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Here comes the summer: how Daylight Saving Time came to Ireland
Families enjoying sunshine on the beach in Bundoran. The Daylight Saving, or Summer Time bill was drafted in order to give people more light by which to enjoy their evenings during the summer months Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Here comes the summer: how Daylight Saving Time came to Ireland

by Ben Shorten

Daylight Saving, or Summer Time, was introduced in Great Britain and Ireland on 21 May 1916. The Irish daily newspapers published articles on the eve of the change explaining the measure: ‘Just put on your clock and watch an hour, and work, play, and sleep when their fingers indicate the appointed hour.’ The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne, had issued a poster earlier in the week with a similar explanation, stating that this altered time would be observed for all ordinary purposes during the summer including licensed houses, factories, workshops and other establishments where hours are regulated by law.

This story received quite a lot of coverage in the Irish papers, perhaps surprising in the wake of the Easter Rising. As the degree of destruction visited upon Dublin became apparent, headlines were dominated by stories of executions, civilian deaths and martial law. This, as well as reports on renewed fighting in Verdun on the western front made for drab reading, but amidst it all, both in tone and in content, articles on Daylight Saving stood out.

Public opinion, as portrayed in the press, seemed to be in favour of the measure, although reports were tinged with scepticism. One correspondent to the Irish Times warned those with court dates scheduled of the importance of keeping to the new time: ‘…a sleepy plaintiff or complainant who arrives an hour after his case has been dismissed with costs may get a shock, while a defendant may be dumbfoundered [sic] to find an escort ready to march him off to undergo a month’s hard labour for an offence to which he may have had a perfect answer.’ 

A similar dry wit was also to be found in House of Commons debates on the issue. When questioned by a critic of the bill as to what would happen if he didn’t put his clock back, the Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel replied: ‘You will miss your train.’ On hearing lengthy objections from those with farming interests he further exclaimed: ‘There are other people in the world besides farmers.’ In the House of Lords, Lord Balfour posed a riddle: twins born in October, one on either side of the clock reverting to standard time. This would result in the younger twin technically being born before its sibling, which might result in difficulties with regard to inheritance of land or titles.

Despite opposition in both Houses of Parliament, the Summer Time Act, 1916 was passed without difficulty and with the support of the British government. However this was not the first time a bill on Daylight Saving had been introduced. In fact, on no fewer than five occasions between 1908 and 1914, similar bills had been brought before Parliament and each time had failed to make the transition to the statute book. On the three most recent attempts they had failed even to pass their first reading. What had changed?

The Waste of Daylight
The origins of Daylight Saving can be traced back to the 18th century. In 1784 Benjamin Franklin, in a tongue-in-cheek letter to the Journal de Paris, suggested it as a way of saving money on candles. The concept was popularised by an English building contractor named William Willett. In 1907 Willett published a pamphlet entitled The Waste of Daylight. In it, he proposed reducing the length of four consecutive Sundays in April by 20 minutes, thereby moving the clocks forwards by 80 minutes for the summer months.

The cover of the 1914 edition of Willett's pamphet The Waste of Daylight.

He was motivated primarily by a desire to provide workers with extra light for leisure time in the evenings:

‘Light is one of the greatest gifts of the Creator to man. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily, and courage is bred for the struggle of life. Against our ever-besieging enemy, disease, light and fresh air act as guards in our defence, and when the conflict is close, supply us with the most effective weapons with which to overcome the invader.’

Alongside this great perceived benefit to the public health, changing the clocks would result in savings to the Exchequer amounting to at least £2.5m per year due to the decrease in the amount of artificial light, and by extension fuel, needed during the summer months.

By March 1914 the pamphlet was on its 19th edition. The tone is identical to that of the original but the details are different. Rather than introducing an 80-minute change incrementally over the course of a month, Willett now advocated a single jump of one hour. Despite this new version resulting in 20 fewer minutes being saved per day, the predicted financial dividend remained the same.

The updates and additions in each new edition of The Waste of Daylight were supplemented with frequent letters to the press. The Irish Times published a number of letters from Willett during this period in which he described the progress being made by the campaign. This public platform also offered him an opportunity to appeal to supporters to write to their local MP to ask them to support the bill. He provided his address, informing readers that he could furnish them with ‘any particulars relating to the proposal on hearing from them’.

