Dan Danaher on a remarkable silver replica of Ardnacrusha Power Station links the prime movers in Ireland’s great power project
THE story behind one of the most remarkable pieces of silver ever commissioned in the country links two men who played a powerful role in constructing South-East Clare’s “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Moves are afoot for the extraordinary silver model of Ardnacrusha to be moved in the near future from the power station to public display at the Hunt Museum in Limerick.
The commissioning of this historical replica ties in two key ESB men, Joe O’Farrell and Dr Thomas MacLaughlin, prominent in the development of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme, which had been hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Having joined the Shannon Scheme in September 1927, O’Farrell was just the fourth person employed by the fledgling ESB.
He played a key role in the construction of Ardnacrusha Power Station, and later ESB Networks working as senior engineer, chief operations engineer and laterally head of the ESB Sales Department.
Dr Thomas McLaughlin, made a significant contribution to the hydroelectric scheme’s design, promotion and execution.
In 1927, the ESB was created and, at the age of 31, McLaughlin, who previously worked for Siemens, was appointed as its first chief executive.
On September 21, 1929, the first current was created in Ardnacrusha. McLaughlin’s dream, as expressed in his own words – “electricity is the key to the economic uplift needed in Ireland” – was realised.
Fast forward to May 1931 when McLaughlin had to tender his resignation following some controversy, but was reappointed to the board in 1932, and went on to become a strong advocate for the ESB’s Rural Electrification Programme.
At an ESB staff dance, which was held in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on May 6, 1932, McLaughlin was presented with the solid sliver replica of the Ardnacrusha plant.
The presentation was made by O’Farrell, who was chairman of the presentation committee, representing all staff who wished to mark their former managing director’s contribution to the development of the Shannon Scheme.
According to an analysis prepared by ESB archive and heritage manager, Brendan Delaney, the replica, which is an example of “outstanding Irish craftsmanship”, is a meticulous 1/300 scale model of the plant weighing 1,650 ounces of solid silver bearing the Dublin Hallmark.
“The size of the model can be gauged from the fact that one inch represents 25 feet of the Shannon works. The architectural feature of the building at Ardnacrusha are exactly replicated right down to the minor detail with their immediate ground surroundings in miniature.
“The model is fitted throughout, and it can be electrically illuminated in darkness. A realistic effect of the waters of the river is obtained by the introduction of a highly burnished silver. The model is mounted on a base of about 20 inches square.”
Even though several foreign manufacturers, including some German, were keen to secure the order, the presentation committee commissioned Messrs, John Smyth and Sons, noted silversmith makers in Wicklow Street, Dublin.
The work was carried out under the supervision of Hugh Carroll master silversmith. Three and sometimes four craftsmen were engaged at different stages in its design and manufacture, and it was entirely hand hammered.
“It was the first occasion that work of such an intricate character had been undertaken in this country, and the results were spectacularly successful proving that Irish craftsmanship occupied a commanding position among silversmiths of the world,” Mr Delaney stated.
The model was acquired from a member of the McLaughlin family in 1996 because of its historical significance for the ESB.
In 1996, it was apparently the largest single piece of silver work in the country.
The ESB sought guidance on its significance before its acquisition in July 1996, from Michael Kenny, Keeper of the Decorative Arts and History Division from the National Museum, as well as being their acknowledged expert on silver.
He stated, “It is a most unusual piece of work, and I must say that I have never previously seen a scale model in sliver, let alone a piece of such weight and proportion. It is of considerable historical importance to the country in general, but especially to the ESB.”
In 1996, the ESB did a study to value it for their insurance company. According to a valuation report completed in 1996, the replica was one of the most remarkable pieces of silver ever commissioned in this country.
O’Farrell’s grandson, Tom McCabe is working with the Hunt Museum to try and get it relocated into a public space in the museum.
McCabe has also conducted extensive research into his grandfather’s work in the ESB, and his lesser known time as an Irish freedom fighter during his student days.
Joe O’Farrell was born in 1900. His father, Henry was master builder from Portarlington Co Laois, who built a lot of churches and Emo Court.
O’Farrell was educated at Castleknock College and Royal College of Science Ireland.
While he stood in Castleknock, he could hear the guns and bombs going off during the 1916 Easter Rising.
Irish freedom fighter, Kevin Barry, was 18 years old when he was hanged in Mountjoy Jail on November 1, 1920.
His family had a dairy in County Carlow, which is located close to Portalington. The Barry family also had a shop in Fleet Street, Dublin, which O’Farrell frequented on a regular basis.
