In a ceremony days before Christmas 1947, Ballymacelligott parish priest Fr. M. O’Donoghue “made alive” an electric connection to the rural community four miles east of Tralee in County Kerry. (The town obtained electricity 20 years earlier.) “Appropriately the first house to be lighted up was the House of God,” The Kerryman reported.1
The church connection completed a year of similar events in the Irish government’s Rural Electrification Scheme. At the time, about two thirds of Irish homes were without electricity. It would take until the late 1970s to connect 99 percent of those homes, with the Black Valley in Kerry, about 25 miles south of Ballymacelligott, being among the last places lighted.
Now, two generations after completing the electric grid, the Irish government has embarked on a similar effort to supply high-speed broadband service beyond the country’s cities and towns. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in November hailed the initiative as the “biggest investment in rural Ireland ever” and the “most important since rural electrification”.2
The €3 billion National Broadband Plan (NBP) “aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland,” the government’s website says. “It will ensure that all citizens and businesses have access to high speed broadband no matter where they live or work.”
Over the next four years, 1.1 million rural residents will receive broadband service through a combination of commercial and State-led investment, according to the plan, “securing equal access for every person in Ireland to opportunities which will transform [their] lives,” whether through agriculture and other economic development, healthcare, or education. The 90 percent coverage goal includes portions of Ballymacelligott.
The project is likely to have its share of setbacks on the way to success, as happened with rural electrification. That history is detailed at the online Electricity Supply Board (ESB) Archives, and in Michael J. Shiel’s 1984 book, The Quiet Revolution: The Electrification of Rural Ireland, 1946-1976. Sheil was a Galway-born, Electricity Supply Board (ESB) engineer at the start of the venture who eventually became one of its directors. He also was one of its first customers, with his residence transformed into a “show house” to persuade reluctant farmers about the benefits of electricity.3
Electrification had massive social and cultural consequences for rural Ireland. Many rural households replaced the free 100W bulb they received with a lower wattage because the new light made them feel sick or “tended to put out [the glow of] the fire.4 Others at first agreed to take electricity, then changed their minds, in part because of the costs. They became known as “backsliders.”
In a 1984 review of The Quiet Revolution, Dan Collins wrote: “Some to this day regret that rural Ireland ever became ensnared in the State-backed corporate scheme which they argued sounded the death knell for many of the old traditions which characterized the unique heritage of the Irish.”5 Historian Diarmaid Ferriter at least twice has used an anecdote from Quiet Revolution about a War of Independence veteran who asserted, “it wasn’t for street lamps that we fought.”6
But rural electrification expanded inexorably. Shiel, in a 2007 chapter for a U.S. energy management publication,7 maintained that government officials and business leaders recognized the positive social and psychological components of rural electrification. “They viewed electricity not only as a means to improve rural productivity, but also as a way to free rural people, particularly women, from the age-old drudgery of farm life. … It gave rural people a belief in themselves and their potential, which had hitherto been lacking.”
“Kitchen Power: Women’s Experiences of Rural Electrification”, an exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland/Country Life, Mayo, explores the female perspective of the “quiet revolution” until July. Listen to oral history interviews with four women who lived through the transformation.
The digital divide is also a problem in rural America, just as spotty electric service kept these communities isolated during the Great Depression. In January, the U.S. government announced a Rural Digital Opportunity Fund totaling $20.4 billion over 10 years.
“It’s about time. They take care of their cities, but they don’t take care of you,” President Donald Trump said in a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation, exploiting the same rural/urban division that is also exposed in Ireland, whether related to garda stations or post offices, economic development or healthcare services.8
Faster access to the internet will not by itself solve such problems on either side of the Atlantic. “Utopia of course is far from being reached,” Shiel concluded in his 1984 book. “At the time of writing there are immense problems, economic and social, looming. The progress of the people of rural Ireland, however, … has been by any standards remarkable.”9
And so the remarkable changes in rural Ireland since 1947 … or even since 1984 … will continue with the implementation of broadband service. Sometime in the coming years the Ballymacelligott church pews will be digital hot spots.