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A demonstrator shows two women how it works ESB Archive

Sputniks and brown bread The story of one day during Ireland's rural electrification scheme

“What in God’s name will I do if that electric yoke won’t bake brown bread?”

IN 1946, AROUND 400,000 rural homes in Ireland still didn’t have electricity. In one of the biggest projects in Ireland’s history, the ESB connected these homes over the next 29 years through the Rural Electrification Scheme - later described as the Quiet Revolution for the socio-economic change it brought to rural Ireland. 

A new book called Then There Was Light, edited by PJ Cunningham and Joe Kearney, has collected first-hand stories from more than 60 people people about their memories and experiences of the Rural Electrification Scheme. In this extract, Delo Collier writes about being a demonstrator for the ESB in Connemara: 

It was a time when the world was concerned about Sputniks. Those early Russian space satellites were blamed for things that could not be easily explained – a long spell of bad weather, an alteration in the migratory pattern of birds or even the failure of a herring run in a Western fjord. There was a cold war threatened out there, somewhere beyond the horizon. People said prayers for the conversion of Russia, looked to the sky and frowned. Around this time of global concern I was travelling a rutted road in the west of Ireland.

On that day my worries were not related to Kremlin matters, or to the goings-on in Washington but to the tyres on my car. I had just changed a punctured wheel outside Clifden in Connemara and knew that I had no time to arrange a repair to the damaged tyre. I had an appointment to keep and my heart was anxious, as a recently appointed ESB demonstrator, that standards would be upheld.

sales-van_visiting-homes-e1458565556176 An ESB employee sells appliances door to door ESB Archive ESB Archive

My job was to smooth the transition from solid fuel ranges, cookers and cumbersome domestic arrangements to the new, easy, clean, efficient and labour-saving equipment supplied by the Electricity Supply Board. My territory included Connemara, an area of wild beauty but of unforgiving potholes and vicious ruts.

The perils of driving

A condition of my appointment was that I should provide my own transport. In reality I neither had a car nor could I drive before I got the job. My father, himself an ESB employee, took the matter in hand. Without undue fuss he taught me the rudiments of driving and accompanied me when I bought my first car – and then promptly left me by the side of a road for half an hour and told me I had to have one of the tyres changed by the time he got back.

egg-sorting_sept-12th-1956 An egg-sorting machine on a rural farm in 1956 ESB Archive ESB Archive

It was a good lesson. During my time as demonstrator I ended up replacing so many punctured wheels I could perform the task in my sleep.

On the particular day I want to tell you about, I was about to be tested to the limits of my calling. I had two calls to make; one concerned a wayward Sputnik, the other concerned brown bread. To add to my worry, I had a punctured wheel sliding about in the boot and I was late for the first appointment. Recalling father’s words about changing a puncture while driving in remote places I decided to try to persuade the local garage attendant in Clifden to fix the puncture while I had lunch.

As well as cookers, fridges, washing machines, kettles and irons, the ESB also sold spin dryers. There was a steady demand for clothes dryers in the west of Ireland where sleeveen, unexpected rain could dampen the spirits of any housewife. The vista of rain-sodden sheets forlornly draped along the length of a sagging clothesline and no prospect of a let-up was enough to drive many to the sherry bottle.

Disconcerting sight

For housewives, the prospect of a spin dryer in the kitchen provided a magical solution to the problem. But there was a snag. The machines that were sold worked well enough – they dried the clothes. But the action of high revving dryers on clothes, largely made from natural fibres, could be a little dramatic to say the least. At 3,000 revolutions per minute the spin dryers were inclined to take off and dance around the kitchen. It was a disconcerting sight in an era of new energy.

for-modern-living_may-7th-1960 A demonstration of the benefits of electricity in the home in 1960 ESB Archive ESB Archive

Newspaper articles related stories of satellites in space. These reports were often accompanied by images of revolving contraptions spinning in orbit around the earth. No one was sure how they might be controlled, so why not call those errant spin dryers Sputniks? It seemed appropriate.

