Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Electricity comes to Carlow

Part 2

Carlow Electricity Switched on for 100 Years

- 1891 -1991 -

One Hundred Years Ago, when Carlow Town Commissioners contracted Gordon & Co., to install and run a town lighting system using the new electricity, they were taking a step into the darkness of the unknown. Public leaders from all over Ireland were watching with keen interest to see if this newfangled power would actually work, or would it turn out to be the 'white elephant' that many predicted it would. After all, the first generator had been made only ten years earlier (1880), and the first arc and incandescent bulbs had been invented only in 1879. It was a big risk which could prove the T.C. members to be men of foresight and wisdom, or, on the other hand, to be foolish wasters of public money. History has given the answer.

What persuaded the T.C. of the merits of the new power was a test demonstration which Gordon & Co. (an English company.) gave. They installed a temporary generator on the mill wheel at Burrin bridge and set up three arc lamps along Dublin St.; one at the Market Cross, one at the Cigar Divan, and one near St. Brigid's.

Early Lighting Power

The contract was for 12 arc lamps and 40 incandescent lamps to light seven streets (4.75 miles), at a rent of £170 p.a. plus the right to supply 1500 lights (of 8 or 16 candle-power) to private users. By today's standards, the lighting was not all that powerful; 16 candlepower is the same as a 20 watt bulb of today; the 40 incandescent street lights were each of 16 candle-power (20 watts); and since the total candle power of the system was 1200 candle power, that left c.560 candle power for the 12 arc lights, or c.48 candle power (60watts) for each arc lamp. There was capacity to increase to 2000 candle power, if necessary!


A Mr. Meredith was the engineer in charge of construction for Gordon & Co., and he chose the disused mill at Milford as the best place at which to generate. A water wheel and generator were installed which was capable of producing up to 120 horsepower. For a nominal rent to the Barrow Navigation Co., permission was given to run the power cables along the canal route (on 20 foot poles) to a premises at the corner of Ballymanus terrace and the Barrow track, opposite John St. Here the power was transformed down for the requirements of the town system (200v a/c for house supply and 200v d/c for street lamps). To satisfy increased demand, or when the water levels were too high or too low to generate, two other turbines were also erected (one of these originals has now been refurbished by Mr. John Alexander at Milford), in the streets the lamps were mounted on poles with the arc lamps on taller poles, to cover a greater area, and the incandescent’s on the smaller streets and lanes.

Early Problems

An early problem was the breakdown of insulators on the supply line (5OOOv) from Milford, and to solve the problem of breakdown a steam engine was installed in the transforming station in Carlow. This was fuelled by coal and tar and was used in case of emergency. Another early problem was that people and the Commissioners were unhappy with the poles and the overhead wires, so the T.C. asked that the cables be put underground. This was done by using rectangular blocks of clay pipe, with six or four holes through which the cables were run. Many of these blocks are still under the streets of Carlow.

First Test

The local workforce, with Mr. Meredith as construction engineer and a Mr. Watkins as foreman, completed the total installation in six months and Mr. Tomlinson, the company engineer in charge of the works, switched on the Carlow town street lighting on June 24th, 1891, a proud day in the history of Carlow, and of Ireland.

First Town in Ireland

At a banquet to mark the official switching on of the supply on July 13th, 1891, dignitaries from the T.C., from Derry, from Portadown, from Kilkenny and from the press attended (incl. Mr. P. J. Conlon of The Nationalist). Mr. J. H. Gordon of Gordon & Co., presided and in the course of his address made the proud claim that Carlow was "the first town in the whole of Great Britain and Ireland to be lighted throughout with electricity". Recently we have found that the town of Godalming in Surrey, England would claim the same distinction; it claims to have installed its supply as early as 1881. We shall see. An interesting coinci­dence is that after the great storm of October 1987, when much of England was devastated, repair crews from the E.S.B. helped to restore the crippled English electric network, and three men from Carlow worked on the repair of that very same Godalming! The men in question were Tom Fitzharris, Sean Love and John Human.

