Electrifying the Shannon: The story behind the Scheme that powered a nation

Jess Casey


Jess Casey

Workmen constructing the spiral castings as part of the Shannon Scheme in 1926

Workmen constructing the spiral castings as part of the Shannon Scheme in 1926

IN THE 1920s, a few miles outside of Limerick, the Free State set out to harness the power of the Shannon River as part of a colossal industrial initiative that led to a brighter future for Ireland.

Using the drop from Lough Derg to the mouth of the Shannon to power a run-of-the-river hydroelectric generating station, the Shannon Scheme laid the groundwork for the rural electrification of Ireland. 

‘Powering the Nation’ by design historian Dr Sorcha O’Brien tells the story of the images behind this technological marvel.  

Using archival material, like the paintings, drawings and lithographs created by the artists who were drawn to the project, and photos, postcards and cigarette cards, advertisements and stamps, the book looks at how the scheme quickly became a powerful symbol of our fledgling State.

“It’s very much a period of nation building,” Dr O’Brien tells the Leader, “where you’ve got the new Government, the first Government of the Free State, who are trying to set up all the different sorts of infrastructure. 

“The Shannon Scheme was very much a project that was intended to supply electricity to the country so that the people of Ireland could actually have amenities like electrical power or electrical light, appliances and so on, the same as a lot of other European countries,” she adds.  

A huge amount of people in Ireland didn’t have those facilities at the time.

“There’s small generators in places but there’s no national grid, there’s no national supply of electricity,” she says.

The idea for the scheme came from a young Irish engineer by the name of Thomas McLaughlin, who had spent the early 1920s working for Siemens in Pomerania, now Poland, and an acquaintance of Patrick McGilligan, the Minister for Industry and Commerce at the time. 

“He was working on hydroelectric power stations there and looking at this and saying ‘this could really go down very well at home’,” Dr O’Brien explains.

“At the time there was a lot of people who thought ‘Oh we’ll just electrify the Liffey and provide hydropower to Dublin and then we’ll do the rest of the country later because there’s not really that much demand.’ Whereas McLaughlin was saying ‘No- we’ll go straight for the Shannon.’ Electrify the Shannon and even if that provides more power than we need, we can connect more people to the grid and that power can be used.” 

The Shannon Scheme was a very ambitious project, one that required a generous budget to match.  

“It had a £5.5 million budget, which was 20% of the national budget in 1925. Imagine now, somebody saying 20% of the national budget is going to go on one project, it was massive.”

The contract for the new power station went to two German companies, Siemens Schuckertwerke and Siemens BauUnion.  

“They set up shop in Ardnacrusha and they also had offices in Strand Barracks in Limerick.”

At one point up to 5,000 Irish unskilled labours were employed on the scheme as well as several hundred skilled German workers, adds the author.

“There was a narrow gauge rail line running from Limerick Docks out to Ardnacrusha because so much of the equipment was coming through from Germany. Everybody from miles around was being drafted in to work on this project, particularly when they were building the canals because that needed the most manual labour.

“You’ve got people coming from all around, you’ve got lots of guys from Connemara working, a lot of whom walked down. There was a huge accommodation crisis as well.” 

The book contains collections of photographs taken by German workers documenting their time in Ireland working on the scheme, as well as photos captured by amateur photographers from Limerick who recorded repeated visits to the Shannon Scheme set up by ESB. These collections were key to Dr O’Brien’s research and to telling the story of the scheme, she adds. 

“It was a huge construction sight, there was quite a lot going on. Giant buildings and canals, but there’s also a very human story behind it as well of the people who were working on it and the people from Limerick going to visit it as well.” 

“It became this symbol of Ireland at the same time as being something very technological. You’ve got this idea that something technological could be Irish as well. To us now, that doesn’t seem so strange because we’ve had an IT industry, but in the 1920s this was something more radical.” 

“It also established the ESB which is a hugely important thing in itself. It started off the idea of the semi-state company,” she adds.

“That was very important throughout the 20th century and the work that ESB has been doing over that time period has been really important to the development of the country and it wouldn’t have happened without the Shannon Scheme, without that kickstart,” adds Dr O’Brien.

Powering the Nation by Sorcha O’Brien is available in bookshops and from www.iap.ie.