I set off, an hour late, for my appointment hoping that my excuse for late arrival would be believed. I steered my little car between ditches of foxglove and fuchsia, careful to ease it over potholes and to avoid stray Connemara blackface sheep, until I noticed the car bumping along a little too much. Yes! You guessed it! Another flat tyre.  Nothing for it but to get on with the job of changing the wheel and be glad of the advice given on that day on the roadside when we bought the car. Now quite late for the appointment I pulled up in the yard of the farmhouse near Claddaduff. I could hear the dryer spinning when I knocked at the door. It was a while until the woman of the house appeared and spoke to me:

I turned it on expecting you earlier, Miss Collier. I wanted you to see it leppin’ around the floor for yourself.

D’you know it’s like the antics of an auld bachelor farmer at the afters of a wedding. I want get it to stop dancin’ around the kitchen but can’t. Sometimes the only way to get it to behave is to sit on it but sure you’d get tired doing that eventually.

She insisted we drink tea and she boiled an egg to go with it as we watched the machine go through the last phases of its dance.

chickens_feb-28th-1956 People using heating lamps for chickens for the first time in 1956 ESB Archive ESB Archive

When it had gone through its final cycle, I discovered that the floor beneath the machine was uneven and contributing to the erratic behaviour. We found a new location in the kitchen where we could hem it between a dresser and a sideboard. We drank more tea and I forcefully declined another boiled egg while we tested the drier again. This time the performance was greatly improved and the lady seemed much happier with the results, telling me:

Himself kept threatening to put a few concrete blocks on it to keep it steady, but I thought that that might spoil the look of the place. I’m glad it never came to that.

When I drove out of the yard I had a half-dozen eggs, wrapped individually in pages of the Connacht Tribune to keep me company – but my day was not over yet. There was the matter of brown bread to sort out.

The brown bread test

My next call was half an hour away by car. A son had emigrated to England to work on the buildings. A year previously he returned for a summer holiday and he bought his mother a new-fangled electric cooker. The cooker was delivered sometime after his departure back to England. From that time, it sat in the mother’s kitchen covered with an oilcloth and was used as a temporary table. Now a year later he was returning once more on holiday and the cooker was still unused. The mother was worried:

He always praises my brown bread. I bake for him every day he’s home and give him half a dozen loaves to take back with him to the digs. What in God’s name will I do if that electric yoke won’t bake brown bread?

As I said, this was a life or death call. Brown bread was the litmus test of a good cook. Many families were reared on the stuff. Now I had to prove to a sceptic that the finished product from an electric oven could match the tried and tested offering from her solid-fuel range.

dromiskin_connection Connecting the electricity supply in Dromiskin, Louth ESB Archive ESB Archive

She offered me a cup of tea before I settled into the challenge. She watched me like a hawk as I prepared and mixed and placed the bread into the oven. While we waited for the results she put a boiled egg and a couple slices of her bread before me. I tucked in with a forced enthusiasm. When the moment came to cut and butter my offering, I held my breath. Would this woman’s son approve? Was it good enough to export in his suitcase to Kilburn or Cricklewood?

“God,” she said, “you’d hardly know the difference.”

As I eased myself back towards Galway, the sun was dropping into the Atlantic. I had the window open as I drove. There was turf smoke in the air, autumn was on way, you could smell it. I had a puncture to fix and six free-range eggs to give away.

There’s only so many boiled eggs you can face in a lifetime.

Then There Was Light is available for €14.99 from Ballpoint Press and is also on Kindle

Delo Collier started her career in hospitality management before joining the ESB as a district demonstrator in the Galway area. She managed the ESB Georgian House Museum and is a volunteer manager with Galway Civic Trust. Delo is also very active in community, archeological and heritage affairs. 

Read: These old photos show a changing Ireland as electricity spread across the country

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