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Building of the Month - June 2009

Ardnacrusha Generating Station, BALLYKEELAUN Td., County Clare

Ardnacrusha Generating Station 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: An aerial view of Ardnacrusha Generating Station also showing Blackwater Bridge, the only bridge crossing the tail-race canal; three sleek reinforced concrete bridges – Cloonlara Bridge, O'Brien's Bridge, and Parteen Bridge – cross the lengthy head-race canal.  At the height of its construction almost five thousand men were working on the Shannon Scheme.  Although paid an agricultural wage as opposed to an industrial wage – a disparity that quickly gave rise to strike action – the project gave much needed employment to labourers, skilled and unskilled, affected by the economic depression of the 1920s

The potential for harnessing power on the River Shannon had long been recognised with plans dating back to a report (1844) published by Sir Robert Kane (1809-90), a Dublin-born chemist.  A later proposal, known as "Frazer's Scheme", was inspired by similar work at Niagra Falls and was endorsed under the Shannon Water and Electric Power Act, 1901.  As the cost was seen as prohibitive, however, the project was never realised.

The present scheme eventually came to fruition through the exertions of Dr. Thomas Aloysius McLaughlin (1896-1971), a Drogheda-born engineer.  Having graduated from University College Dublin in 1916, McLaughlin lectured with Professor Frank Sharman Rishworth (1876-1960) in the Department of Civil Engineering at University College, Galway, and thereafter relocated to Berlin in 1922, joining the firm of Siemens-Schukertwerke to attain practical experience in the design and construction of hydro-generating systems.

The electricity network in Ireland at the time compared unfavourably with those developed in Britain and Continental Europe.  Almost three hundred suppliers generated electricity but the ad hoc system resulted in black spots affecting the country as a whole, and the hinterlands in particular.  Keen to promote the newly independent Ireland as a country capable of meeting its own needs, a national electricity network was adopted by the Irish Free State as the first, and to date largest civil engineering project in the history of the state.  Commissioned by Patrick McLoughlin (1889-1979), Minister for Industry and Commerce and a fellow student at UCD, to submit a plan for a generating station on the River Shannon, McLaughlin proposed a scheme that at over five million pounds was almost one-fifth of the entire annual budget available to the Irish Free State government.

The considerable expenditure, sanctioned by the government following much political debate, was necessitated not only by the generating station, but also by the head- and tail-race canals constructed along the River Shannon, spanned by four new bridges, and the extensive system of culverts and sluices enhancing the fall in water levels between Lough Derg and the Shannon.  Fish ladders were also required to allow the safe passage of salmon past the generating station (fig. 1).

Work on the project, which would officially be known as the Shannon Scheme, began in 1925 and the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), which would take over responsibility for the station, was established in 1927 by Patrick McGilligan (1889-1979), the succeeding Minister for Industry and Commerce.  Despite a major labour dispute, a penalty clause in the contracts ensured that work was completed on time in 1929 with only a comparatively minor budget overrun.

Ardnacrusha Generating Station 02 - Turbine Hall Ardnacrusha Generating Station 03 - Turbine Hall (2009)

Figures 2-3: A view of the interior of the turbine hall nearing completion and a view of the turbine hall in 2009 with its full compliment of four turbines

The centrepiece of the Shannon Scheme remains the impressive generating station at Ardnacrusha, a steel-framed building designed to house six massive turbines (figs. 2-3): ultimately, only four turbines were installed with three (1929) belonging to the vertical shaft type patented by James Bicheno Francis (1815-92) and one later turbine (1934) belong to the vertical shaft type developed by Viktor Kaplan (1876-1934).  Interestingly, the role played by Siemens-Schukertwerke in the scheme appears to have influenced the appearance of the station: the tall windows recall Peter Behrens' (1868-1940) AEG High Tension Factory (1910) in Berlin while the remarkably high-pitched roof with rows of lucarne-like miniature dormer windows exhibits a strong Germanic character.

Ardnacrusha Generating Station 04 - Visit The Shannon Works 

Figure 4: An advertisement encouraging members of the public to Visit the Shannon Works!  Such was the public interest in the Shannon Scheme, fuelled by propaganda-like coverage in the national and international media, that guided tours were organised to show visitors around the site.  Approximately one quarter of a million visitors came to Ardnacrusha between 1927 and 1929

At the time of completion, the station at Ardnacrusha had the distinction of being the largest hydroelectric station in the world although that title would quickly be conceded to the Boulder Dam, latterly known as the Hoover Dam, begun in 1930.  Its importance in supporting the economy of a new independent Ireland cannot be overstated with the generating station intrinsically linked to rural electrification on the 1930s.  The iconic status of the Shannon Scheme for the new state is highlighted by paintings by Sean Keating RHA (1889-1977) of the site under construction (figs. 5-6).

Ardnacrusha Generating Station 05 - Sean Keating RHA At Work Ardnacrusha Generating Station 06 - Sean Keating RHA Painting

Figures 5-6: Sean Keating RHA (1889-1977) was commissioned by the Electricity Supply Board to record the construction of the Shannon Scheme and, given unrestricted access to the site, produced such paintings as Der Ubermann Takes A Break

The success of the station generated international interest and was adopted as a model for similar electrification projects throughout the world.  The Financial Times commented:

Four half a century the country under the British regime toyed with the suggestion of harnessing the Shannon.  The British are a hardheaded and practical folk, but they jibbed at such a venture.  Then the Free State came into being, and ardent untried administrators, remembering that they had always been accused of being dreamers, seized on this chance of showing what they can do.

The significance of the Shannon Scheme continues to be recognised and in 2002, its seventy-fifth anniversary, the American Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) identified the project as a milestone of twentieth-century engineering while the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) identified the site as an International Historic Engineering Landmark.

All photographs reproduced courtesy of the ESB Archive.  Figure 3 photographed by Shannon Images for the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Clare

Ardnacrusha Generating Station 07 - Introduction 


Becker, Annette, Olley, John and Wang, Wilfried (eds.), 20th-Century Architecture: Ireland (Munich and New York: Prestel, 1997)

Cox, Ronald C. and Gould, Michael H., Civil Engineering Heritage: Ireland (London: Thomas Telford Publications, 1998)

Manning, Maurice and McDowell, Moore, Electricity Supply in Ireland: The History of the ESB (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984)

Rothery, Sean, Ireland and the New Architecture 1900-1940 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1991)

Rynne, Colin, Industrial Ireland 1750-1930: An Archaeology (Cork: The Collins Press, 2006)

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