‘8-house village builds own hall’                                     

Fr. Edward Dowling became Parish Priest of Camross at the height of the Emergency in Ireland. Resources were scarce and there were no thoughts of any development of a large infrastructural project within the parish. But Fr. Dowling and his Curate, Fr. James Scott, no doubt discussed what could be done to improve the lives of their parishioners if the War in Europe remained on the continent and ended within their tenure in Camross. Once the great uncertainties of life, brought about by the ongoing war, came to an end with Allied victory, the clergy men’s thoughts returned to their idea with added gusto. The immediate post-war years were scarcely better for Ireland than the war years themselves, but green shoots were emerging towards the end of the 1940s and moves began to secure funding for the construction of a parish hall in the centre of Camross village. And the first port of call was the headquarters of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust in Dunfermline, Scotland.

Andrew Carnegie led the expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th Century. He sold his steel company to JP Morgan in 1901 for $480 million ($13.6 billion in modern terms) thus making him one of the wealthiest men in history. He led the way in philanthropy and by the time of his death had given away almost all of his fortune to worthy causes. The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust was established to bring about ‘improvement of the well-being of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland’. The Trust, based in Carnegie’s hometown, assisted multiple local building projects all over the United Kingdom and the Irish Free State after the end of the war. It was a logical choice for the first formal application for funding, which was made in April 1949 by Fr. Scott. 

The wheels were barely in motion when it became apparent that the dissemination of Carnegie funds in Ireland was going to become more difficult owing to the coming into effect of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949. However, the Carnegie Trust’s operations in Ireland was partly taken over by Fóras Éireann which was the national rural development body. In one of the first communications between Fr, Dowling and a representative for Fóras Éireann the reasons for the construction of the hall were outlined by the parish priest;

The girls of the parish have lapsed into their old dreary rut. With a hall, we could have the ICA here; they would be stimulated to use their brains and their fingers to some purpose; and they might even find a market for their work. The same is true of the young men. Their surplus energies go to waste, and worse. They should have woodwork classes, classes in farming, lectures in forestry and recreation. Now they have nothing. And so we come to my second observation. They are leaving the place. All those, save one or two, who acted, sang and danced when I first started the concerts, are now in Dublin, England and elsewhere, instead of in their native parish, where they are badly needed. And it is not lack of money that is driving them away, it is BOREDOM.

The object of the hall it then to provide recreation for all, to establish premises where the ICA, Young Farmer’s Club, Gaelic League and technical classes could function, and eventually to have, perhaps, a cinema.

The Bishop of Ossory, Dr. Collier, was more than supportive of the project and he pledged a significant gift of £500 towards the construction of the hall. He also assisted at every stage of the securing of the remaining funds required. A site beside the teacher’s house in the village was chosen for the proposed hall as Fr. Dowling conducted seemingly drawn out negotiations with the Carnegie Trust via Fóras Éireann, architects and the Bank of Ireland in Mountrath.

Three trustees for the site were appointed and they were John Hyland (Larch Hill), John Joe Dowling (Derry) and Rody Moore (Gurteen). The Managing Committee for the project had representatives from the various bodies in the area: Matt Hyland (Young Farmer’s Club), Des Kilmartin (Parish Council), Paddy Bergin (GAA), John Cuddy (Pioneers), Edward Breun (National School), and Fr. Scott (Musical and Dramatic Society). To secure a loan from the Bank of Ireland, 16 guarantors who made up ‘the most well-to-do of parishioners’ were nominated. They were Edward Sheeran (Coolrain), John Joe Dowling (Derry), Rody Moore (Gurteen), John Hyland (Larch Hill), Lawrence Delaney (Closh), Des Kilmartin (Camross), Dick Thomson (Clonoghil), John Cuddy (Aughduff), Matt Hyland (The Glebe), Patrick Maher (Derryduff), Sylvester Phelan (Crannagh), Mrs. Lyons (Shrahane), John Phelan (The Avenue), Mrs. Corcoran (Coolganour), Matt Collier, and Sean Collier.

The bank loan was secured and, with the money from the Bishop and voluntary donations, the total required to build the hall, £3,000, was secured. After all of Fr. Dowling’s efforts with the Carnegie Trust, he was advised by both the Bishop and the committee to instruct the Carnegie Trust that due to construction material costs and ‘reasons of a domestic nature’ their grant would not be accepted. This is in spite of the fact that in December 1950 the Trust graciously pledged £600 to the project. It was certainly a peculiar decision not to accept the money but it did mean that the hall would be built with funds entirely secured from either within the parish or from people originally from the parish.

