By Mary A. Moloney

According to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment the Government’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland. It will ensure that all citizens and businesses have access to high speed broadband no matter where they live or work. This will be delivered through a combination of commercial and State led investment. Once completed, all parts of Ireland will have access to a modern and reliable broadband network, capable of supporting current and future generations. This is Ireland 2017.

However, the Ireland of the 1920s was a completely different place. The Irish Free State (as it was then known) came into being in 1922 as a dominion of the British Commonwealth, having withdrawn from the United Kingdom under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. From its foundation, the Irish Free State was embroiled in a Civil War between those supporting the Treaty and its opponents. The pro-Treaty side, organised as Cumann na nGaedheal emerged victorious from the conflict and won the subsequent elections.

Cumann na nGaedheal inherited a backward economy, burdened by Civil War debts and an overwhelming depression in agriculture. The economic realities included the realisation that the Irish economy was enmeshed with the British economy. Few cabinet members had economic experience and the world economy was in recession.

Ireland was a predominantly rural economy and the major industrial area had been partitioned off. The Cumann na nGaedheal governments, led by WT Cosgrave, were highly conservative – being more concerned with establishing the state’s basic institutions after the havoc of the Civil War than with social or political reform.

On the economic front, the Cosgrave administration saw its role as supporting the Irish agricultural export sector by consolidating farms and improving the quality of their produce. Ernest Blythe, the first Minister for Finance, in a bid to reduce the public debt, cut public expenditure from £42 million in 1923 to £27 million in 1926. The Cumann na nGaedheal governments did not see providing social services as a priority and instead cut income tax from 5 shillings to 3 shillings (Lee 1989). Industry was not a priority for the government. The outstanding exception to this and to the generally low level of public spending was the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme at Ardnacrusha and the establishment of the ‘semi-state company’, the ESB.

On 13 August 1925 the first sod was cut at Ardnacrusha, Co Clare, for the construction of the Shannon Hydro-Electric Scheme. The scheme was the brainchild of Thomas McLaughlin, an innovator and academic with a PhD in Engineering who joined the German firm Siemens-Schuckert in 1922. Later that year, he was sent to Berlin to study the design of power plants and the manufacture of electrical machinery. During this time, he also visited operational power plants – one caught his imagination – a power plant in Pomerania – an agricultural region quite similar to his native Ireland. He studied similar models in Canada, the U.S. and Switzerland to name but a few and together with his colleagues in Siemens, decided that hydro-electric power was a more appropriate option than coal or peat as a solution to Ireland’s future energy requirements. As he stated in a 1938 interview on Radio Éireann, “Everything I saw abroad, everything I read of, brought one thing to my mind, can this development be applied at home?” The answer was to be an unequivocal YES!

McLaughlin returned to Ireland in December 1923. Because of his personal friendship with many Government ministers, McLaughlin had the opportunity to present his proposals to the most influential members of Government, with the result that Siemens were given the green light to prepare a paper detailing its full proposals. These proposals were later adapted and evaluated by an independent international team of four experts appointed by the Government. The expert team charged with undertaking a technical and commercial evaluation approved the plans subject to some minor modifications.

The sheer scale of the project was amazing. The ESB archives “Constructing the Shannon Scheme” is a wealth of information in this regard. At the of its construction, the workforce numbered 1,000 Germans and 4,000 Irish workers. The project required the construction of 4 bridges and 9 rivers and the diversion of numerous streams. Approximately 7.5m cubic metres of earth and 1.25m metres of cubic rock were removed. Over 60 miles of railway were built to facilitate 120 steam locomotives, 8 electric locomotives and 1,770 railway wagons. In the first three months alone of the project, 3 x 2,000 tonne freighters and 87 steamers deposited over 30,000 tonnes of equipment in nearby Limerick City.

