitimise their Government and the new State institutions as the extension of the democratic will of a sovereign people. For an administration often pilloried for abandoning the ideals of 1916, it offered an emphatic rebuttal. The project was presented as an epic manifestation of Patrick Pearse’s call for a "free Ireland" that would "harness the rivers". Indeed, the language surrounding it was cloaked in the rhetoric of the Irish revolution, except now the "courage", "sacrifice" and "bravery" of the battlefield was being refocused into this visionary commitment.

Inside the main control room at Ardnacrusha in 1929. Photo: used with kind permission of ESB Archives

The contract with Siemens was signed on August 11th 1925. To begin, a new 13km canal had to be blasted and dug out and 76 locomotives moved thousands of tons of rock and clay. A peak workforce of 4,800 was housed in nearby camps and fed a diet of 3,000 calories a day to sustain the arduous physical labour. The scale and grandeur of the endeavour captured public imagination. 250,000 tourists visited the site and Siemens published a monthly Progress on the Shannon bulletin, which showcased the latest developments.

Artist Sean Keating was commissioned to capture the project for posterity. Perhaps the best known work of his Shannon Scheme painting cycle is Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out. It depicts a young family – the symbol of Ireland’s future – pointing excitedly to the rising monolith of the hydro-electrical dam with its promise of hope, modernity and advancement. The centre is dominated by the figure of an engineer, standing confidently and looking with disdain on the gunman saluting him with deference – personifying how the new heroes of Ireland are the men who will create, not destroy.

Artist Sean Keating painting his Shannon Scheme cycle. Photo: RTÉ Stills Library

Once completed, the Shannon Scheme was the largest of its kind in the world. The final cost came in at over £5.2 million (€344 million today). Under McGilligan, the Government drove a miser's bargain and Siemens successfully delivered the massive undertaking for little or no profit for themselves.

Yet ultimately the Shannon Scheme proved to be an aberration rather than a harbinger and the promised industrial development to exploit it never materialised. Regardless, it enabled Ireland to create the first national electrification grid in Europe. Within a decade, Ardnacrusha was suppling 87% of Ireland’s electrical demand. The Shannon Scheme also laid the foundation for the electrification of rural Ireland completed between 1946 and 1975.

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ESB video about Ardnacrusha

It is hard to adequately quantify the immense economic, social and indeed cultural impact the 'quiet revolution’ begun at Ardnacrusha had on this island. As the Irish Times observed, "never before or since had an Irish government taken such a calculated risk and never before had a single economic project assumed such importance as a fundamental act of nation-building".

Dr Richard McElligott is a lecturer in modern Irish History at UCD’s Lifelong Learning Centre.

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