In October 1951 Fr. Dowling chaired a meeting in the village outlining the plans for the construction of the hall. Ground was broken on the site on October 22nd 1951. The delay in the beginning of the building of the hall was explained in a letter penned by Fr. Dowling to a representative of Fóras Éireann. He said ‘the bishop has asked me not to begin work with voluntary labour until the people had their crops and turf safe for another year. I know that they have suffered from a lack of fuel this year and how much the poor cattle and horses lacked in fodder. The Hall will have to take its place after the necessary work has been done.’

Over 300 people worked, voluntarily, on the construction of the hall over the course of the next several months. By mid-April of the following year the hall was all but complete. The achievement of constructing a hall in such a short period of time from largely voluntary work, and wholly without financial assistance by way of grants was praised all over Ireland. The Irish Times called it their ‘story of the week’. 

The finished hall was 85 feet long and 23 feet wide and contained all the amenities necessary for indoor social events organised locally. It had a dancing hall surface for any social occasion. In a pre-electric era village there were calor gas fittings on the wall for lighting, but the facilities were there to easily install electricity as it was felt that it would not be long until electricity came to the area. The large stage area had a dressing room behind it. There were male and female bathrooms, a kitchen area and a cloakroom just off the entrance. There was a small balcony which was intended to house the 16 mm projector, a donation from Fr. Dan Collier, which would be used to show movies.

The hall was officially opened on Friday, 16 May 1952. In fact the hall was not entirely finished but as Bishop Collier was due to travel to America it was decided to open the hall a little ahead of schedule. The Bishop led a procession from the church down the hill towards the hall and was greeted at the entrance by three children, each representing one of the three schools in the parish; Philomena Breen (Camross), Bernadette Hogan (Killanure) and Carmel Hyland (Clonin). Bishop Collier was assisted in the opening of the hall by the two men who worked hardest to secure the construction of the building, Fr. Dowling and Fr. Scott.

In blessing the hall Bishop Collier warned that not everyone who would intend to come to the hall would come to do as Christ would; there would always be violations by toughs who would come to the hall and mislead others with drink. It would be the duty of the committee to refuse admittance to any drunkard and he felt sure that the priests and the Committee would deem it their duty to see what had been done that day would not be dishonoured and that everything which would be done would be fit for the grace of God. He wanted to ensure to those present that despite his words that the committee would not impose wooden regulations upon the goings on in the hall. He said that the hall would change the life of the parish. He looked on it as a place where they could bring the city to the country and the amusement of Dublin to Camross for the enjoyment of the people in an effort to develop them culturally and educationally. He hoped that the hall would be the means of putting an end to emigration and that the boys and girls would no longer go abroad but remain in Camross where they would receive amusement in plenty. He concluded by praising Fr. Dowling and Din Delaney and all other men who helped to create the hall that they see before them. Fr. Scott said that the local dramatic class had been forced to carry on their shows under rather primitive surroundings but now had a fine structure to develop their shows. The evening ended with singing and dancing from some of the younger members of the community. Amongst attendees at the opening were Bernard Nwankwil, Assistant Rural Education Officer in Nigeria, and Carl V. Phillips, a Technical School Headmaster from Jamaica. Both men were attached to London University and were on a tour of Ireland studying the education system in rural Ireland. They said that the hall was a monument to those responsible for its erection.

Switching on The Lights

In 1938 the first electrical installation was installed in Camross and brought electric light to Roundwood House. The following poem, published at the time in the Leinster Express, tells the story of the ‘hooking up’ of Roundwood;

“Oh, there’s power-houses, dynamos, generators, and hydros.

And wonderful ‘werks’ there to scan, Installed at Roundwood, and they’re sure to be good, put in by a famed-business man.

Mr. Hooper, the great, is a power in the state, and hails from the County Carlow. From Wexford to Derry, and Carlow to Kerry, His name has gone forth and all know.

And Treacy, his man, is a great electrician, who knows all the tricks of the trade.

His work is now shown chiefly done on his own and a name for himself he has made.

Tim Doran, a lad, an apprentice he had, to attend to his wants all the time. A strapping young fellow, with hair nice and yellow. Whom we’ll see in the forefront in time.

The machinery was set by a man known as yet, to be a reputed stone mason.

Gilbert Maher is his name, and has won local fame.

By his work that he has proved a creation

Not forgetting H. Griffin, who built a wall spiffin to enclose the machinery,

With windows so fine, that looks so sublime, and shining like pure ivory.

There’s engines steel pipes, mighty shafts and the likes, and belts too numerous to mention, all working on wheels of the finest stelll, going round at a lightning speed-ention.

There’s wires by the mile, put in fine style, all around the outoffices, buildings, the mansion at hand is aglows with lights grand, and set in magnificent gildings.

The engine so fine is placed to combine with a powerful new dynamo. To generate light that will shine up the nght and lighten up Roundwood, what ho!

