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Mrs Ellen Scannell gets running water into her kitchen in Lissivigeen, County Kerry, April 1962. ESB Archive
rural ireland

'They can't believe how we lived' - How electricity cut down the drudgery of life in rural Ireland

‘It was like having a maid around your house.’

BEFORE ELECTRICITY STARTED to reach rural Ireland in the 1940s, nothing was simply as easy as turning on a light switch. 

Food couldn’t be refrigerated, farm work had to be done in daylight and water was drawn from a well. 

It is difficult to imagine in 2019 how people survived in these conditions, but a new exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life may help shed some light.

The exhibition was launched on 19 July by former President Mary Robinson at the museum in Co Mayo.

It focuses on the impact rural electrification had for women in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. spoke with two women from rural backgrounds who told their experiences of life before electricity. 

‘Pure drudgery’

Maura McGuinness grew up in Inis Oírr on the Aran Islands before attending boarding school in Spiddal from the age of 12 onwards. 

“As a child, we would have had no electricity or running water or anything like that,” she told

“I would have been one of the lucky ones leaving the island because I would have gotten scholarships. I was pre-free education, so I was lucky to achieve what I did,” she said.  

She studied in Dublin and then moved to Co Mayo to teach home economics. Although she did not spend a lot of her life without electricity, she recalls some of the issues faced by those without electricity and running water.

“Washing clothes and that was very hard work,” she said. 

“I think there would have been a lot more excitement on the mainland about electricity than there was at home because we were all adults and my parents were in and out of the island, so we were well used to electricity. But at the same time, it was fantastic.”

They particularly struggled with cooking on an open fire on a cold morning.

“It was pure drudgery,” she said. 

McGuinness said this word, drudgery, kept being used at the launch of the exhibition to describe living in Ireland without electricity. 

Getting running water and fresh toilets was very important to people. I remember when my father built a tank beside the house, which was fantastic.

She hopes this exhibition will serve as proof of how people lived before electricity.

“My children now, they can’t believe how we lived,” McGuinness laughed.

KVk5sqKJjR0-z-0-y-ESB~~~Archive~~~-~~~Treat~~~your~~~kitchen~~~to~~~an~~~electric~~~kettle Advertisement for an electric kettle. ESB Archive ESB Archive

Ironing before electricity

Bridie Tapley grew up in Clondalkin, Co Dublin and was quite young when she got electricity in her family home. Although she didn’t spend too much of her life without electricity, she remembers the struggle of washing and ironing clothes without power.

According to the ESB map, Clondalkin was hooked up to power between 1932 and 1933. Although locat in Dublin, this area was used mainly for farming until around the 1970s. 

“For my mother, she had to heat the old fashioned irons that you had to heat up a block for before putting it into the iron,” she told

Washing clothes by hand was also very difficult. I didn’t have a washing machine for many years. They were very expensive. 

She said that getting electricity gave her a lot more time to spend on other activities.

“It was like having a maid around your house.”

Tapley hopes the exhibition will show younger people how her generation used to live before power was available at the flick of a switch. 

“In one way, our children and grandchildren are spoiled because they are well used to having all of this equipment at all times.”

When asked about the biggest impact electricity had on her life, Tapley said it would “have to be between the washing machine and the dishwasher”. 

“If the washing machine broke down, I would have to straight away go and get a new one because it’s just constantly on the go,” she said.

Servis supertwin MK II twin tub Servis Supertwin twin tub washing machine. National Museum of Ireland National Museum of Ireland

Setting up the ESB

The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was first set up in 1927 in Ireland, mainly to operate the Shannon scheme and distribute electricity from the river nationwide. 

The Shannon Scheme harnessed energy from the river Shannon through a hydroelectric plant. This was adequately sized to make Ireland’s energy sector fully renewable in its early years of operation.

The ESB has a map that shows when different areas around Ireland were connected to electricity. 

Around 45,000 homes in Ireland had electricity before the ESB was established, but the systems were run by local authorities or private businesses.

By 1945, 400,000 Irish homes were still without electricity, mostly in rural areas. The Rural Electric Scheme started in 1946 to connect these homes spread across 792 rural parishes. 

The scheme ended in 1965 and by then, over 300,000 homes were connected. Post-development plans and extensions ran until 1978 when Blackvalley, Co Kerry received electricity. 

By 1975, 99% of Irish homes were connected to the same electricity grid.

With electricity, came new electrical products. The advertisements for these products are one of many products surrounding this topic on show at the Mayo exhibition. 

Cw7UUc3aGv6-z-0-y-ESBNLIWomansWay26-4-1963page27ESBcleanad ESB ad for an electric cooker. ESB NLI Woman's Way ESB NLI Woman's Way

The exhibition features more than 60 oral histories from women like Maura McGuinness and Bridie Tapley who lived through this energy transition and ESB staff who worked on the project, collected over the last two years.

It also features a textile art project from Sligo artist Anna Spearman who worked with local women in Mayo, including McGuinness. 

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