Feb 15, 2012

Guest Post: A Very Large Dam

Ardnacrusha: A Very Large Dam By Jamie Chavez

You don’t think of the electric company as being a big deal, do you? I don’t. I pay the bill and they keep the lights on. But in the Republic of Ireland, the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) played a vital role in the development of the country.

In this post, I told you about the ESB Archives (my fiancé—I call him the Irishman—works there), which preserves the history of the company and the country because the two are so closely connected. One of the first orders of business for the young country was to bring electricity to the rural countryside, and thus it was decided to build a Very Large Dam. They called it Ardnacrusha (for the small village it was located near).

I’d heard so much about this dam—the project was called the Shannon Scheme—from the Irishman: the visionary ESB head who’d championed the project … the young Irish engineer who’d helped plan it … those who’d fought against it … the political situation at the time…

The naysayers claimed Ireland would never need the amount of electricity Ardnacrusha was projected to produce. (In its early years it did easily supply the whole country, yet in the twenty-first century the dam supplies less than 3 percent of the country’s consumption.) And the Brits were furious when the contract to build the thing was awarded to Siemens-Schuckert of Berlin, feeling the contract should have gone to, well, them, I guess; honestly, it’s not like they’d been winning friends and influencing Irish people in the previous seven hundred years. Regardless, the German company had experience in constructing hydro-electric power stations; because of the economic climate of post-World War I Germany, Siemens were delighted to get it.

The thing was built, in spite of everything. In addition to the dam itself, and the outbuildings, it required the construction of sixty miles of railway and the use of 138 locomotives.

Ahead of the opening, four major bridges had to be built, four streams were diverted and seven million cubic meters of earth and 1.2 million cubic meters of rock were shifted.

It took them four years: 1925 to 1929.

So off we went, to Limerick (the third largest city in the Republic) and beyond. The countryside became flatter as we got close to Limerick—which makes sense, as it is in the lower Shannon delta. Not all visitors to Ireland make the pilgrimage to Ardnacrusha; in fact, I’m fairly certain I’m one of a very select group—perhaps the only American tourist who has. Ha.

Once we’d skirted the edge of Limerick city, we got off the main road and picked our way through back roads towards the river and the dam that harnesses it.

At O’briensbridge village (so named for a charming, arched bridge spanning the River Shannon), there was a lay-by right on the river, so we pulled over to take in the view. Across the street, there was a little roadside shrine, and along the river, a park, and—a pleasant surprise—a plaque commemorating the 75th anniversary of the ESB, the operator of the very dam we were on our way to see.

We arrived at midday, and toured the site. Not much had changed here: the original buildings from the ’20s are still in use today, and they are lovely. It was also a thrill so see one of the original paintings done by Sean Keating, the artist who was hired by the ESB to record, in sketches and oils, the building of the dam. This project was chronicled in a lovely book the ESB published a few years ago, one of several books of historic interest that the Archives—the Irishman’s department—has had a hand in shepherding to publication.

In 2002, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed on Ardnacrusha and the Shannon Scheme its prestigious Landmark Award (for major civil engineering achievements)—previously won by the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal, among others—for being a ‘‘huge achievement’’ in civil engineering terms. (You can see a list of all the winners—300 or so—here.)

Ardnacrusha was also the recipient of the Milestone Award—a prize bestowed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., although the organization is most popularly known and referred to by its acronym, IEEE. This award, for electrical engineering, is harder to win than the Nobel Prize or an Oscar, and has only been awarded to forty-five other recipients, including the Japanese bullet train and the first American space shuttle. The IEEE (Eye-triple-E) is a nonprofit, technical professional association of more than 380,000 individual members in 150 countries.

Only eight organizations worldwide have won both these awards. (They were made jointly to the Electricity Supply Board and the Siemens group.)

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

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