So now upon that, we can all doff our hat, to a new telephone just installed.

We’re now electrified, telephoned, well supplied, up to date, so to state, be it called.”

The Hamiltons of Roundwood, it goes without saying, were of slightly different means than their fellow neighbours. The remainder of the people in Camross had to wait significantally longer for the coming of the ‘light’. The tale of electricity provision in independent Ireland begins in 1925 with the passing in the Dáil of the Shannon Electricity Act which provided for the construction of the hydro-electric power plant in Ardnacrusha. Two years later the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) was established to distribute the vast quantities of electricity that the completed power plant would generate. Criticised by many, on the basis that Ireland would never need the amount of excess electricity that the Shannon scheme would generate, demand soon exceeded supply and similar projects were initiated on the River Liffey. The development which would eventually lead to the initiation of rural electrification was the harnessing of peat as the main source of fuel for the generation of electricity in Ireland. Peat burning electricity power plants were studied in both Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany and a plan was conceived to use the vast bogs of the midlands for the generation of electricity. The Emergency halted all development but the formation of Bord na Mona in 1946 set the wheels in motion for the development of the first turf burning power station in Portarlington. Another station was built in Allenwood, Kildare, and became the largest of its kind in the world outside of the Soviet Union.[1]

[1] Albert J. P. McCarthy, ‘The Irish National Electrification Scheme’ in Geographical Review, 47.4 (Oct. 1957), pp 539-554.

The rural electrification scheme began in earnest in 1946. The government selected 797 rural areas of about 25 square miles each to receive electricity over the following decade. The opportunities that electricity would give to rural Ireland were endless. The only real issue was the criteria that had to be met by an area to be selected early. Certain areas faced the prospect of not being connected up for years and Fr. Dowling was desperate to see Camross included in the electricity system as soon as possible.

On 9 June 1950 Fr Dowling wrote to James Dillon, the Minister for Agriculture, pleading Camross’ case. The ESB had ‘canvased’ the area the previous winter surveying the land and estimating the cost benefit of bringing electricity to Camross.

The letter reveals the wider plight of Camross in the early 1950s and the huge challenges that the area faced;

Dear Sir,

In my endeavours to make country life worth living and keep my people contentedly at home, I am projecting the building of a Village Hall, where we may be able to show them how to make their work more interesting and pleasurable, and give them all the recreational facilities that they may desire.

Last winter the ESB selected our area for a canvas. We all, priests, ministers and others, went round with the official, and we got our quota, 77%. The Village Hall, when it goes up, will make a valuable addition to this quota, and to the ESB dividends. What is more, the County Surveyor, if, and when Rural Electrification is started in the area, intends to erect electrically-driven plant in a local quarry, which, he tells me, should mean a consumption of ESB current of about £600 a year. This project of the County Surveyor is also of the first importance to us, as the roads in this extensive parish have hitherto neglected – they have never seen a steam-roller….

I am sure that our problem, in a very special way, is also yours. We are so backward, and are becoming so pitifully under-populated that we need electricity to reverse this trend.

The reply from Minister Dillon, whilst sympathetic, was not necessarily what Fr. Dowling wanted to hear (see next page). The consideration taken by the ESB in the summer of 1950 that is mentioned in Dillon’s letter was not successful either. The efforts of the parish after this setback went wholly into the construction of the hall and once the hall was erected efforts returned once more to bring electricity to Camross. But there remained lengthy delays. In December 1954, the Hall was packed to capacity for a meeting in relation to the coming of electricity to Camross. A film was shown to the crowd from the ESB and J Conroy spoke about rural electrification. The crowd was adamant that they wanted the benefits of electricity as soon as possible.

In March 1953, OJ Flanagan TD asked Seán Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce, what the situation was with regards bringing electricty to the Pike-of-Rushall area. Lemass gave a detailed response, albeit with little hope of the coming of the ‘light to the area any time soon’;

I am informed by the E.S.B. that Pike of Rushall is included in the Camross area which has been considered by the board on a number of occasions for development under the rural electrification scheme but has so far not been selected. The area will again be considered for selection in the future but I am unable to state when development is likely to commence. I am informed that the results of the canvass showed that a reasonably high percentage of householders were willing to accept a supply but that several areas in the district have shown a higher percentage of acceptances.[1]

[1] Dáil Proceedings; 25 Feb 1953. Dáil Éireann Debate Vol. 136 No. 11.

Lemass’ inference that the reason electricity had not come to the Camross area was due to a reluctance from a large minority of the people likely infuriated the likes of Fr. Dowling. He had previously stated that 77% of the people of Camross wanted electricity. If this percentage was brought down below an ESB threshold by people outside of Camross but within the Camross electricity area (such as the Pike of Rushall), there was little Fr. Dowling could do but wait.

