Keating, Siemens & the Shannon Scheme

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1997), Volume 5

Sean Keating was one of the more significant painters in the formative years of the Irish Free State. He was born in Limerick in 1889, where he enrolled in the Technical School to study art, moving subsequently to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where he became a student of William Orpen. Keating’s work initially reflected many of the concerns of cultural nationalism and he later became perhaps the most important painter of the War of Independence. However from the mid-1920s, his work passed through a major transition. Allegory, painted in 1925 marks a distinct move away from the somewhat romanticised images of the nationalist revolution, capturing some of the unfulfilled idealism and despair of the years which followed the Civil War. More significantly, in the following years, Keating as artist was to witness firsthand a major revolution in the Irish electrical industry, which resulted from the completion of the Shannon scheme and the birth of the Electricity Supply Board in 1927.
The electricity industry in Ireland in the early 1920s was relatively underdeveloped by the standards of other European countries. There were about 300 producers across the Irish Free State, using a variety of generating systems which were run by both public authorities and private enterprise. Dublin had the most highly developed system accounting for about three-quarters of total consumption, but even in the capital the electricity network compared unfavourably with other European cities.

The Seimens connection

A number of propositions to harness the power of the Shannon had been considered prior to 1924, but none of these got off the drawing board. The plan which ultimately came to fruition was largely conceived by Dr T.A. McLaughlin, a University College Dublin graduate, who became an assistant lecturer in physics at University College Galway. He developed a considerable academic knowledge of electrical engineering which seems to have been cultivated to a large extent through the influence of J.F. Rishworth, Professor of Civil Engineering in Galway. To gain practical experience, McLauglin accepted a job in 1922 as a trainee in Siemens Schuckert of Berlin, where he had the opportunity to observe the design and construction of state-of-the-art hydro-generating and long distance transmission systems of significant capacity.
Having lost some of their major coalfields as a consequence of the Great War, the Germans at this time were eager to develop their hydro-electrical resources. McLauglin, who worked in the water power design department in Siemens, began to investigate the potential application of these technologies in an Irish context on the river Shannon, which drained over one eighth of the area of Ireland. By 1923, he had calculated the generating capacity of the river and revealed his ideas to the company. Siemens, who were short of orders, were highly receptive to his concept and the directors approved his plan to make the necessary contacts in Ireland. The company was one of the largest, oldest and most innovative electrical engineering companies in Europe, and probably the only company which was both willing and capable of undertaking such an ambitious project.

Significant infrastructural investment

McLaughlin was fortunate that a friend from his UCD days, Patrick McGilligan, was instantly converted to this ambitious notion to harness the vast volume of water passing down Ireland’s major waterway. As a member of the Free State cabinet from 1923 and Minister for Industry and Commerce from 1924, McGilligan was in an ideal position to open negotiations between the government and Siemens. His enthusiasm and tenacity was critical in winning over the Cumann na nGaedhael government. The Shannon scheme was the most innovative new departure of that government, representing the high point of its limited efforts to industrialise the Irish economy, and a stark contrast to its general cautiousness in economic matters. The Shannon scheme was to be the single most significant infrastructural investment by the state until well after the Second World War, and the state is still reaping a return on that investment.
However there was much scepticism about the feasibility of the scheme in 1925, given the huge engineering challenge it posed. But the pioneers of the project were adamant about the potential returns. Having made a careful survey of the lower course of the river, Siemens concluded that one hydro-station exploiting the 100 foot drop between Lough Derg and the sea, would take in most of the catchment area of the Shannon; the power generated would meet all Ireland’s electrical demands at low cost. An expert panel of four were called in to judge its merits, and following their approval the government decided to proceed. The contract was finally signed on the 13 August 1925 at a cost of £5.2 million.
In order to dam the Shannon just above O’Briensbridge, and to construct the headrace, power station and tailrace, Siemens had to import a vast array of machinery into Limerick from Bremen and Hamburg. To bring this and other supplies to the site a railway connection was built to Longpavement to link up with the docks in Limerick; narrow gauge lines connected the entire site and seventy-six steam locomotives were brought in. Nine diesel generators were set up to power the large excavators and other machinery. To augment the railway, the roads between Limerick and Ardnacrusha (which were in an appalling state) were made good within two weeks by the local authorities.

