Squalor, poor pay and bully-boy tactics
Last summer, to celebrate the ESB’s 70th birthday, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric station in Co Clare opened its doors to the public for the first time in many decades. Over 10,000 visitors in hard hats and hivis jackets took the free 90-minute guided tour. This summer’s tours run until mid-September with swelling numbers expected for The Ardnacrusha Experience.
Intriguingly, it’s the second time the power station has been Ireland’s newest major tourist attraction, but the modern version has a lot of catching up to do. Between 1928 and 1932, Ardnacrusha attracted almost 200,000 sightseers or, incredibly, some 6pc of the population.
Those first visitors would have been keenly aware that for the workers who built the scheme, the original Ardnacrusha experience was no holiday. It was hell, inflicted by a government that sanctioned dirty tricks and bully-boy tactics in a bid to get the daunting scheme completed on schedule and, most vitally, on budget.
The Shannon Electricity Bill passed into law in June 1925. This was to be independent Ireland’s big statement to the watching world that the newborn Free State could stand up strong and proud. Ourselves alone.
A spot on the Shannon by the sleepy Clare village of Ardnacrusha had been chosen as the site for the hydroelectric dam, the biggest engineering project ever undertaken on the island of Ireland. In a land where job opportunities were scarce, the opening of this vast State-sponsored construction project held out the prospect of steady work and decent money. But when the adverts appeared seeking 3,000 labourers at a rate of 32 shillings for a 50-hour week ( just over €100 in today’s money), there was widespread dismay and despair at the low wages on offer.
By the time the measly pay rates were published, a huge throng of would-be workers had already descended on the banks of the Shannon.
When the unions called for a fairer deal, the German construction giant Siemens countered that the pay was fair. Almost before a sod had been turned on the State’s showcase scheme, a strike was called.
‘Big’ Joe McGrath was summoned to fill the role of troubleshooter. McGrath had fought for union recognition as one of Jim Larkin’s muscular minders, fought in the 1916 Rising, became Ireland’s Industry Minister, and would finish up Ireland’s richest man as founder and boss of the swindling super-lottery that was the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes.
According to McGrath’s one-time cabinet colleague Ernest Blythe: “He brought with him some of the men with whom he had been associated in Army Intelligence. It was popularly believed that thereafter, a man working on the Shannon Scheme could not curse the weather without his words being reported to Joe.”
Within three months of his arrival, McGrath had broken the strike. He and his heavies stayed on to keep the workforce in line, in conditions never far from toppling into anarchy.
Apart from paltry pay, the living conditions for many workers were atrocious. A shanty town had sprung up around Ardnacrusha, its population swollen by countless men just hanging around in the hope that a few days work might come up. In June 1926, a meeting of the Clare County Board of Health heard that between 12 and 14 workers had made their home in a stable at Blackwater, while a family of four were living in a pigsty attached to a labourer’s cottage.
The pigsty, the stable and the shanty town proved shocking images, even in an Ireland where many hadn’t two ha’pennies to rub together. This was no one’s vision of a new, proudly self-sufficient land of freedom. Within days, the Irish Independent had a reporter at the entrance of the infamous pigsty.
The Independent reported: “The latter accommodates a husband, a wife and two children. Some of the places in which men are sleeping are not at all fit for human beings. There was one place referred to by the Home Assistance Officer.
“It was merely an out-office. It might have housed horses or cattle. The beds consisted of old hay, thrown on the floor, with no suggestion of bed clothing. One of the heaps of hay was semi-covered with an old sack. Those men are paying rent for the privilege of the accommodation.”
Further on, the piece continued: “The Camp Commandant at Ardnacrusha, Mr WJ Stapleton, stated that it was possible there were men living in outhouses, but they were not employed on the scheme. He pointed out that men were arriving at the works daily from all parts of the country, oftimes penniless, seeking to find employment and unable to find any. It was quite conceivable that those men in numerous instances were obliged to sleep out.”
The media outcry led to a Dáil debate, where McGrath’s successor at Industry & Commerce, Patrick McGilligan, flatly dismissed reports of squalor as fake news, saying: “You may take it prima facie that the press is inaccurate.” It was McGilligan who had signed the light touch contract with Siemens, tying the Germans to the most flimsy health and safety commitments.
Asked to persuade the company to take greater responsibility for their growing numbers of sick and injured, the minister said it was outrageous to think of asking such a thing. The storm of publicity over the workers’ conditions might have been expected to provide the perfect platform for the unions to raise their voices once again. Instead, their silence was deafening. McGrath had done his job well.
According to historian Michael McCarthy: “McGrath had outflanked and outplayed the unions during the strike by hiring ex-servicemen from the Free State Army, including a captain as camp commandant, while excluding would-be troublemakers and union organisers. The contractors also, reportedly, encouraged the formation of bogus unions in the Ardnacrusha camp, set up an effective camp-informer network, and employed a ‘heavy gang’ to enforce law and order.”
In years to come, McGrath would brush off repeated charges of running a bogus union in the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes in order to confound attempts to organise a real one.
The shock-horror coverage of the summer of 1926 subsided, but any improvements in conditions seemed short-lived. In 1928, a lead story in the Clare Champion blared: “Crowds In Stable — Shocking Conditions At Ardnacrusha”. Subsequent research has shown that Siemens had been willing to fund better accommodation for their Irish workers, but the government forbade it. This was the same government that infamously shaved a ha’penny off the old age pension.
The Shannon Scheme was officially launched on July 22, 1929 when, following a blessing by the Bishop of Killaloe, President WT Cosgrave threw the switch to open the sluice gates that would bring Ireland into the modern power age.
Ernest Blythe wrote of McGrath: “He ensured that Ardnacrusha came in on time to the delight of the government.”
The newborn Free State was delighted indeed to have made its big statement to a world that was suitably impressed, but it came at a cost of 53 workers’ lives, hundreds of crippling injuries, and unfathomable depths of callously inflicted human misery.
This was no one’s vision of a new, proudly self-sufficient land of freedom. Within days, the had a reporter at the entrance of the infamous pigsty
Statement: at the time, it was the biggest engineering project ever undertaken here