Shining a light on women’s experiences of rural electrification

An exhibition exploring the effect of rural electrification on women in the 1950s and 1960s was launched by former president of Ireland Mary Robinson at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, in Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, on July 19.

The exhibition has been developed by the museum in partnership with Kingston University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), with support from organisations such as: the ESB; Age and Opportunity; and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) Letterfrack. It is the flagship temporary exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life this year.

The first phase of the ESB’s rural electrification programme began in 1946 and ran until 1965, with a post-development phase running into the 1970s. Although many rural women worked in offices and shops, as well as on the farm, the marriage bar and prevailing cultural attitudes meant that many women’s experiences of rural electrification were at home, where the kitchen was the focus of domestic work.

Advertising

The exhibition includes a wide range of ESB advertising and marketing materials, objects from the museum’s archives and ESB archives, Irish Agricultural Museum and private collectors, as well as oral histories from women who worked in the home through rural electrification.

Designed to evoke the 1950s and 1960s, it explores how domestic electrical products were advertised and promoted as part of a modern lifestyle, moving from the traditional hearth to the fitted kitchen without challenging established gender roles. A twin tub washing machine; primrose yellow iron; green enamel cooker; and a Sacred Heart lamp, are all on display.

The exhibition has been curated by Noel Campbell of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, in partnership with Dr. Sorcha O’Brien of Kingston University, senior lecturer in design history and principal investigator for the Electric Irish Homes research project.

Passionate

Former president Mary Robinson recalled how passionate her father was about the difference rural electrification made to his work as a doctor in Mayo.

Dr. Sorcha O’Brien of Kingston University said that the exhibition looks at how the fantasy and reality of housework in Ireland compared, from the gendered stereotypes of the advertising of the day, to the real effects of appliances like washing machines on the drudgery of women’s everyday lives.

The exhibition features more than 60 oral histories from women who lived through this energy transition and ESB staff who worked on the project, collected over the last two years.

“The exhibition showcases the effect that the Rural Electrification Scheme had on the design and material culture of Irish kitchens in the 1950s and 1960s, from the Sacred Heart lamp to the twin tub.”

Chair of the board of the National Museum of Ireland, Catherine Heaney, said that the role of women in Ireland has changed significantly since rural electrification.

“Access to electricity contributed greatly to the efficiency of running a household, and it propelled the shift of women into the paid workforce. ‘Kitchen Power’ is a timely opportunity to take stock of what was achieved by rural electrification and to consider how the lessons and successes can be applied to the roll out of utilities such as broadband.”

Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Lynn Scarff, said that the museum was delighted to have partnered with Kingston University, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and ESB in the development of the exhibition, and was grateful to everyone who contributed to it.

“A special thank you must go to the women who shared their stories; the exhibition is all the richer for their fascinating first-hand accounts of how rural electrification impacted on their lives.”

ESB’s deputy chief executive, Jerry O’Sullivan, said that the exhibition provides a fascinating insight not only into the transformative effect of rural electrification on the lives of women, but also the pioneering role that women played in driving the early adoption of electricity.

Demonstrators

This, he said, ranged from the ESB-employed demonstrators whose job it was to educate people on the use of new electrical appliances to women in partnership with organisations such as the Irish Country Women’s Association (ICA), Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA)27 and Muintir na Tíre, who saw the potential of electricity and championed it within their communities.

As we look to a future where clean electricity will play a vital role in addressing climate change, we need to harness the same creativity and leadership within communities to demonstrate the benefits of electric transport and heating, and in doing so create a brighter future for all.

Along with artefacts and the oral history recordings – many from members of the ICA – ‘Kitchen Power’ also includes an ‘Electric Irish Homes textile art project’ commissioned by Age and Opportunity as part of the Bealtaine Festival, who engaged Sligo artist Anna Spearman to work with local women in Mayo to respond creatively to the exhibition.

It also features a reconstruction of a 1950s ESB/ICA model kitchen which was constructed in the museum galleries by Phillip Carey, a final year BSc (Hons) furniture design and manufacture student at GMIT, Letterfrack, campus.

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