It seems inevitable that authors would be drawn to the subject of rural electrification. Afterall, lights and power changed lives on farms and in villages like nothing else.
“This Is Happiness,” a 2019 novel by the Irish writer Niall Williams, is set in the “forgotten elsewhere” of Faha, a village in County Clare on Ireland’s west coast. The time is the summer of 1958, and electric distribution lines are being built and houses are being wired.
“It is about this threshold time, when, halfway into the 20th century, the parish finally steps out of the 19th,” Williams said in an interview with The Irish Echo, an Irish-American newspaper published in New York.
It’s also the story of Noe Crowe, a 17-year-old Dubliner who has dropped out of the seminary to come to Faha to live with his grandparents. Under their roof and in their provincial milieu, he “discovers what it means to be a fully human being,” Williams wrote.
One of the main characters is the grandparents’ boarder, Christy, a field man for the Electricity Board who also has a personal reason for returning to County Clare: He hopes to reunite with a woman he left at the altar 50 years earlier.
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Father Coffey, the young curate at St. Cecelia’s Catholic church, is described as “an advocate for modernity.” He warns his backward-leaning flock that if they don’t sign up for power in sufficient numbers, the Electricity Board will pass over Faha for Boola, the next parish over.
“Faha would be left in a mean and shameful dark while the Boolaeans would be illumed like seraphim,” he says in his homily one Sunday morning.
Ganga and Doady, the grandparents, attend a meeting at the church hall where they learn about the national Rural Electrification Scheme (one million poles in the ground across the country) and what to expect locally, including 40 or 50 short-term construction jobs along with paid lodging for the Rural Area Engineer, the Rural Area Clerk, the Rural Area Organizer, the Rural Area Supervisor, a number of linemen – and Christy.
Rural electrification came late to Ireland. The first pole was erected in November 1946 in a village 15 miles north of Dublin, but lines did not reach many isolated communities until after the Electricity Supply Amendment Act was passed by the federal government in 1955. Lights and power, said the top utility official in the country, would “raise the standard of living [and] get to the root of the social evil of ‘flight from the land.’”
Ireland was divided into 792 areas to carry out the Rural Electrification Scheme. The boundaries were roughly the same as the Catholic parish boundaries, the idea being that if no one else stepped forward, the parish priest could be counted on as the primary local influencer.
The first phase of the national rollout ended in 1965 with 300,000 rural homes and businesses having been electrified. Ninety nine percent of the remaining 100,000 were reached by 1975.
In Faha, the first physical sign of electrification was stockpiles of poles at various locations around the parish.
“They were playground mountains to children whose mothers were soon to discover the fun of cleaning creosote,” Williams wrote. Soon, “fields where nothing had changed in a thousand years” were stippled with the poles.
“The switch-on” celebration took place on June 8, 1959, and the bishop as well as priests from other parishes and Faha-based nuns were among the invited guests.
Decisions on food, flowers, music and banners were “informed by the consensus on one abiding principle: that Faha do it better than Boola.”
The Bishop, “whose stomach had been brutalised from attending switch-ons at [other] parishes … sent his apologies and a bespoke blessing,” which Father Tom (Father Coffey’s senior), delivered after throwing holy water at a pole outside St. Cecelia’s.
That was the cue for Harry Rushe, an Area Organizer with the Rural Electrification Board, to throw the switch that energized Faha’s lines.
There was a gasp when the lamp beside him came on.
“And then ripples of applause that sounded like a tide coming in across stones.”
Quickly, the crowd turned away from the church to visit the nearby shops “to see if the electricity had crossed the street.”