Friday, August 14, 2009

Shannon Scheme for the Electrification of the Irish Free State: A Showcase in Nation Building and Socio-Economic Development

By John A. Akec*

And God said, "let there be light", and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, … Genesis 1:3-4

Early in the year 2002, the IEEE’s (Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers), History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA; recognized "The Shannon Hydro - Electric Scheme for the Electrification of the Irish Free State" through its prestigious Milestone Awards. This award is given to international projects regarded to be of great historical, technical, economic, industrial, and social significance.

The Irish Republic, then known as Irish Free State obtained its independence from Britain in 1921 and entered Civil War between 1922 and 1923. On 13th August 1925, the Government of Irish Free State signed contract with Siemens to undertake the construction of a hydroelectric power station on Shannon River (Ardnacrusha, Ireland) to "bring the benefits of electrification to it's citizens by providing a platform for the social, economic and industrial development of the nation".

It was a huge and expensive venture, we are told, by international standards at the time of its construction. The Government had to spend the equivalent of 20% of the whole national budget revenue on the scheme. The Government’s critics dubbed the Scheme the "Mc Gilligan's White Elephant."

Furthermore, the German company, Siemens which won the contract (other companies from US, Britain, and France competed), had to use new straight from research laboratory, hitherto untested technology, such as the use of then newly invented 30meters head Kaplan turbines in its generators. Despite all the challenges, the project was completed successfully and handed over to the Electricity Supply Board of Ireland (ESB) on 24th October,1929. The ESB was founded by a Government ‘s Order on 11th August 1927 (two years before project completion- good planning that is!).

The design submitted by Seimens in just six months asked for the construction of a small dam or weir on the river upstream of the village of O' Briensbridge, five kilometers south of the town of Killaloe. Then a canal was erected from the weir to Ardnacrusha some 12.6 km away where the power station was to be housed. At Ardnacrusha, the canal ends in a 30-meter high dam through which the 6-meter diameter penstocks feed the water to the turbines in the power station just below the dam. The water leaving the power station was to be carried by way of a tailrace 2.4 km long canal back to the River Shannon, about 3 km upstream of Limerick.

The project drew wide international interest, particularly in the USA, Britain, and Germany. Franklin Roosevelt wrote to ESB PR Officer describing the Scheme as "magnificent" and asking for a copy of Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927, as well as the official minutes of the debates in the Irish Parliament. It is reported that when Roosevelt later became the US President from 1933 to 1945, he consulted the information for the Tennessee Valley Project, which he had started in 1933 in the South East of the USA. The Tennessee Valley Project too became a success, and hence Shannon Scheme became a model to be emulated around the world.

At the time of opening, Shannon Scheme supplied 96% of electricity of the Free Irish State. Today, its contribution is 2% of the total national electrical consumption as the demand has increased over the decades and the sources of energy have been diversified and expanded.
The project affected the development in Irish Free State in many ways:

1) It brought in a new know-how, facilitated technology transfer, and contributed to the development of engineering profession in the new nation. Due to the luck expertise at the time, the Government brought in experts from Switzerland, Norway and Sweden to inspect and evaluate the detailed designs submitted by the competing firms. A Canadian was appointed as chief engineer to supervise the electrical and mechanical parts of the project. Assistance was provided by the US, Germany, Holland, and Sweden in project organisation, distribution, and marketing of electricity. The subsequent governments of Irish Free State for decades later repeated the same approach causing the technological gap between Ireland and the rest of the world to be reduced quickly.

2) It impacted social, cultural and artistic life of Irish Free State by providing the first framework on which these aspects were built. For example, the formation of ESB (Electricity Supply Board of Ireland) was the first most successful body. In 2002, the ESB celebrated it 75th Anniversary and still running strong!

3) It led to improvement in the economy of the new nation.

4) It crushed any lingering doubts that the Irish people may have about themselves and boosted their self-confidence as those able to turn long held dreams into a living reality.

5) It led to Seimen’s fame as a world-class no-nonsense engineering company.

W.M. Harland commented in Financial Times (December, 1928) about the project saying:

"For half a century the country under the British regime toyed with the suggestion of harnessing the Shannon. The British are a hardheaded and practical folk, but they jibbed at such a venture. Then the Free State came into being, and ardent untried administrators, remembering that they had always being accused of being dreamers, seized on this chance of showing what they can do. So they flung themselves on the Shannon Scheme, though never forgetting the practical benefits they hoped to realize from it for agricultural and industrial development of the land. The President and his colleagues are the shrewdest of psychologists. They have had thrown on their shoulders the not easy task of breaking what in reality is an enormous inferiority complex and the Shannon Scheme is one and probably the most vital of their methods of doing it. The faith of the Free State in the nation-wide hydro electric venture is as steadfast as a religious belief".

Later in 1940, S. MacEntee, the then Minister for Industry and Commerce stated powerfully his view of the importance of the Irish Free State Electrification Project in these words:

'I think the development of our water power does put us in a position of independence and does give us a national task which has important reactions upon our psychology. I think it is true to say that the fact that we are able, so soon after the unfortunate civil war, to undertake the development of the Shannon scheme had a good effect upon us all. We can all look back and take equal pride in the fact that there were some people who had the courage and the vision to tackle the project at that time.'

In conclusion, I have nothing but admiration for those early politicians of Irish Free State known to many of us today as the Republic of Ireland. We in South Sudan can draw many vital lessons from them.

You can read more about this exciting venture by visiting IEEE History Center at:

* This article was first posted on SSNET on 19 November 2002