Importance of publicity for Seimens and State

As the work gradually got underway, this huge engineering scheme quickly assumed major symbolic significance for the Cumann na nGaedhael government; it would demonstrate to the world that the new Free State could stand on its own feet, supplying the new nation with the necessary energy for its growth and development. In 1926, Keating began to undertake some drawings and paintings of the scheme, and he was subsequently commissioned by the ESB to record the work in progress. This became the first government commission, and the largest of any industrial undertaking in the history of the state. It was just one aspect of the government’s efforts to give publicity to the scheme, with many thousands visiting the works site; in addition there was extensive coverage in the national and international media. Siemens were also conscious of the importance of this publicity for its own future and the company made around 5,000 photographs of the construction phase, (now held in the Siemens Museum in Munich).
Like Siemens itself, Keating embraced the challenge of the commission, and his dramatic paintings (which broke new ground in Irish art) capture well the gradual transmogrification of the east Clare landscape. The heroes in Keating’s series are the engineers whose technocratic skills acquire a transfigurative quality; they have the ability and knowledge to transform water into electricity. During this period, the harnessing of electricity was one of the greatest signifiers of modernity.
The late Patrick Gallagher aptly described Keating as a bearded booted Limerick man ‘watching the future claw through the mud of his own place’. The series of paintings marks a transition in Keating’s work from his earlier concerns with cultural and political nationalism to the whole business of state-building. The heroic gunmen in Men of the South and Men of the West from the revolutionary period, are clearly displaced in his best known painting of the scheme Night’s Candles are Burnt Out by the technocrats and bureaucrats of the new social order who wish to move away from the political fratricide of the revolutionary period.

Soviet-style realism

Keating’s paintings of the scheme bear many of the hallmarks of Soviet realism; the collective technocratic efforts of the state to build a better future. Keating undoubtedly became the most powerful visual propagandist of the new regime. The innovative spirit which underlay the harnessing of the Shannon seems to have moved him deeply, and the resulting series of paintings mark the most radical turning point in his career; with his subsequent appointment as professor at the National College of Art in Dublin in 1934 he  became one the most trenchant advocates of traditional academic painting techniques in Ireland.
Keating became close to a number of German and Irish engineers working on scheme; he stayed in one of the camps while undertaking the series of paintings, and some of his titles reflect their language and his respect for their profession;  in No.8 Excavator at Work for example, workers are dwarfed and overshadowed by machinery in the paintings. Keating is preoccupied with the heroic role of The Key Men (see front cover) through whom the objectives of the state are to be realised. Through their direction, guidance and control of technology, labour and raw materials, the landscape is gradually reshaped to fulfil the social objectives of the new state.
To carry out the Herculean task of construction, about 5,000 people were hired by Siemens at the high point of the scheme. McLaughlin insisted at the outset that where suitably qualified Irishmen were available, they would be preferentially hired, and all the unskilled labour would be Irish. With the general depression throughout the economy in the mid-1920s, there were many who were desperate to find work; small farmers and labourers came from all over the country; a number of ex-servicemen laid off from the Free State army were hired; there were fishermen from Connemara and locomotive drivers from the Listowel and Ballybunion railway in County Kerry which had closed in 1924.
Work permits were given to about 150 German technicians who lived in a specially constructed camp; some brought their families and a school with a German teacher was established. Since many were engineers, their conditions were considerably better than for most of the Irish workers.

Industrial unrest

Immediately after Siemens workers arrived in Limerick at the outset, a strike broke out, when it became clear Siemens would only pay agricultural as opposed to industrial rates. The strike failed despite the support of Limerick dockers, as there were so many people looking for work who were willing to break it. The government, which presided over a decade of major reversals for the Irish trade union movement, effectively backed Siemens. Despite the professed social radicalism running through the nationalist revolution, the attitude of the new government to labour relations in the 1920s, indicated that in the clash between capital and labour, little had changed since the days of the 1913 Lockout. The government had driven a hard bargain with Siemens in settling the costs of the scheme, and if concessions were made to labour, Siemens would have had a good case for renegotiating the contract.
However, if labour lost out, Cumann na nGaedhael were even tougher with Siemens. McGilligan demanded that they brought additional equipment and machinery to finish the task by the agreed deadline, despite the many unforeseen problems. McGilligan’s position was extreme, even by exacting German standards, but it was a language that Siemens clearly understood; the company went to great lengths to honour its deadline, in spite of spiralling costs. McGilligan refused to allow the company the extra three-quarters of a million it asked for to cover additional costs despite Siemens threat of legal action. The Cumann na nGaedhael government finally offered to settle for £150,000. Siemens’s Dublin solicitor, Arthur Cox (who seems to have been a confidant of McGilligan) advised the company to settle for this amount since the looming general election might produce a Fianna Fáil government who might offer even less if anything at all. Siemens therefore accepted this final settlement. The company turned in losses on its balance sheet for two years running as a result of the losses made on the Shannon Scheme.