Relevance for Today

Mr. Gordon also made the point that it seemed to be a waste of money to be buying coal abroad to make gas here for power, when so much water power and so many old water mills were standing idle here. We wonder have the words of this practical man, who was also an idealist, relevance for the world of today, with its diminishing supplies of fossil fuel?

Consumer Oriented

Mr. Gordon also pointed out another innovation which was used in Carlow's electricity sup­ply. The practice elsewhere was to put a transformer in the house of every user; this was wasteful and costly since at that time each user might use only two or three lights, and the transformer could light twenty lights. In Carlow, by putting the transformers on the poles, each customer could acquire only as many lights as was needed for the house.

Alexanders E.S.B.

In 1894, the Alexander family bought the supply system from Gordon & Co. The power house in Carlow came to be known as Alexanders Electric Works. The Alexander family ran the works until 1928, when the E.S.B. took over. In the 1920's, the works had 305 customers out of a population of 7000 people; this was a larger proportion than most other towns. Before the advent of the E.S.B., most towns (incl Athy and Bagenalstown) had electricity available from small, private producers, but few used electricity as much as Carlow.


On August 11th, 1927 the E.S.B. came into being by virtue of the Electricity Act passed by Dail Eireann. The duties given to the new body included the generation, sale, distribution and promotion of electricity. An early, major decision of the Board was to acquire existing local operations (such as Alexanders) and to supply directly to the customers, rather than sell electricity to the local companies. In 1928 the Electricity Supply Board came to Carlow.

Early Decisions

One of the early tasks was to link the towns into the national grid, and some of the original poles used to link Carlow and Bagenalstown are still standing and in use, 63 years later! The date of 1928 is stamped on the poles. Another early decision was to set up a contract and wiring dept., and to lay down minimum standards for private electrical contractors.

The offices were originally in Hay Market, where Mick Doyle has his repair shop now, and where Brendan Duggan set up the Carlow Printing Company. In 1964 the E.S.B. bought the premises at 52 Dublin Street, (where the bus stop used to be) from Bergins, and in Jan. 1984 moved to the present premises on Green Lane.

Rural Electrification Scheme

During those years, huge changes have taken place in Ireland, and the E.S.B. has been at the heart of most changes. The early years saw the linking of the towns into the national grid, and the building of the great hydro electric schemes on the Shannon and at Blessington. But the greatest change of all was yet to come, and it was the brainchild of a Carlowman: Patrick Dowling of Linkardstown, was the man whose vision and whose practicality brought rural Ireland into the twentieth century with his plan for the electrifica­tion of rural Ireland, the Rural Electrification Scheme.

Life Without "The Electric"

If you are old enough, remember, if not, try to imagine what life was like in rural Ireland 50 years ago. The towns had electricity; the countryside did not. Cooking was done on an open fire, on a range or on a paraffin cooker; in any case, the work was hot and laborious with the cleaning and lighting of the fire often taking place before first light. Water was heated in the same way; fuel was coal, turf or timber. There was no T.V.; those who had radios powered them by means of three batteries: a 2v. wet battery, which had to be recharged about every two weeks, and 9v., and 120v., dry batteries. Light came from oil lamps, candles and sometimes a tiny lamp. Water was drawn from a well, in most houses, or a yard pump. The winter nights were long indeed! Outside was even worse. The day's work could only start with daylight, and had to finish at dark; the only source of outside light came from storm lanterns, which were ineffective for all but close up work and, in any case, blew out all too easily. Turnips and Mangolds for fodder had to be ground by hand in the grinder. The milking, by hand, of large dairy herds was totally out of the question. Life on the land was tough.

Paddy Dowling

Then came Paddy Dowling of Linkardstown, Carlow, an engineer with the E.S.B.: he saw the difficulties of life on the land; he saw the potential value of electricity as a power source on the land; and, most importantly, he saw how the dream could become a reality. The chain of events of how the Scheme came into being is well documented elsewhere; Paddy Dowling's connection is particularly well recorded by Jimmie Parkes in Carloviana 1990-1991. The local connection has nice little mementoes of its own.

