The Clare Herald’s book reviewer Sally Vince looks at books about Clare or by a Clare-based author. This time Sally reviews Then There Was Light, edited by PJ Cunningham and Dr Joe Kearney.
‘Then There Was Light is a unique collection from a wide range of contributors recalling their memories and experiences of the Rural Electrification scheme which was rolled from the mid-1940s across Ireland.
The stories provide a valuable snapshot of the time when Ireland left the dark ages as ESB brought light into the midst of even the most remote communities.
This book celebrates the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the Rural Electrification scheme which then ran through the 1950s, ’60s and into the 1970s’.
A call for stories for inclusion in Then There Was Light, an anthology to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Rural Electrification, was put out across Ireland (including on The Clare Herald earlier in the year. The editors, PJ Cunningham and Joe Kearney, received hundreds of submissions and have chosen sixty-four of them for the book: fifty-seven stories – mostly memoir – and seven songs/poems.
Some of the pieces are by people who worked on the scheme and others are by people who were affected by it. All together and with the benefit of some fascinating photos, drawings and advertisements they provide an invaluable insight to a short but immensely important and life-changing time in Ireland’s rural history.
It is hard to believe today that some people needed persuading that electricity in the home and on the farm was a good idea. In some cases it took the local priest to influence householders. Farmers in particular were careful of the purse strings and “were slow to see beyond the cost until they were asked by young ladies at dances whether they had ‘got the electricity in?’”.
There are three entries from County Clare:
“When Your Politics Was Known By The Make Of Your Radio”, by Agnes Coughlan from Clonreddan, Cooraclare. (Philips for Fianna Fáil and Bush for the “Blueshirts”, in case you were wondering.) Agnes says, “I remember that September night we used the switch for the first time – it was strange, almost like living in someone else’s house.” Having power for the radio “opened a new world”, including better access to news (“in all sorts of languages if you kept twisting the dials”).
“A Lifetime Between Poles”, by Gerry Malone, who was brought up in Cragmoher, Corofin. This entry tells the story of Paddy Malone, Gerry’s father, who dug the hole for the first pole that brought electricity to Corofin. That pole now stands on family land and is still being useful!
“Saboteurs Who Kept Us In The Dark”, by Eamon Ginnane, a native of Carrigaholt. The grand “switch on” for the village – where “the oldest person available would symbolically quench a candle and the youngest child would turn on the light switch” did not go according to plan! Eamon also recounts how the scheme provided much-needed work for people in the village and how for some it had more far-reaching benefits, such as for his brother Thomas, who worked for the ESB until he earned enough money for his passage to London and then to New York, where he got work with the Chase Manhattan Bank.
All the stories in this book provide snap-shots of people’s lives in similar vein to the stories from our County Clare contributors – some sad, many humorous, many documenting how lives were changed by getting electricity into their homes and farms. It is such an interesting, readable book that records “one of the most important and economic developments of 20th century Ireland”. It’s incredible to think that only seventy years ago most rural homes were without electricity.
A documentary containing stories from the book and other interviews airs on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday, 5 November exactly 70 years to the day since the first pole was erected in the Rural Electrification scheme.