WHEN ABBEYDORNEY SAW THE LIGHT
by TOM SHANAHAN
"I hope to see the day that when a girl gets a proposal from a farmer she will enquire not so much about the number of cows but rather concerning the electrical appliances she will require before she gives her consent including not merely electric light but a water heater,an electric clothes boiler,a vacuum cleaner and even a refrigerator".
The above prophetic words were spoken by Sean Lemass in the Senate on March 7th,1945, exactly two months before World War II had ended.
While it might be difficult nowadays for people to understand why anyone should refuse an essential like electricity ,the simple fact was that in those days people had been surviving quite happily using other sources of energy, and could easily continue with candlesticks and oil lamps rather than electric light bulbs, open hearth turf fires and ranges rather than electric cookers and simply cheap washing boards and female muscle power rather than electric washing machines. As for domestic electric refrigerators these were perceived as outrageous luxuries best confined to Hollywood films.
In 1949/50, the breaking of the mould of the traditional way of life by introducing rural electrification met with the usual resistance in Abbeydorney as experienced in other rural areas. The cost factor was the main objection to its acceptance. The "ground rent" element of the cost had stirred up deep rooted historical memories of hated rack-renting landlordism. People did not want to tie another rent around their necks. Most felt it was a luxury they could not afford. For old age pensioners with no other source of income, it was a most daunting change in lifestyle. Now in their twilight years they were being asked to part with the soft homely glow of the oil lamp and the flickering penny candle. With their meagre pensions they could not afford the price of electrical appliances. During their lifetime the open hearth fire, which provided them with warmth, was never allowed to go out. Now they were being advised to replace it with an electric fire. Small farmers, with uncertain incomes, saw no merit in electrification. Neither did some of the unemployed. The road to electrification in Abbeydorney and Kilflynn parishes became a thorny one for its innovators. All through 1949 and 1950 the electrification debate raged. At the village corners, church gates, creameries and in pubs the issue was discussed. The local clergy joined in the debate and in the course of their parochial duties did much to remove the unreasonable uncertainty and irrational fears which had permeated the debate.
The following is an apocryphal story which went the rounds in the early nineteen fifties, which illustrates the conservative attitude of many users and potential users towards the new power source. An elderly woman in West Kerry had her house wired but insisted there was to be no sockets in the walls because she could not afford any of these new-fangled appliances. She also insisted that there was to be only one light socket in her house and that this socket was to hold the lowest wattage bulb available because she had visions of ending up in prison through not being able to pay the bill. After some months, the meter-reader called and he was very puzzled by the meter reading which was almost nil. "I suppose you don't make much use of the electric light, Mam", he commented politely. "Oh, faith and then, I do, Sir" replied the old woman. "In the evening times, always I switch it on while I am searching for the candle".
When the Abbeydorney and Kilflynn parishes were selected for development the E.S.B. construction crews moved in. The day of reckoning had arrived. Parishioners were now faced with the choice of wiring their houses or of backing down and opting out of the Scheme. The majority opted to join the scheme and signed the requsite contract document. The recruitment of local men to supplement the E.S.B. crew was welcomed by the local community, and the E.S.B. crew were to experience the traditional rural hospitality of the Abbeydorney and Kilflynn people. In the local pubs the E.S.B. men and local workers joined together in jovial conviviality at the end of a hard days work. The younger members of the E.S.B. crew patronised the local dance hall in Abbeydorney and danced with the local girls whom they had met in the course of their work.
Finally in 1951 on the evening fixed for the "switch on" crowds gathered in Abbeydorney village to witness the greatest socio-economic change in the parish in the present century. History was made when the late Rev. Fr. J. O'Connell, C.C. switched on the first public electric light from an E.S.B. standar in front of the Abbey Tavern.
Among those present at this ceremony were; Margaret Browne, Mrs. May O'Brien, J. Moloney, B Brosnan, J O'Donovan, Patricia Harmon, T O'Brien, Noel Mahony, Kathleen O'Brien, Finian O'Brien,Bosco Christy, T Ryall, T Shanahan, K Glavin, Liam Glavin, Jimmy Walker, Bill Harmon, Bill Hurley, John Riordan, Mrs Browne, Michael O'Riordan, Mrs Mary Anne Hurley, Michael Rice, Ned Sheehan, John Linehan, Tim Long, Joseph Hurley, John Harrington, Jim Harrington, John Lovett, Connie Harmon, Joan Hayes, Mary Hayes, Winnie Moloney, Colette Roche, Nancy Lawlor, Mickey Lawlor, Michael Ryall, Eitne Roche.
This switch-on scenario was common, and a retired E.S.B. worker now living in Tralee, told me of the following occurrence which he witnessed while working in a rural village in the West of Ireland.
On the stage of the local hall the large metal-clad switch, which had seen service in many similar ceremonies in other villages around the country, held its place of honour in the centre of the stage. On one side of this special switch sat the local Roman Catholic parish priest. On the other side sat the local Church of Ireland Rector. Amid hushed expectancy the parish priest stood up, said the appropriate prayers, and then operated the switch. Nothing happened. There was a shocked silence. Then a loud voice from the back of the hall cried out "let the Reverend Mister Seymour have a go". This broke the tension as the audience laughed and applauded. The Church of Ireland clergyman responded to the applause by standing up and bowing solemnly. Immediately following the bow, the village hall blazed into light. This time the cheers and applause lifted the roof. The explanation for this "miraculous" event is, I'm afraid, quite mundane. A diligent electrician, working backstage, had just rectified an electrical fault.
I wish to thank John Lovett,Oakpark, Tralee, and Dave Neilan of Oakpark, for their assistance in the compilation of this article.