William Willett, the 'indefatigable' advocate of Daylight Saving. (Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London)

Support for Willett
By 1914 Willett claimed the support of 285 members of the House of Commons. In fact, as early as May 1911, Winston Churchill spoke at a meeting in favour of Daylight Savings alongside the Lord Mayor of London. Churchill extolled the virtues of the measure, claiming that it would benefit the ‘physical, mental, moral and financial welfare’ of the country. He also rather romantically predicted that future happier generations would erect statues in honour of Willett and ‘would decorate them with sunflowers on the longest day of the year’.

Senior members of the Conservative and Labour parties in both Houses were also listed as supporters as well as leading literary figures and publicly elected bodies, Chambers of Commerce and trade unions. Irish MPs listed as being in favour of the bill included leading nationalists such as Joseph Devlin and William Redmond and unionist Captain James Craig.

One particularly active convert to Willett’s cause was Robert Pearce, MP for Leek. In 1908 he introduced a Daylight Savings bill to the House of Common. It passed its first and second readings but despite receiving approval from a Select Committee, failed to successfully navigate the other legislative stages. Another government-appointed committee in 1909, rejected the bill on the grounds that that there were serious objections to the measure as well as contradictions in the evidence. This ruling would haunt Daylight Saving. Further bills introduced in 1911, 1912 and 1914 failed to progress beyond their first reading in the House of Commons. And even though Willett maintained that support for his idea was growing, it appeared for a long time that the bill would never win sufficient backing to become law. 

The Irish Times vs Daylight Saving
Within Ireland, one of the principal opponents of Summer Time was the Irish Times. The newspaper took issue with the idea that the government would introduce legislation to control their hours of sleep or to force them to have breakfast at seven o’clock when the ‘common experience of mankind has taught us that it is pleasanter to have early tea at eight’, referring to it, possibly with a touch of hyperbole, as ‘barbarism’.

This opposition was born of the idea that since the earliest civilisations, humans have used the sun to tell the time. There was a sense that people’s basic daily routine – sleeping, waking, eating – was somehow inextricably linked to the sun. Rather than being able to adapt to this new time, the country would continue to live their lives by the sun’s passage through the sky, but an hour earlier according to the clock on the wall. This explains the slightly condescending tone of their instruction – ‘…when the fingers indicate the appointed hour…’ – stressing the need to focus on the clock time rather than solar time.

A similar argument was made in the House of Commons. One MP sought to remind his colleagues of ‘one important feature of human physiology’ which was that a person’s vitality was at its lowest in the early morning. This, he was concerned, might lead to a drop in productivity amongst the country’s 1.9 million munitions workers, which in turn would have disastrous effects on the war effort. In a time before air travel, the idea of sudden jumps in time carried potential unforeseen risks that some found unsettling.

The Irish Times argued further that the cost of giving more time to enjoy the summer evenings would be a grotesque distortion of the gradual changing of the seasons:

‘Surely the evenings, with their slowly-growing shadows, are the greatest attraction of the summer months. There is no prospect less alluring than that of an artificially constructed midnight sun. The crude and never-ending daylight would banish from the world half the beauty and all the romance of summer.’ 

Another editorial the following year, though less vehement in its dismissal of Daylight Saving, remained sceptical: ‘We have a suspicion somehow that the idea is too good to be true. It is so simple, and sounds so plausible, that, if there were no radical objections to it, the common sense of the business public would surely have adopted it long ago.’

They offered an alternative however – the adoption of Greenwich Time in Ireland. Irish time, since 1880, was legally 25 minutes behind British time, this being the time difference between Greenwich and Dunsink Observatory, just north of Dublin. Bringing Ireland in line with the rest of the UK would therefore give an extra 25 minutes of sunlight in the evenings – a similar affect to Willett’s scheme but ‘it would have this advantage – that this course is logical and natural, while Mr Willett’s proposal is not’.

Uniform Time
The issue of uniform time between Ireland and Britain was a separate, albeit overlapping issue. By the end of the 18th century, clocks and watches had become commonplace, replacing the sundial as the primary means of public timekeeping. Local communities kept solar mean time, i.e. the time according to the position of the sun. This meant that when it was 1pm in London it was 12.56 in Nottingham, 12.48 in Bristol and 12.35 in Dublin. Galway and the west of Ireland was a further 11 minutes behind Dublin. The introduction of passenger trains in the 1820s showed up the shortcomings of this system. Lack of consistency made it difficult to create accurate timetables. The Great Western Railway, in 1840, ordered that London time should be used in all its stations. Other railway companies followed suit and in this way, London time was spread to railway towns throughout the UK and similarly, Dublin time was spread to other towns in Ireland.

