Feb 11, 2012

Guest Post: Ireland's History Preserved by the Electric Company

Ireland: A Nation of Historians by Jamie Chavez

Harold's Cross Neighborhood of Dublin
Photo by Jamie Chavez
When people ask my Irish fiancé where he works, the simple answer is: the electric company. But ask him what he does, and you get an only-in-Ireland answer: he works in the ESB (ElectricitySupply Board) Archives.

In the Harold’sCross neighborhood of Dublin there resides an unprepossessing building that houses the ESB Archives, a small department in a big company that preserves a history—in paper documents, photographs, oral histories (preserved on video), and objects ranging from old kitchen appliances and telephones to barometers and signs—of the company. All of this is open, free, to researchers. How very Irish this all is: a respect for the past and a willingness to honor it with careful preservation. This is a company, after all, that, before commencing a massive dam project (called the Shannon Scheme, for the river it’s built on) in 1925, commissioned a well-known artist, Sean Keating, to record it.

You see, when the Irish Free State was established in 1922, it was one of the most impoverished countries in Europe. In order for the Industrial Revolution—and thus prosperity—to find its way to Eire, things had to change. It was an enormous task that faced the young government. How would they bring electricity to a largely rural nation?

Answer: electrify the population centers first, and move outward, like ripples on the surface of a pond. Then buy up the local shops, such as the wealthy farmer who might’ve installed a generator to power his equipment, or a mechanic or a machine shop, all of whom probably had run current to close neighbors (for a fee) and thus had a network established. And, finally, build a big ol’ dam. After that, create a need for your electricity by selling your customers those newfangled electric washing machines and ice-boxes and such.
ESB workers having tea. Possibly from the 1940's or1950's.
 Photo courtesy of ESB.

That’s exactly what they did. The ESB was established in 1927, so the history of the company closely parallels the history of the country. I learned all of this when I toured the Archives a few years ago.

Pat Yeates and Brendan Delany, my fiancĂ©’s colleagues, explained how the Archives started, almost accidentally, as a repository of old records: I saw hundreds of old ledgers, from small electric companies around the country (that pre-dated the ESB), in which each man’s name and his weekly wages were inscribed in beautiful handwriting. This is how it was a hundred years ago.

With modern technology, all those little substations are being shut down; all the electricity comes out of Dublin now. But everything that was once in a small local substation somewhere came to Dublin, too, and resides in the Archives—old telephones, desks, perhaps an old wringer-washer from the 1930s that never sold. It’s all there in Harold’s Cross.

Now the Archives seeks out retired and present members of ESB staff: Pat interviews these old-timers on video, and the material is preserved and edited for presentations made by the ESB (the Archives has its own edit suite to do this), or used by TV documentarians. It has lent antique items to movie producers for use as set dressing. It has thousands of photographs scanned and catalogued. It has made permanent and semipermanent exhibits for local museums scattered around the country (I visited one of these a few days after my tour of the Archives). I also learned about the benefits of mobile shelving over static shelving—and was duly impressed, I must say.

There’s more to come—a visit to that big ol’ dam and to a fine museum the ESB maintains. But I’ll save those for another time!

Jamie Chavez is an editor, writer, and blogger. This article reprinted by permission, © 2012.

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