Electrifying Modernity in the Free State

A Book Review by R. E. Glass

Sorcha O’Brien, Powering the Nation, Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-91102-467-5

RRP: €29.99

Sorcha O’ Brien’s Powering the Nation is a deeply engaging multi-dimensional study of the promotion and marketing of the Shannon Scheme by the newly established Irish Free State Government and the German engineering company Siemens –

the construction (between 1925 and 1929) of a run-of-the river hydro-electric power scheme on the River Shannon in the late 1920s, making use of the fall of the river from Lough Derg  to the Shannon Estuary…

It is now known as the Ardnacrusha power station, named after the nearby village’(p.3). In preparing the book, O’Brien has systematically and carefully trawled the extensive archives of Siemens and the Irish Electricity Supply Board (ESB), and a range of private sources, to consider how the project was documented and/or presented in photographs, prints, newspaper advertisements, artworks, stamps, and ‘ephemera’ (p.206) such as postcards and cigarette cards. The impact of O’Brien’s analysis is greatly facilitated by the inclusion of exactly 100 ‘Figures’, her generic term for technical drawings, photographs, and artworks illustrating one or more examples of each of these media types.

O’Brien’s broad  thesis, outlined  in the long and theoretical Chapter 1 (pp. 8-40), is that the Shannon project was deliberately promoted to the Irish population by the Government  as an opportunity to cement the benefits of the establishment of the Free State of 1922 by embracing  the comparatively new technology of electricity, which, as the ESB advertising  campaign of August-November 1928 (see Figures on pp. 66, 67 and 69) asserted, would ‘lift the heavy work of industry from human shoulders to the iron shoulders of machines’, (Fig. 66, p.133),  do the ‘heavy work’  in ‘industry and in the home’  (Fig. 67,p. 136)and ‘lighten human burdens, to brighten human lives’ (Fig.69, p.141) . Promoting these benefits involved peculiar challenges, both to the Government and Siemens, arising in particular from the tension which existed in Ireland at the time between the pragmatists in the Government seized by what O’Brien describes as ‘the epochal desire for modernisation’ (p.27), much of which was driven by forces outside Ireland (p.24), and a large section of the Irish community who wished to emphasise, indeed to mythologise,  the continuity of traditional Irish symbols and cultural icons. In summary a tension between what O’Brien calls ‘epochalism’ (p13) and essentialism (in Ireland’s case, a tendency to fetishise the romantic arcadian past of the peasant west). Siemens’ architects and engineers were well aware of these tensions, and ‘retained a desire to balance the technical requirements (of the buildings) with the cultural context of the development’, not by using applied neo-Celtic decoration on the buildings , ‘but in the use of typical Irish building material to relate to other buildings in the locality, as well as the insistence on a style of roofing suitable to the climate, regardless of cost’ (p.62).  

Three specific features of O’Brien’s book make it particularly interesting and readable. Firstly, both in the general description of the project, and in discussing specific media representations, the author sets her material in the context of what was happening more generally across Europe. This applies as much to ‘the use and significance of seemingly mundane items such as stamps and postcards’ (see pp. 210-211), as it does to the design of   large industrial buildings (addressed at length in Chapters 2 and 3).

Secondly, in describing each form, O’Brien provides fairly detailed biographical information and professional background on the key individuals and/or companies responsible for that form: for example

  • the German printmaker Anton Scheuritzel who created a set of sixteen of lithographs for Siemens (pp.104-110) ( see Figures 51-53);
  • Otto Ramp and Franz Haselbeck, workers on the scheme whose photographs (Figures 57-60 and 61-62 respectively) gave ‘the actual workers themselves a level of agency that isn’t seen in the official Siemens photographs’ (p.126);


  • C. Carroll and Sons, in Limerick, who played a key role in the distribution of Shannon postcards, taking over the job from Siemens, but continuing to use their photographs as the base (pp.215-220, and especially Figs 96, 97 and 98).

Thirdly, O’Brien highlights how Siemens and the ESB, as the major institutional players in the project, downplayed the roles of the other in their marketing and photographic records. Siemens’ photographs, for example, focused on’ views of the architecture or civil engineering works, closely followed by photographs of construction machinery’(p. 86). In other words, they highlighted only German agency, belied by the extensive negotiations which took place during the negotiation of the design of the building covered in Chapter 3 (pp.63-81).

In contrast to the German publications, O’Brien argues that the Irish newspapers focused on the name of the Scheme as the important term, emphasising its location on the Shannon river and the national importance of the scheme, rather than the German origins of the technological expertise and technology, which it ‘largely (and conveniently) ignored’ (p.101).

These features of O’Brien’s work are brought together in a rich way in Chapter 8 of the book  which discusses successively the works on the project by Irish painter Sean Keating (pp168-179), print- maker George Atkinson, headmaster of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, (pp179-186), and their student Rosaleen Brigid O’Brien (later known as Brigid Ganly) (pp 186-189) . Their biographical notes’ lengths reflects  their significance in the panoply of Irish art, but the focus of the author  is on the way they each addressed the challenges of representing what for many artists would be an unusual subject. It seems the work of these artists was significant in the longer-term cultural history of Ireland, because, as the author argues, the choice of these artists to produce artwork on the Shannon Scheme ‘demonstrated a consciousness of the epochal nature of the project and its importance for the positioning of the new Ireland in the modern world.’ Moreover ‘The fact that all three artists produced and exhibited work on the Shannon Scheme in the late 1920s meant that it was legitimised as a suitable ‘Irish topic within the Irish art establishment, which had substantial overlaps with that of politics, literature and theatre’ (p.192).

This book covers exhaustively and imaginatively a topic which I have never really much thought about.  But it inspires me to do some exploration of the whether or not and how some of Australia’s own iconic engineering ‘marvels’ such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme were ‘marketed’. More of that later, perhaps.

Robert Glass

Bob has worked professionally as an economist and policy planner on energy policy in Victoria.