The Erne Hydroelectric Scheme

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

Dessie Doyle and Brian Drummond
(Lilliput Press, €20)
ISBN 9781843512738


The Erne catchment is the second largest on the island and as early as 1915 proposals had been aired to harness its waters cascading down more than 40 metres between Belleek and Ballyshannon. These waters were, of course, severely muddied by partition—by 1922, 730 of the 1,560 square miles of the Erne catchment were outside the Free State’s jurisdiction. A worthwhile scheme could only be put into effect if the ESB got permission to undertake extensive dredging and civil engineering works within Northern Ireland. In 1932, though the Shannon scheme had been commissioned only three years earlier, it became obvious that the ESB was running out of spare capacity. Then, right from the start of the Emergency in 1939, Éire was stricken by acute fuel shortages.

The book tells the extraordinary story of cross-border cooperation over fifteen years on a major project—and this at a time of glacial relations between Belfast and Dublin. It is a story that should have been told long ago. In the prologue, Michael Kennedy observes that this was a ‘landmark in North–South relations, yet it has become a forgotten episode in cross-border cooperation . . . in general, Irish historians have ignored it because of their lack of interest in the history of technology’. How right he is, and this reviewer for one unhesitatingly holds up his hands to confess: ‘guilty as charged’.

Kennedy’s prologue is much more than an introduction; it is an integral part of the book. With an unrivalled knowledge of the archives of the time and a proven record of interpreting them, no one is better placed to chronicle the gestation of this (as it turned out) one-off cross-border collaborative effort. Approached by Dublin in 1943, the new Northern Ireland premier, Sir Basil Brooke, immediately saw the benefits. His Fermanagh constituents on the shores of Upper Lough Erne had long campaigned for measures to control the waters that so often inundated their farms. Now this could be done, largely at the expense of Éire’s taxpayers. Brooke faced stiff opposition in his cabinet, however, particularly from Maynard Sinclair, the minister for finance. Sinclair had a visceral hatred of dealings with a Dublin government, arguing that any dependence on the South for electricity could leave the North in danger of being cut off in a trice. In the end Brooke wore down his opponents and joint legislation followed on 8 May 1950.

Preliminary work had actually begun in the Ballyshannon area back in 1945. The task of writing the main text falls to Dessie Doyle and Brian Drummond, both brought up within a beagle’s growl of Cathleen’s Falls. This duo rise splendidly to the challenge of following Michael Kennedy’s compelling prologue. To harness the waters with two dams at Cliff and Cathleen’s Falls, the contractors (Swiss, Swedish and British) deepened the 6km-long Belleek channel by excavating 600,000 cubic metres of earth and rock from the riverbed. Construction involved adding a special railway siding, removing 293,000 cubic metres of earth and 394,000 cubic metres of rock, and pouring more than 123,000 cubic metres of concrete for dam construction, which also required more than 2,235 tonnes of steel reinforcement. Portland cement was brought in by rail in bulk in 10-ton cars and pneumatically conveyed a distance of over a kilometre from the siding to two 300-ton storage silos.

The authors make sure that the reader is never suffocated under skip-loads of technical detail. The text is enlivened by judiciously chosen extracts from local newspapers and the recorded memories of ‘schemers’, those who played their part in this grand project—not to speak of superb cartoons from the Donegal Vindicator and dozens of photographs from the ESB archive. This, after all, is primarily a social history, and a particularly engaging (and handsome) volume in this case.

The bulk of the work involved hard manual graft: rock blasted out from cuttings had then to be broken down into manageable pieces by jackhammer, pick and shovel. The work was exhausting and it was dangerous: many employed suffered severe injuries and there were twelve fatalities. That did not stop some Ballyshannon businesses making representations to the Cementation Company ‘regarding what they saw as excessive payment to schemers’.

For a time Ballyshannon enjoyed an unprecedented boom. Two top-class cinemas opened; the Abbey Ballroom boasted the only sprung maple floor in the north-west; amateur drama groups flourished, organised largely by the Erne Social Club; sport thrived; the Franciscans got a replacement friary at Rossnowlagh; and the Aodh Ruadh Club, thanks to the scheme, got a spanking new GAA pitch at the Rock.

Back in June 1944, John Gillespie, a native of Ballyshannon, had warned in the Donegal Vindicator that the ‘mutilation of the river should be considered a national calamity’. His prediction that ‘future generations of Ballyshannon people will not see a fairyland on their doorsteps’ but that only a ‘shrunken and imprisoned waterway will meet their gaze’ proved all too true. The authors tell how the commercial netsmen downstream suffered from the catastrophic decline in salmon runs, but they could have added more on the destruction of what Justice T.C. Kingsmill Moore described as the ‘vanished Eden’—the 29 pools upstream which arguably provided the finest game angling in western Europe and, at one time, employment for around 200 water-keepers and gillies and fly-tying business for Rogans of Ballyshannon.

The Erne scheme was formally opened on Wednesday 10 October 1952 by Tánaiste Seán Lemass. Ballyshannon henceforth faced stagnation and decline, but the benefits to the state overall cannot be denied. Today the Cliff and Cathleen’s Fall power stations, with step-up transformers, generate at 110 kilovolts for distribution by the national grid—true, a much smaller proportion than in 1952, but it is green and provides energy security, being capable of stabilising national output at very short notice.  HI

Jonathan Bardon is the author of A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes (Gill & MacMillan, 2009).



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