And wait he and all of the parish did until 1955. Rural electrification intensified in 1955 and by August of that year, 395 rural areas had been linked up to the grid.[1] To speed up the roll out of electricity Lemass made an order for 135,000 electricity poles from Norway which began to land in Dublin port that summer. In the early summer it was announced that Camross would receive electricity ‘within nine months’. Neighbouring Ballaghmore also received good news. There had been a rather underwhelming demand for electricity (62 per cent) in the area but the efforts of the ESB canvasing team raised this level to 85 per cent and the Ballaghmore area was selected at the end of the year to be connected up in early 1956.

[1] Irish Press, 17 Aug. 1955.

The ESB began erecting electricity poles in the parish in June. The rough mountainy terrain made the work of the ESB very difficult but after six months of hard toil the first phase of the turn-on was ready by mid-December. Everything was in place for the historic moment. Rather harshly, the Leinster Express stated that the parish would ‘no longer be dark and dreary at night’.[1]

[1] Leinster Express, 12 Nov. 1955.

The big day came on Thursday, 15 December 1955. The switch-on took place in the parish hall and was conducted by Fr. Dowling in front of a large crowd of invited guests. Fr. Dowling pressed the button which switched the lighting of the hall from the gas fittings which had lit the building since its opening to electric light bulbs which had been added. The swith over was greeted with scenes of rejoicing. The link up went from Deerpark to Castletown and the Pike of Rushall. In total, 344 homes were linked up in the scheme. 

In attendance in the Hall was OJ Flanagan. He said to the crowd;

There may be excellent churches, schools and halls in the area but there had been no greater occasion for celebration than the facilities afforded by the ESB in linking Camross with the rural electrification scheme. If your great-great grandfathers could be present they would be astonished to see the progress which had been made and to see that electricity had reached Camross.

There was a time when Dublin, Cork, Limerick and other cities were lighted with gas, while there was no lighting facilities in the countryside except candles and the light of the fire, but now, thank God, we have reached a stage when the country districts had the same lighting facilities as the cities and the towns. This is an occasion when we celebrate a milestone of outstanding progress in the Camross area and I like to be at such functions. The last time I was at such an event was in Abbeylara, Co. Longford, a place similar to Camross, and on that occasion I told my listeners that no greater facility could come to rural Ireland than electricity and I say the same tonight. Now that rural electrification has reached Camross, I hope the people of this district would take full advantage of it and the power facilities which it afforded.

The Department of Agriculture had a scheme whereby half of the cost of bringing piped water supplies into farmers houses would be paid by grant and this scheme was made possible through the extension of rural electric supplies for the purpose of having the power available for water supplies. Very substantial free grants would be given to assist those engaged in agriculture on having water supplies provided for their homes and farmyards. Farmer’s work would be made much more easy by the extension of electricity for power purposes and they all knew that the light was clean and there was no difficulties with it. All one had to do was to press a switch and there would be light.

Rev. Miller, Rector of Offerlane Church of Ireland Parish, speaking at the event, thanked Mr. Flanagan for his words and also thanked Fr. Dowling for his invite. He said that when he came to this district for the first time he was plunged into the mysteries of Tilley lamps for the first time. He added ‘Believe me, it took me a long time to get used to it!’ He went on to say that ‘they could use electricity for many purposes and they were very grateful that at last electric light and power had become a fact in the Camross area. He did not believe for a long time that it would come but it was there now and in a few moments they were going to see it switched on. They were very grateful to all those who worked so hard in bringing rural electrification to the area in such a short time’.

Peadar Maher TD said that they had been hearing so much about the flight from the land in recent years but rural electrification would go a long way to stemming the tide of this flight. Maher went on to say ‘From time to time they heard people in rural areas expressing regret that they did not enjoy the amenities and facilities of towns and cities, but now Camross was in the happy position of being able to boast of having all the advantages which rural electrification brought. All these advantages would be available to the whole area in the very near future. He did not think there was anything in the recent past which had uplifted the standard of living in rural areas as much as rural electrification. It was now up to the people of that district to make full use of all the electrical appliances available to make life on the land pleasanter and happier than it was in the past.

The switch-on did not bring electricity to everyone in the parish. But it did bring it to anyone who had the means of paying their bill and wanted it. Indeed, in 1972 the ESB made a concerted effort to bring anyone in the parish who had not joined the grid to join up immediately.[1] The very fact that such an effort was required showed that there was still houses in the 1970s without electricity in the parish, but by the mid 1970s, the days of candles and parafin oil left the area forever (with the exception of some unwanted winter storms in the 1990s!).

[1] Leinster Express, 29 Apr. 1972.