He was very friendly with Kevin’s sister, Kathleen Barry, who ended up working in the marketing department with the ESB.
Even when Kevin Barry was in Belvedere College, he went on day trips to Portlaoise. Mr Barry went to the Royal College of Surgeons with Joe’s sister, Carmel, and she visited him when he was jailed.
In 1921, Carmel also looked after her brother when he was shot and seriously injured a few months after Kevin Barry had been injured.
Carmel went on to become a GP, and she was in the Royal College of Surgeons with Mr Barry.
She nursed her brother back to good health before he was released from jail during the Treaty of 1922 as part of an amnesty.
On his arrest in March 1921 outside Trinity College in College Green, he gave his name as Joe O’Farrell after the Black and Tans shot him.
He was living in a house in Baggot Street, which was apparently the location for a number of seizures at the time of the Croke Park atrocities.
Commenting on the use of O’Farrell for the first time, McCabe believes the last thing Joe wanted was to give an anglicised version of his name to the Black and Tans after he was shot.
“Joe was so humble he never showed any negativity towards the Black and Tans. He had a very strong moral compass and was very religious. Any of the big influencers in the Old IRA were also highly academic.”
Interestingly, Farrell had come directly from Kevin Barry’s house where he had collected guns as well as guns from his sister’s house.
In a testimonial about Kevin Barry, Kathleen mentioned Joe O’Farrell visiting Kevin a number of times while he was in jail.
From 1921, Joe is only known as Joe O’Farrell.
After completing his schooling, O’Farrell won a scholarship to the Royal College of Science
for Ireland now known as UCD where Mr McCabe believes he knew Thomas MacLaughlin.
“Minister for Industry, Patrick Gilligan and W T Cosgrave were all strong nationalists and were friendly with Thomas McLaughlin. What they pulled off in Ardnacrusha was an amazing feat.
“As a member of the engineers corps of the Old IRA, Joe came up with an analogy when you fight for Irish freedom, you see your future in an island independent of British rule and governance, independent in power and independent as a nation.
“As young engineers in the 1920, O’Farrell and McLaughlin promoted and led the Shannon Scheme idea for the electrification of the Irish Free State.
“Once they came back from Germany, they had to present this revolutionary proposal for the largest civil engineering project in the world at the time to Minister Gilligan and Co.
“Everything they saw abroad in Germany reinforced the importance of industry and power being the best way to help the government become independent of the UK,” Mr McCabe said.
In 1925, O’Farrell was invited to join the staff of Siemens Schuckert to work again with McLaughlin in Berlin.
This role provided him with the perfect opportunity to study the design of hydro-electric power plants and the manufacture of electrical machinery across Europe.
He married Francis Shanahan from Waterford. The couple had two daughters and two sons.
Thomas MacLaughlin served as the first managing director of the ESB, with O’Farrell hired as the fourth employee in 1927 on his return from Germany.
O’Farrell assessed how much power would be required for the Shannon Scheme and the size of generators.
“Joe went over to Siemens and worked with the hydro electric division, and was able to determine the specification, design, build and installation of the actual turbines.
“It was incredible to achieve something of this calibre back in the twenties. It was a serious undertaking to undertake. These four turbines are still operational today,” noted McCabe.
“In my view, Ardnacrusha is one of the most important civil engineering projects in the history of Ireland.
“Upgrading the national grid was pioneering. Bringing power to every single home in Ireland was a major undertaking. The ESB had to bring power to every single industry farm and house in Ireland.
“The characteristics attributed to Joe O’Farrell are his organisational ability, his ability to communicate to different nationalities from Germans to Irish. To go to Germany with no Germam took huge amount of intellect,” said McCabe.
After joining the board of the ESB in 1927, O’Farrell was in charge of “Networks No.1” and then of the substations.
O’Farrell became the ESB’s first operations engineer looking after the national network for the roll out of power lines in the Republic.
He was responsible for the division of the country into the eight original districts, the subdivision into areas and the appointment and training of the eight district engineers, and their manual staffs.
After this organisation began operating, the board asked O’Farrell to organise a sales department, and as head of this department he spent more than 30 years of his term with the company.
His daughter, Brenda secured a job as one of the most high profile demonstrators of electrical equipment for the ESB.
He took early retirement at the age of 62 due to ill health and died three years later. He was buried in Deansgrange, having lived in the family home in Carsford Avenue, Dublin.