The plant inventory consisted of 6 x 220 tonne multiple bucket dredgers, 3 x 240 tonne bank building machines, 31 portable air compressors, 13 portable concrete machines, 20 road trucks, 31 barges, plus a number of tugs, launches and pontoons. 8 tower cranes and 3 cableways, each 310m long. The materials inventory lists 23,000 cubic metres of timber, 2,700 tonnes of reinforcing steel, 65,000 tonnes of cement, 10,100 tonnes of fuel oil, 110, 000 tonnes of coal and 700 tonnes of explosives. Naturally, facilities were required for the workforce – these included amongst other amenities, a temporary power station, living quarters for the staff, canteens, stores and warehouses.

With such a monumental project occurring on their doorstep many people visited the site to see for themselves history in the making. The public were encouraged to visit the Shannon Works and guided tours were offered free of charge to those who had paid the 4/ bus fare to the site. The total cost of the project came to £5.2m or 20% of the Irish Government’s revenue budget for 1925. The station was officially opened on 22nd July 1929 and was brought into commercial operation on 24th October 1929.

In an article in The Clare Herald1 earlier this year, ESB’s Plant Manager at Ardnacrusha, Alan Bane “said that the station supplied 100 per cent of the nation’s electricity in 1929… the four turbines are still humming, supplying same 86 megawatts of renewable electricity as when they were first installed… the building of the Shannon Scheme began in 1925 and took four years, involving 4,000 Irish and 1,000 German workers with contractor Siemens-Schuckert. It involved the construction of a 12km long head race canal, hydro-electric station and tailrace. Water is delivered to the turbines by four large, cylindrical steel structures known as penstocks. Each penstock is 41m long, 6m in diameter and can deliver around 100 tonnes of water per second. At the time of completion in 1929, it was the largest hydro-electric station in the world, while a national (110Kv) voltage grid – also a world first – was constructed at the same time, bringing light to Ireland’s major towns and cities.”

Prior to the formation of the ESB and the Shannon Scheme major urban areas did have electricity, but their systems were local and limited. When the ESB was formed in 1927, approximately 45,000 Irish homes and businesses already had electricity. However, this was a privilege. Electricity generation, distribution and supply was owned and managed by approved electricity undertakers (typically a local authority or private business). These undertakers worked independently of each other and used different electrical systems with varying standards. It was very expensive and only available to those in urban areas or those close to the local small power station.

The fact was that many hundreds of towns had no electricity whatsoever and the rural community in general had no hope of access to the benefits of electric power.2   The spirit of the Shannon Scheme was to provide cheap electricity to as many people as possible everywhere in Ireland. While construction continued apace at the new generation station at Ardnacrusha, a new national grid network was being built to distribute electricity in a consistent and standardised system to Irish cities and towns.

From early beginnings ESB realised that the education of the public as to the progress and possibilities of the Shannon Scheme was essential to its success. Following a visit to the United States where Thomas McLaughlin investigated the publicity systems of many of the big Public Utility Companies, he recommended that a Public Relations Department should be established. At first, advertising was broadly propagandist dealing with the possibilities of the Shannon Power Scheme and the general advantages of electricity for domestic and industrial purposes.3 

On October 21st, 1929 the power generated from Ardnacrusha station linked up with the new distribution network and began connecting the cities, towns and many large villages to the national grid. Within 5 months over 40,000 homes and businesses were connected to the grid. This was followed by a campaign advocating the complete and adequate wiring of houses, emphasis being laid on the fact that unless a home was well fitted with ‘convenience outlets’ or wall plugs advantage could not be taken of electricity for general domestic purposes. Following the opening of sales showrooms by ESB, an advertising campaign for the sale of fittings and appliances was inaugurated.4

Towns which had no previous electric power were the first to be connected to the new network. Towns which had electricity before the Shannon Scheme normally took longer to be grid ready as they often required a re-engineering of their local network and installations. The local undertakings also had to be acquired by ESB. Over time, the small local stations were decommissioned as the local network became connected to the grid. As demand increased with the growth in the number of areas and customers getting connected, the unit price of electricity continued to fall. A further 300,000 homes connected by Rural Electrification 1946-65 but the scheme itself continued until the late 1970s. The sheer scale of the rural electrification project can be gauged from early estimates of the materials needed for its completion, namely: 1 million poles; 100,000 transformers; and 75,000 miles of line. 5

By the end of World War 2 in 1945, there were still 400,000 Irish homes without electricity. That was 2 out of every 3 homes. These homes were in the truly rural areas of Ireland and so the Rural Electric Scheme began in 1946 to connect homes spread out over the 792 rural parishes. Connection in Castleconnell began in April 1950 and ended in September of the same year. 889 poles were erected with 72 km of line, bringing 140 consumers on line. By the end of the scheme in 1965, over 300,000 homes were connected using over 1 million poles and by 1975, 99% of Irish homes were connected to the grid.