The line of longitude at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (left) was chosen as the prime meridian for time in 1884. The picture on the right shows the Transit Telescope which observes the time of passage across the Greenwich meridian of 'clock stars' (Images: The Pictorial Handbook of London (1854) via the Internet Archive & Illustrated London News [London, England], 21 April 1922)

Dublin time wasn’t adopted uniformly however. Professor Luke Gibbons of Maynooth University, in an analysis of the manifestations of time in James Joyce’s Ulysses, tells a story about J.P. Mahaffy, appointed Provost of Trinity College in 1914. Mahaffy purportedly missed a train in an unnamed town in rural Ireland because the clock outside the station told a different time to the one inside. When he complained about this discrepancy to a local he was told: ‘If they told the same time, there’d be no need to have two clocks!’

The issue of conflicting clock times was one of genuine importance. One instance of confusion, a court case in Dorchester in 1858, would have far-reaching consequences. The clock in the courthouse was set to Greenwich time, but the clock in the town was set to local time. A case was set to begin at 10am. The defendant arrived at the courthouse punctually by the town clock, only to find that the judge had ruled against him in his absence, having begun the trial by the clock in the court. The defendant appealed and the decision was overturned.

This ruling set a precedent as to what constituted legal time in the UK. It stated: ‘The time appointed for the sitting of a Court must be understood as the mean time at the place where the Court sits, and not Greenwich time, unless it be so expressed.’ This ruling remained in force until 1880 when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act was passed making Greenwich time the legal time in Great Britain and Dublin time the legal time in Ireland. While the Act didn’t explain the difference in time this piece of legislation solidified the 25-minute difference between the two islands.

On the back of the Daylight Saving debate there grew a movement in Ireland to adopt Greenwich time. It became a topic of serious discussion in 1911, when France belatedly accepted the recommendations of an 1884 international conference on global time held in Washington D.C. The 25 countries represented at this conference voted in favour of making the line of longitude through Greenwich the prime meridian for time, meaning that time zones around the world would be linked to it. France's decision left Ireland as one of the few countries in Europe that wasn’t operating on a time-zone based on this prime meridian.

Significant sections of Irish society were in favour of uniformity. The Association of Chambers of Commerce, which met in the Examination Hall in Trinity College in August 1911, passed a resolution in favour of it. Speaking about the issue in the House of Lords, the Earl of Shaftsbury claimed that supporters also included ‘all the railway and steamship companies, all the county councils, urban councils, rural district councils, and the industrial and agricultural communities of the North, South, East, and West’ of Ireland. According to supporters of the measure, those opposed did so out of a misplaced sense of sentimentality.

One aspect of that ‘sentimentality’ was well expressed by William Field, an MP from Dublin, who argued that Dunsink time was distinctly Irish due to the ‘the immutable laws of nature’ and declared that calls for it to be changed were as absurd as ‘requesting a sun, moon and stars to be sent across the channel’.

A postcard depicting an Irishman's outrage at the difference in time between Dublin and London: 'Is it there, yez are, ye two-faced Lyin' Blaguard wid yer mane Blarney about the Sun; no Sun ivir riz anywhere, afore it did in Ould Ireland! England afore Ireland! nivir!! Hurroo!!!' (Image: Donal Fallon, Come Here to Me)

A more patriotic opposition only appeared after the bill was passed. In 1918, Constance Markievicz claimed that the abolition of a distinctly Irish time would act as a recruiting tool for the Sinn Féin political movement. J.F. McCabe, writing in The Dublin Magazine in 1927 stated: ‘Some differences of opinion exist as to whether the Free State is, indeed, free. There can hardly be freedom which ignores the laws of space and time and the profound implications of these.’

But during the debate itself opposition along these nationalistic lines was muted. In the upper house, Lord Oranmore and Browne declared ‘as far as this proposal is concerned I must declare myself a Home Ruler’, describing it as an ‘act of Saxon tyranny’. The highest profile Irish opponent in Parliament was the MP John Dillon, although his opposition was more based on the fact that he felt the measure was being introduced without the consultation of his Irish Parliamentary Party and without sufficient time to gauge the feeling in Ireland.

