By Ben Shorten

Daylight saving, or summer time, was introduced to Britain and Ireland on this day 100 years ago – 21 May 1916.

The Irish daily newspapers published articles on the eve of the change-over offering advice to readers on how to adjust: "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 same week with similar instructions and advised 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.

The adoption of summer time attracted much coverage in the Irish press and, in tone and substance, it stood out amidst articles that continued to be dominated, inevitably, by the fall-out from the Easter Rising and the renewed fighting in Verdun on the Western Front.

In so much as the press coverage offers an accurate guide, Irish public opinion appeared to be in favour of the introduction of daylight saving, though scepticism – and good humour – abounded as to how it might work.

One letter writer 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 to be found in House of Commons when the issue was debated.

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 promptly replied: "You will miss your train."

On hearing lengthy objections from those with farming interests, Samuel offered another sharp response: "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 passed into law without difficulty.

This was not the first time a bill on daylight saving had been introduced, however.

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.

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, William Willett, who published a pamphlet entitled The Waste of Daylight in 1907.

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.

This was subsequently amended to a single jump of 60 minutes.

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

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

Light, he claimed, was a gift from God.

"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 benefit to the public health, there would, Willett believed, be an economic dividend: changing the clocks would result in savings of at least £2.5m per year due to the decrease in the amount of artificial light and by extension of fuel needed during the summer months.

Support for Willett

By 1914 Willett claimed the support of 285 members of the House of Commons.

One of them was Winston Churchill, who spoke publicly in favour of daylight saving as early as May 1911.

In extolling the virtues of the measure, Churchill 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".

Irish MPs listed as being in favour of the bill included leading nationalists such as Joseph Devlin, William Redmond and the unionist Captain James Craig.

A daylight saving bill was first brought before the House of Commons in 1908. It was unsuccessful.

A government-appointed select committee in 1909 rejected the bill on the grounds that there were serious objections to the measure as well as contradictions in the evidence.

This ruling would haunt summer time and further bills introduced in 1911, 1912 and 1914 failed to progress beyond their first reading in the House of Commons.

For all that 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's resistance to the introduction of daylight saving was rooted primarily in what it considered to be the immutability of human nature.

Since the earliest civilisations, humans had used the sun to tell the time and there was the 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, people would, The Irish Times maintained, continue to live their lives by the sun's passage through the sky, but an hour earlier according to the clock on the wall.

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

While less vehement in its dismissal of daylight saving, a subsequent editorial, published in April 1911, remained firm in its scepticism.

As far as The Irish Times was concerned, if the introduction of summer time was as simple and easy as Willett claimed, it would have already been adopted.

Not that the newspaper was resistant to all change. However, their preferred alternative was to see the implementation of Greenwich Time in Ireland.

Irish time, since 1880, was legally 25 minutes behind British time, this being the time difference between Greenwich and the 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, ie. the time according to the position of the sun.

The introduction of passenger trains in the 1820s showed up the shortcomings of this system as 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.

Dublin time wasn't adopted uniformly, however.

There's a story about the scholar JP Mahaffy (Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, 1914-19), who purportedly missed a train in an unnamed rural Irish town because the clock outside the station told a different time to the one inside the station.

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 very real importance.

A court case in England in 1858 set a precedent as to what constituted legal time in the UK.

It gave primacy to local time over Greenwich time.

This ruling remained in force until 1880 when the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act was passed making Greenwich time the legal time in Britain and Dublin time the legal time in Ireland.

On the back of the daylight saving debate there grew a movement in Ireland to adopt Greenwich time, which gained added impetus in 1911 when France belatedly accepted the recommendations of an 1884 international conference on global time held in Washington DC.

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.

Major sectional interests in Ireland lobbied in favour of uniformity.

The Association of Chambers of Commerce passed a resolution supporting it, while in the House of Lords in 1912, the Earl of Shaftsbury asserted 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 its supporters, those who opposed the measure did so out of a misplaced sense of sentimentality.

As it turned out, action on issue of time uniformity between Britain and Ireland would have to wait until 1916 when it was finally addressed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and in the wake of a resolution of the longstanding debate over the introduction of daylight saving.

World War I 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 for reform might have stagnated.

The outbreak of WWI, however, along with the staggering amount of money required to fund it, provided a new context for discussing every measure that might result in savings to the Exchequer. Daylight saving was back on the table.

Speaking in May 1916, as the bill was being introduced, 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.

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.

It did so, as the Kildare Observer put it, with the "utmost smoothness".

The discussion surrounding daylight saving in May 1916 also allowed Herbert Samuel to raise once again the issue of time uniformity.

Samuel believed that it would be greatly advantageous 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.

Pic. National Portrait Gallery, London

No attempt was made until August 1916 to introduce legislation.

Samuel claimed that the state of confusion caused by the Easter 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.

Irish MP John Dillon opposed the Time (Ireland) Bill when it was brought before the House of Commons, 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 Parliamentary Party colleagues, 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.


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.

Professor Luke Gibbons of Maynooth University has observed 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 RS 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.

The topic of Irish time has resurfaced as recently as 2013.

Then, an ill-fated Brighter Evening Bill proposed bringing Ireland into line with Central European time.

In opposing the measure, the then minister for justice and equality, Alan Shatter's response – advising people who want brighter evenings to get out of bed earlier – echoed the 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 should Brexit pass, who knows?

Ben Shorten is a Research and Content Producer for Century Ireland.

An extended version of this article is available in the recent edition of Century Ireland, the online newspaper with news and expert analysis of events from 100 years ago.

The project is a collaboration between Boston College-Ireland, RTÉ and Ireland's national cultural institutions.

For written features, films, archival galleries and educational resources on the Easter Rising, visit Century Ireland