Tough working conditions

Labour conditions on the Shannon Scheme were tough in the extreme. Work started at 7.30 am ending at 6.30pm, with an hour for lunch. A fifty-four hour basic week was worked, and in every second week employees worked the night shift, with many workers putting in extensive overtime. Each employee answered to the German foreman by number, printed on a disc which hung around his neck. There was no protective clothing, and according to one account, once you went off the rail lines you could go waste high in mud in many places. The work was hard and dangerous; there were a number of fatalities of both Germans and Irish, although Germans came out worse proportionately (at least five died). One German foreman was killed deliberately in a blasting operation, while a second was murdered for money. Criminal proceedings followed the latter and as a result an Irishman was hanged.
Living conditions in the camps which accommodated about a third of the workforce were extremely rough; the remainder found whatever accommodation they could locally; some in cabins and barns, and some even paying weekly rent for space in stables, pig sties and hen houses. Meals in the canteen consisted of tea, bread and butter for breakfast, and the same for tea (with the addition of jam), with a more substantial midday meal of meat, vegetables and potatoes. However there was also a good trade in fish and chips around the camp for those who wished to augment their diet to meet the severe physical demands required. The Germans for their part were not enamoured with the Irish diet; they had higher wages and salaries and could therefore bring in their own supplies, particularly German bread, German sausage and plenty of wine.

Hardy men of the West

Keeping clean was a major problem on the site. The Connemara men, who arrived from the West on foot with only one set of clothing, developed a particular reputation for hardiness and endurance; at the end of the days work in order to get rid of the grime and muck, a number of them used to wade fully clothed into the Shannon, even in the middle of the winter. With this hardy eccentricity, the Connemara men invariably became the butt of jokes around the camp, which was not at all to the liking of the men of the west. One night in September 1927 they sought a terrible revenge smashing up several huts in the camp at Cloonlara, many people were injured and eighteen people were arrested.
To escape the rough and tumble of the camps at Ardnacrusha, Parteen Weir, O’Briensbridge and Cloonlara, some workers took buses and jarveys to nearby Limerick for entertainment. However there were cinema shows in the camps for those who could not afford to take their pleasure elsewhere, and some even had energy left over for hurling and football matches. In many a sporting contest in the camp, Connemara Irish, Munster Irish, German and English could all be heard (in addition to a good deal of bad language in all four ).
It took Siemens and the huge workforce four years of hard graft to complete the contract. Construction involved the removal of 7.6 million cubic metres of earth and 1.2 million cubic metres of rock and the use of a quarter of a million cubic metres of concrete. Finally on the 22 July 1929 W.T. Cosgrave opened the sluice gates at Parteen Weir and in the following autumn the completed works were handed over to the ESB. The station remained the headquarters of the ESB until 1954, when the load dispatch office was established in Dublin. By 1936/7 the hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha supplied eighty-seven per cent of system demand in Ireland (the highest proportion supplied in the station’s history).

Major success

The Shannon scheme was a major success story. Electricity consumption in Ireland expanded dramatically in the decades after its completion, just as McLaughlin and Siemens had envisaged, and the financial and engineering risks involved have been more than vindicated. For Siemens, the major financial losses were more than offset by the prestige it gained across the world. The successful completion of the scheme marked a significant milestone for the fledgling Irish Free State, demonstrating its capacity to undertake major social and economic initiatives.

Night’s Candles are Burnt Out

In Night’s Candles are Burnt Out (painted towards the end of the construction phase of the scheme), Keating displays the great sense of optimism which the Shannon scheme gave rise to. This provides a stark contrast to his concern with the dangers and uncertainties of the revolution, which are evident in Allegory, painted in 1925; members of the regular and irregular armies, are evidently digging a grave for the new Free State, while a family, priest and a wealthy contractor look on helplessly; the initiative lies with the gunmen. This earlier painting of unresolved despair, with the big house of the old order in ruins in the background, conveys Keating’s psychological demoralisation in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. In Night’s Candles, Ardnacrusha dominates the background, but this time the reference is to the future rather than the past. The relationship between these two Keating paintings is quite clear, and they tellingly underscore the dramatic transition in his outlook and perception between the mid- and late 1920s.
Although he again uses symbolic allegory in the later painting, the roles of the key characters has been completely reversed. The parents pointing to the dam, show the next generation how the scheme holds the key to the future. The father in the family group in both paintings seems to have been a self portrait of the artist, who reminds us of his own transition from helpless apathy to propagandist. Another engineer is about to put out an oil lamp which he holds up to the old regime, hanging like a skeleton from an electric pylon; the priest remains uncharacteristically passive in both paintings, while the contractor with his plans for the scheme, looks contemptuously down at the gunman. In contrast to his own fixation with the cult of the gunmen during the revolutionary period, the artist displays little sympathy for military regalia. In this regard, Keating willingly acts as a propagandist for his patron, the new state. The powerful message he projects through Night’s Candles is that the state’s construction of the Shannon scheme has brought about the possibility of a new beginning; the initiative has now passed away from the destructive capabilities of the gunmen to the more constructive modernising impulses provided by civil society and the state.

Andy Bielenberg lectures in history at University College Cork.

Further reading:

The ESB; Fifty Years of Shannon Power (Dublin 1979).

M. Manning & M. McDowell, Electricity Supply in Ireland (Dublin 1984).

P. Duffy, ‘Ardnacrusha: birthplace of the ESB in The North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 29 (1987).

B.P. Kennedy, Irish Painting (Dublin 1993).

The author would like to thank R. Cullen and B. Delaney of the ESB for their assistance.

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