Local Connections

The E.S.B. surveyed the Tinryland area to canvass possible customers for connection in the Scheme; some of those survey forms of late 1946 are still in existence. Michael Lalor of Graiguenaspideogue signed his application on 5-9-1946; Michael Fitzpatrick of Mortarstown Lower on 31-10-1946; Mary Annie Byrne of Killerig (the pub) on 30-10-1946; and John and Elizabeth Lawler of Burton Hall applied about the same time. In May, 1947 Jordan's house of Kilmeaney, in Paddy Dowling's own parish of Tinryland was the first house in a rural Irish parish to be officially switched on. Another proud first for Carlow! However, there is a tale within the tale: we are reliably informed that Jordans, although the first official connections, was some two hours behind the actual first connection which took place in the house of Mr. William Rose of Kilmeany, where, under the glow of a 100 watt bulb, the occasion was marked by another glowing, golden glass!

First Group Water Scheme

After the electrification came the first group water scheme, again one of the first in Ireland. This took place again in Tinryland, and among those who spearheaded this were Fr. Garry Doyle, Paddy Byrne, Andy Murphy and Brendan Dowling (brother of Paddy). Work on this scheme started in the winter of 1963 and the supply came on stream in March 1964.

E.S.B. Men

Among the men who worked with the E.S.B. on the construction work in the spring of 1947, and who are still working, or finished their working lives with the E.S.B. were Mick McCarthy (rural engineer), Paddy Costello (supervisor), Jim Miley (snr. linesman), Paddy Phelan (linesman), Sean Conroy (linesman), Ambrose Graham (area Clerk) who was later replaced by Joe O'Sullivan, Toby Bannon (driver), Vincent Delaney (relief driver), Richard O'Donovan (linesman), Jim McGuill, Jim Fleming, Tom Kavanagh, Sean Hayes, Edward Ryan, Jack Stratton. Michael Fender was the area electrician who switched on the Tinryland system in 1947.

Proud and Grateful

Huge changes have taken place in those 100 years since electricity came to Carlow. Just look around any home, factory or place of entertainment and see how dependant we are on electricity. We take it for granted, now: 50 years ago, it was a privilege for the urban dwellers; 100 years ago, it was a gamble. Carlovian’s can be grateful and proud that our T.C. of those days were enlightened enough to switch on.

The main sources for electricity generation are water, coal, peat, gas, and nuclear; what new sources will be developed for the future? Could we see a world-wide energy grid system, with many sources feeding into a world-wide g rid, and western USA switching on as Ireland and Western Europe switches off?

When the E.S.B. took over from Alexanders, the total capacity output of the works was 88.2 kilowatts; an average daily winter load for Carlow now is 16,000 kilowatts.


Thanks to Carloviana, Mr. John Alexander, and especially to Mr. Jack Stratton of the E.S.B. for his invaluable assistance and keen sense of detail in assembling this report


All photos supplied by Mr. John Alexander, Milford.

Early construction workers, laying cable, at Burrin Street, Carlow
Alexanders Electric Works, at Ballymanus Terrace, Carlow (on left, Barrow Navigation Stores - now Carlow Rowing Club)
Early cable laying, at Burrin Street, Carlow
First Generator, at Alexanders Electric Works, Ballymanus Terrace

Workers - Rural Electrification in/around Carlow
Source: Ursula Power Facebook

Dad with someone on his back! No Health and Safety issues in those days!!
Source: Ursula Power Facebook

Workers - Rural Electrification in/around Carlow
Source: Ursula Power Facebook

April 29 Rural electrification workers, my dad, second from left. — with Owen (Jack) King and Joe Hogan on the right.
Source: Ursula Power Facebook

Previously published in the ‘CARLOW Now and Then’ Spring / Summer 1997.  Page’s 16, 17 & 18.


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