The completion of the new ESB Headquarters on Dublin's Fitzwilliam Street Lower by Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike Architects may be currently in the headlines, but dotted around our country are modernist remnants of the first Irish State electrification enterprise – the Shannon Scheme. One such remnant is the Ballymahon ESB Substation in Cornacarta, in southern County Longford, built around 1950.

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was set up in 1927 halfway through the construction of the hydro-electric power plant at Ardnacrusha, County Clare. In a paper prepared by the Department of Industry and Commerce in 1926, it was stated that the aim of the Shannon Scheme was 'the electrification of the whole Free State…not only the town dwellers, but the rural population as well.’ What came was the Rural Electrification Scheme rolled out in the late 1940s and 1950s which changed our working and domestic lives.

From October 1929 six towns and villages across Longford were directly supplied by the Shannon Scheme with 71 homes and businesses in Ballymahon connected to the network by 1936. ESB Substations of this nature were built to a common plan with a standard design, regardless of whether they were powered by turf or, as with Ballymahon, by hydroelectricity.

Ballymahon substation is a detached, two-storey substation with square-headed door openings and window openings with glass block window fittings. The linear fenestration pattern and flat-roofed profiles show an awareness of the contemporary Modernist movement. Although there is no architectural practice attributed to this building, it could be by Downes and Meehan, an architectural partnership of Joseph Vincent Downes and Felix Bernard Meehan who designed similar substations in Leitrim and Westmeath around this time. The substation is located within its own grounds with a yard to the front containing electrical transformers and machinery. On the building is a green street sign.

The smooth, rendered walls are branded with the distinctive thunderbolt-and-wave ESB logo, providing some visual interest on an otherwise quite stark, functional structure. This was the ESB’s first logo designed by Francis Joseph Brandt (1894 – 1975) in the early 1930s, a design consultant in the ESB Public Relations Department. It consists of a circle with an electrical spark jumping between two waves, symbolising the production of electricity by the Shannon Scheme.

Brandt designed the colour schemes for the power stations as well as offices, shop fronts, interiors, and exhibition stands. He also worked as a freelance graphic designer and in 1941 the Dublin United Transport Company commissioned him to design a symbol to accompany the olive-green bus livery then being introduced. The result was the iconic "winged wheel" or the "flying snail" which was adopted nationally when CIÉ was formed in 1945 and in use until 1964.

Buildings of this form are of social, economic, and historic importance. Although of a modest and strictly functionalist typology, these substations were central to the modernisation of Ireland and are an important part of its rural industrial heritage, precursors to the current data infrastructure. It seems incumbent on the ESB to properly maintain these buildings to ensure its survival into the future and for us to celebrate them, along with its logo from the golden age of in-house graphic designers who helped construct modern Ireland.

Photographs by David Maguire