The local debate and consternation takes its toll on this quiet rural Irish village as the ESB arrives to town

It was back in the black and white days of the late 1950s when rural life moved at snail's pace and little changed or improved. Life merely rotated from one season to the next. Each new month dictated the mundane manual work program on the cluster of small uneconomic holdings in our locality. Now and then the talk was of the new energy source called electricity that was supposedly sweeping across parts of Ireland, in areas that we and our neighbors had only heard of and weren’t even sure existed at all.

Some argued that the electricity if it ever arrived, would be carried on poles placed along the public road and could present a danger. Wiser, more traveled voices confirmed that the ESB poles would be erected on farmland to carry the new power from one dwelling to the next. Nevertheless, most householders in our locality were suspicious or indifferent to this scheme as they didn’t value the need for this unknown service or its intrusion into their quiet lives. A local rumor had it that this electricity could travel in a straight line only, so many who lived off the beaten track didn't even bother to enter the connection debate. However, the greatest drawback was that its introduction would create an additional bill which few families could afford to pay.

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The local debate was short-lived given the immediate arrival of the gangs of strapping men who were noticed walking through the fields with their maps and markers. They rarely bothered to enquire after the landowner or ask permission prior to entering or surveying the private property. Those were different times then, and the ESB personnel came armed with the knowledge that despite the mutterings of local disapproval, the affected farm owners would not dare question any actions flowing from an 'official body'.

One aspect which caused great concern was the positioning of the ESB poles, many of which could have been located beside a fence or a natural boundary but were instead placed some distance away from fences thereby spoiling many fields. This action seemed to facilitate the ease of work for those maneuvering the poles into place, with little thought given the farmer or to protect the integrity of the land.

I was attending the local National School at the time, and because the distance was shorter by field than by road, I usually walked the near cut through the fields to school. It was a great novelty to watch the gangs digging deep holes, and then, with all their strength and many shouts, maneuvering the huge poles into an upright position. Some of their roars were directed at me and my fellow scholars, so as to ensure that we kept a safe distance away.

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It was late on a Friday evening when the ESB ganger hammered a hazel stick into the hallowed soil of our front lawn. This marker was the usual signal indicating, to the installation crew, where the next pole must be erected. My mother was furious as, if embedded at the marked location, the pole would spoil her precious lawn and this new monstrosity, along with the additional cables, would permanently spoil the view of, and from, our home.

Our first plan was to talk with the ganger and appeal to his better nature, but the word was that this official didn’t have such a virtue. He was a man of few words, who remained aloof, except to lay down the ESB law in rigid terms. So rather than appeal for him to select an alternative site, thereby drawing attention to our discomfort, it was decided to avoid him and say nothing. After all, we had until the following Monday morning to frustrate his plans. There was always another way of skinning that cat and we had to find the means.

From early the following Saturday morning all siblings, big and small, were assembled and prepared for hours of hard manual labor. My mother had decided that a flower and shrub bed would be fashioned in the corner of our small lawn, where the threatening hazel stick now reigned. The first task was to find a new home for this wooden impostor. The hazel was exiled and hammered into place some 15 yards away in our adjacent field while taking great care to keep it in line with the poles already erected on either side.

Now all hands were put to work carrying suitable stones until a two-foot-high semi-circle free-standing stone wall enclosed the corner of our lawn. The next task was to carry buckets of soil and manure until the chosen area slowly filled up to the wall level. Lastly, we transplanted flowers and a few gawky shrubs onto our new bed. With some final adjustments, we gave our new creation a more mature and permanent appearance, for the purpose of camouflage.

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As expected, the ESB crew did arrive, early on the Monday morning, and all equipped with their working gear. I took great delight in spying on them, from within the protection of the house. The group of six shuffled and flustered about for some time; they seemed to sense that something was amiss but failed to solve the puzzle. Eventually, they began their normal digging and luckily at the spot we hand-picked, as dictated by the translated marker. Within a short time, the new pole was raised and secured into place.

Later, that evening when the ganger arrived on his routine inspection, I peeked again from behind the curtain, as he shuffled over and back alongside our lawn perimeter while shaking his head and directing his occasional glance, of disapproval, in the direction of our dwelling. He eyed up the situation and his demeanor left no doubt that he wasn’t fooled. But the fact that the new pole had held the line seemed to satisfy him sufficiently to allow it to remain in its alternative spot. It transpired that despite the local opinion, the ESB ganger did after all have a reasonable side to him.

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* In its cache of short stories Denis O'Higgins “Fireside Miscellany: A Collection of Irish Memories, Meanderings, and History”, takes the reader from the era of the horse and cart, up to the present day. Some of these musings bring the former farming ways back to life, calling back to mind the habits of bygone days while others depict a formerly troubled North of Ireland.

For more visit www.denisohiggins.com, follow him on Facebook or email him at dohiggins49@eircom.net.

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Fighting against electricity in 1950s Ireland.