The lack of any strong opposition in the press at the time might have been due to the fact that wartime censorship and restrictions introduced with the Defence of the Realm Act had resulted in much of the radical press in Ireland being suppressed. Also, in the wake of the Rising, many of the radicals themselves had been interned.

The First World War and Irish time
William Willett died in 1915. Without his indefatigable advocacy, and bearing in mind that attempts to introduce a Daylight Saving bill in the preceding years had met with increasing levels of opposition, it is reasonable to expect that the movement might have stagnated. The outbreak of the First World War, however, along with the staggering amount of money required to fund it, provided a new context for discussing any and every measure that might result in savings to the Exchequer. Daylight Saving was back on the table. Herbert Samuel was emphatic in his assertion that the government ‘would not have dreamt of favouring this measure or of inviting the House to consider it unless it had reason to think that it was essentially advantageous for war purposes’. Germany had introduced Daylight Saving earlier in 1916 and the British government lived in fear of the Kaiser getting the upper hand in any aspect of hostilities. Samuel also stressed that it was only to be introduced for the duration of the war. Even the Irish Times, so often a vocal critic of the measure, seemed to have warmed to the idea, albeit only slightly, admitting that ‘it is possible that, for the sake of economy in lighting, apart from any question of health, people might be ready to recognise as desirable a change in their habits which a few years ago chiefly excited their ridicule’.

In Westminster the bill still had its critics, most notably from those with agricultural interests. However, not wanting to appear to oppose too strenuously a measure that would help the war effort, their opposition amounted to little more than bluster and the bill was passed with an overwhelming majority. It received royal assent on 17 May 1916 and came into effect for the first time on 21 May with, according the Kildare Observer, the ‘utmost smoothness’.

The discussion surrounding Daylight Saving in May 1916 allowed Herbert Samuel to revisit the issue of time uniformity. Samuel believed that it would be a great benefit to have the whole of the United Kingdom operating on the same time. The reversion from Summer Time to Standard Time in October 1916, he suggested, would offer the perfect opportunity to synchronise the time between the two islands.

No attempt was made until August 1916 to introduce legislation. Samuel claimed that the state of confusion caused by the Rising made it impossible to gauge the feeling in Ireland on the issue. Also, while Daylight Saving was intended only for the duration of the war, the assimilation of Irish and British time would be permanent. John Dillon opposed the Time (Ireland) Bill when it was introduced, stating that Irish people liked that time difference: ‘It reminds us that we are coming into a strange country.’ Despite opposition from Dillon and his Irish Party colleagues, however, the bill passed and Dublin time was lost to history, overshadowed by the more dramatic events that had preceded it in 1916 – the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

John Dillon opposed uniformity of time between Ireland and Great Britain in the House of Commons (Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London)

The issue of time telling has been a constant source of interest to humankind. As methods of keeping time have improved there has been a struggle to maintain a balance between accuracy and practicality. Uniform time within a country or region facilitates transport, trade and communication. These are three areas of life that, in a modern sense, were in their infancy at the beginning of the 19th century. As their importance grew, so too did the tendency towards seeing time as flexible. The clock on the wall replaced the sun dial. Pragmatism triumphed over purism.

There is also a political aspect to the imposition of time zones on whole populations: a feeling that the adoption of a time zone based on a line of longitude in a different country is in some way an admission of national inferiority. France, when adopting Greenwich time in 1911, made sure not to refer to it as such. Instead they defined the new time as being nine minutes and 21 seconds behind Paris time. Prof. Luke Gibbons suggests that the timing of the abolition of Irish time almost makes it seem like it was done in retaliation for the events in Dublin during Easter 1916. As for Daylight Saving, the opposition came from rural agricultural communities. Rev. R.S. Devane, writing in 1939, argues that Daylight Saving was an example of the producers of the national wealth of Ireland being sacrificed to ‘economic parasites’ in towns and cities. The two measures taken together can be seen as an attempt to undermine Ireland’s sense of national identity and, in the process, to relegate its primary industry to second class status.

Irish time has been a topic of debate as recently as 2013. The ill-fated Brighter Evening Bill suggested moving Ireland in line with Central European time. Then Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter’s response – advising people who want brighter evenings to get out of bed earlier – eerily echoed responses to William Willett’s original proposal a century earlier.

For now any further change in Irish time seems unlikely due to Ireland’s close relationship with the UK, specifically Northern Ireland. But with all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, who knows?


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.