There is no doubt that the Shannon Scheme proved pivotal to Ireland’s economic growth, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the local turmoil it caused in Castleconnell and especially its effect on the salmon fishing industry. The construction of the Ardnacrusha dam had an immediate effect on fish migration. Initially experts believed that the returning adult salmon would continue to use the old channel, and access the middle and upper Shannon via the fish pass constructed at Parteen dam. Soon after the Shannon Scheme became operational, it was apparent that the greater discharge through Ardnacrusha, attracted fish up the tail race. Other than the seldom used Boat Lock, there was no access route to the upper waters and many potential fish either died or failed to reach their spawning grounds. It was estimated at the time that catches of salmon on the Limerick fishery fell from 414,000 pounds to 42,000 pounds after the dam was built.

Furthermore, the spawning beds of the large spring salmon, which the Castleconnell fishery was famous for, were lost. Suffice to say the impact on angling was immediate and the recommendation for salmon fishing upstream of Castleconnell was dropped from the third edition of The Anglers Guide to the Irish Free State. 6

However, this story does have a happy ending. Years passed. Pressure grew on the government to deal with the problems identified with the construction of the Shannon Scheme and the future survival of the Shannon Salmon. It was proposed that the ESB be responsible for the management of the River Shannon Fisheries. The Shannon Fisheries Act 1935 was introduced by Mr. Sean Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce “an Act to make provision for the management of the fisheries of the River Shannon by the Electricity Supply Board and for that purpose to provide for the payment of compensation in respect of such fisheries by the said board and the acquisition or transfer of such fisheries by or to the said Board, and to make provision for other matters relating to such management or to such fisheries” [19th February, 1935.]

In 1958 the Parteen Hatchery was opened on the Shannon and was the first hatchery in Ireland to rear Atlantic Salmon. Approximately 600,000 salmon fry and 90,000 salmon smolts were released from the Parteen Hatchery in 2016. Eight fish passes and lifts have been built to allow all fish to travel freely along the rivers. 7 

The ESB (Electricity Supply Board) own and manage Castleconnell Salmon Fishery. Water levels are controlled by the ESB at their Hydro Electric Dam three miles upriver. This provides a stable flow at Castleconnell Fishery even in drought conditions. Castleconnell Salmon Fishery is one of the most prestigious Salmon Fisheries in Ireland, located on the Shannon just 7 miles, 11kms upriver of Limerick City… This is an important spring fishery which can provide good fishing from mid-March to mid-May. On a good year up to 200 spring salmon can be taken here averaging about 10-12lbs… Castleconnell Salmon Fishery is undoubtedly one of the most scenic fisheries in Ireland. Richard Lyons of the New York Times wrote in his paper about the Shannon at Castleconnell “The river banks are a Verdant Eden lined with ash, beach and oak, some over 100 years old and home to swans, geese, ducks and otters and is so green that it overwhelms your senses”. 8 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ESB rolled out its Network Renewal Plan (NRP), upgrading and extending the electricity supply to meet the demands of modern Ireland. NRP built on the foundations laid by the Rural Electrification Scheme 50 years before, bringing the scheme into the twentyfirst century, just as the National Broadband Plan aims to radically change the broadband landscape in modern day Ireland.


1 The Clare Herald ‘ESB to open Ardnacrusha station for tours’, Pat Flynn June 1, 2017

2 ESB Archives


4 ESB Archives: Rural Electrification First Phase 1946-1965.

5 Andrew Reale, Limerick Civic Trust and FÁS, ‘The Shannon Scheme and its Effect on the Shannon Fisheries’ (2009-2011).

6 ESB Fishery Information [online] available:

7 Fishing in Ireland [online] available: