The Shannon Scheme:
and the Electrification of the Irish Free State

Andy Bielenberg (editor)

Lilliput 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
A key nation-building project of the newly created Irish Free State, the 1920s Shannon Scheme involved the diversion of most of the flow of the Shannon River through a hydroelectric power station at Ardnacrusha; this was combined with the construction of a transmission system to electrify the country.

The Shannon Scheme is a collection of essays on different aspects of this project. Rather than presenting any kind of unified history, these tackle a wide variety of topics.

Brendan Delany begins with a biography of Thomas McLaughlin, the Irish engineer who had worked for the German firm Siemens-Schuckert and was the driving force behind the Scheme. He was also the first managing director of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which nationalised the small existing electricity providers.

Lother Schoen describes the politics and broad economics of the Scheme: the debates in parliament, decisions about funding, the building of cross-party support, the evaluation of the Siemens proposal by international experts, and so forth. There were alternative proposals for schemes on the Liffey River which would have served just Dublin.

Michael McCarthy looks at some of the conflicts over living conditions for workers on the Scheme. With thousands employed or seeking employment, there was immense pressure on housing, medical resources, and social security, leading to arguments over the allocation of responsibility between different levels of government and Siemens. There was a notable failure of organised labour to mobilise workers and "the whole episode was a signal black mark in the state's labour history".

Gerald O'Beirne and Michael O'Connor evaluate the importance of the Scheme for Siemens-Schuckert, focusing on its finances.

"While in the short term for Siemens the Shannon Scheme generated significant losses, from a more long-term perspective it could be viewed as a loss leader. For the House of Siemens, the execution of the Shannon Scheme was the one single event that marked the reappearance of the firm on the world electrical scene following the gloom of the Great War and its aftermath."

Brendan Delany describes the railway system built for construction of the Scheme, which was "one of the most critical factors behind the success of the entire project".

Andy Bielenberg gives a biography of the painter Seán Keating, whose best-known subjects were rural Gaelic culture on the Aran Islands and the construction work on the Shannon Scheme. He was not an official artist for the latter, but had his works purchased after the event by the ESB.

Bob Cullen presents some technical details about the turbines and generators and other infrastructure, and describes how this performed in the seventy years following construction and how it has been maintained and upgraded, in line with modern ecological and safety concerns. Producing 96% of the country's electricity in 1931, the Ardnacrusha power station now produces only 1.5%, but it retains a special significance for the ESB and key parts of older systems have been preserved as historically important.

A selection of black and white halftones reproduces photographs of equipment and construction work and some of the people involved. And the essay on Keating has colour halftones reproducing some of his key paintings of the Scheme works.

July 2011

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- Andy Bielenberg - Irish Flour Milling: A History 600-2000
- books about Ireland
- more economic history
- books about engineering
%T The Shannon Scheme
%S and the Electrification of the Irish Free State
%E Bielenberg, Andy
%I Lilliput
%D 2002
%O paperback, photographs, notes
%G ISBN 1843510081
%P 168pp