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Home Uncategorized Vorsprung in the Free State

Vorsprung in the Free State

Powering the Nation: Images of the Shannon Scheme and Electricity in Ireland, by Sorcha O’Brien, Irish Academic Press, 344 pp, €29.99, ISBN: 978-1911024675

For a long time before John Berger’s defining BBC television series Ways of Seeing, followed by his publication of the same name in 1972, the concept of the innocent eye was being challenged. Berger, of course, buried it once and for all. The very title of his series prioritised how we see over what we see, and made it clear that the act of seeing is subject to many factors, including the artist-client relationship, wider cultural influences such as the art tradition out of which the thing seen emerged, the conditions of its manufacture/creation and, after all that, the dominant ideas in the mind and heart of the person doing the seeing, including their own place in history and society. Whatever kind of neutrality the art object might claim to have is then processed through the mind of the spectator; whether they are “experts”, competitors, engaged critics, consumers, workers on the project or random spectators, they all bring personal as well as cultural baggage to the encounter.

Not enough art or design history has been informed by these considerations, and certainly, despite remarkable recent writing from Linda King, Lisa Godson, Elaine Sissons, Ellen Rowley and others, not enough at all of the design history of Irish objects and buildings.

That picture has just changed with the publication of Sorcha O’Brien’s Powering the Nation. Not to, in any way, diminish the achievements of those other writers, this scholarly book is devoted to the visual representations of  a single project, the Shannon Hydro-Electricity Scheme at Ardnacrusha, which is examined forensically. O’Brien looks at everything from the evidence of the power station itself to corporate, private and public collections in archives in Germany and Ireland, from technical drawings to academic art, and from there to postage stamps and cigarette cards, and the result of that study is comfortably positioned within a theoretical discourse of visual culture and comparisons with international models. Having done all that, O’Brien uses her material to make assertive and well-founded comments on Ireland and modernity, on nation-building and “imagined communities” in the new Irish Free State, on the very different needs of the German engineering and technical corporations and on the diverse ways in which the images of the project lead to multiple narrative outcomes.

There is no shortage of writing about the Shannon Scheme and its relationship to the development of the newly independent state, by both Irish and German writers, but the focus is almost entirely on its technological and industrial challenges and solutions and the economic impact it had on the country. But despite a cursory discussion of the work of Sean Keating to celebrate it by Andy Bielenberg, Maurice Manning, Moore McDowell and others in their histories of the ESB and by Eimear O’Connor, writing on Keating from an art-historical perspective, the wider visual importance of the scheme has not been analysed. O’Brien’s book makes up for that lacuna, at the same time presenting a clear sense of what each form of visual representation could add to the wider understanding of the scheme in the context of Irish and German developments between the two world wars. Her democratic and rigorous handling of all those different forms of representation make this book a model for future projects, and outlines a wealth of information contained in hitherto overlooked aspects of  visual expression.

In short O’Brien widens John Berger’s assertion that “[w]e never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves” to embrace not only ourselves but the whole spectrum of society, avoiding the kind of visuality that Donna Harraway claimed emphasises social difference and assumes “hierarchies of class, ‘race’ gender, sexuality and so on – while itself claiming not to be part of that hierarchy and thus to be universal” (Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies). Furthermore, O’Brien orders her material into a structure that is clear and logical, beginning with the initial proposal and working through the ideological frameworks, the working practices, the official publicity and promotion and the popular response to the scheme, providing summary conclusions at the end of every chapter, with an efficiency that is as stalwart and functional as the project itself. Most challengingly, it is democratic, to the point of providing the contextual background, not only of the images but of their media and the audiences they catered for.

The Shannon Scheme has an international and conflictual history. The brainchild of Tom McLaughlin, an Irish engineer working for the German firm Siemens in Pomerania (now in Poland), it was quickly adopted by Patrick McGilligan, minister for industry and commerce, despite the overall conservativism and cautiousness of the Cumann na nGaedheal government and accusations from Fianna Fáil that it was a popularity-seeking ploy by the government. McLaughlin put the idea forward in 1924, and persuaded the minister that Siemens was the firm for the task. Work began in 1925 and was completed by 1929. O’Brien is at her best negotiating the intellectual spaces between the Free State’s search for an identity for the fledgling state that ran in two opposing directions, back to a not entirely convincing Celtic heroic past on the one hand, and a need to display its openness to modernity on the other. If that weren’t challenge enough, there was the pressing need for the German companies contracted to deliver the scheme, to prove to the world that Germany was back in business after a punishing world war and an even more devastating peace agreement. Schemes like this work because they offer something to all the interests involved. Two Siemens companies, Siemens Schuckertwerke (electrical engineering) and Siemens BauUnion (civil engineering) embraced the opportunity to take on the biggest hydro-electric project in post-WWI Europe and from the outset were determined to record and communicate their achievements. Ireland, impoverished following the impact of the same war and a civil war at home, needed energy, it needed to boost industry in a predominantly agricultural country, and it needed to provide employment at home in the hope of stemming an unending flow of emigration.

It is fair to say that 1920s Ireland, still coming to terms with independence, had neither clear industrial or aesthetic models at home and so it is hardly surprising that the design and technological achievements of Ardnacrusha were predominantly German. Even the final grey concrete face it offers the world was the outcome of established German principles of truth to function and local materials, which saw the grey concrete as more at home in the landscape than the brick or ceramic facades of other Siemens power stations, which would not have sat easily within the vernacular traditions of rural Limerick and Clare. The design then, and the technologies were all German, as not too surprisingly, were the senior staff and management of the project; the vast majority of the unskilled labour force was Irish. The German propaganda machine swung into action, with its own staff sending photographs to trade and industry journals around Europe. O’Brien tells that story but she tells another one too. The unskilled workers, some of whom had cameras, and the tourists who started to flood in from about 1927 on, took photographs of a different kind. They took the photos of the men and the machines they worked with, generally framing them in the landscape. Her research shows that 42 per cent of the German photos focus on canals, power lines, turbines and machinery, others on the accommodation and facilities provided for the German workers, but only 18 per cent show the workers themselves. A feature of German modernity was to show the modern world, using modern technologies of seeing; even the cameras they used incorporated the latest technology from home. But the anonymous Irish workers photographed each other. As O’Brien is quick to point out, “this is where these photographs differ from their German antecedents – the great building project of the Shannon Scheme is recorded as being the product of man’s labour, rather than springing from the ground fully formed and shining, without human intervention”. In keeping with the Irish tradition, they incorporated more of the landscape too, making this giant machine for electricity appear less foreign, less at odds with the human and natural environment. The two different approaches ask if man is merely a cog in the mechanical system, or a powerful agent in its making.

As the Electricity Supply Board began to take over ownership of the project, (which miraculously was completed in three years), they, like Siemens, developed a publicity strategy. O’Brien takes us through the ESB’s poster campaign in the national press in 1928. This began with a poster containing a lot of text and a tentative landscape with factory emerging, then moved to a mythologising poster of horses (horse power) racing through a barely defined space at the behest of a Cuchulain-like character in the top right corner, playing on Patrick Pearse’s dream of harnessing energy from the rivers, and gradually giving way, triumphantly, to the fully productive power station and its loyal workers. The story is Irish now, and these poster visualisations by the Dublin freelance illustrator Gordon Brewster are an important but neglected part of it. O’Brien reminds us of the significance too of the name Shannon scheme as part of the bigger mythology of Irishness and a past that includes Fionn mac Cumhaill’s strength and hopefully the wisdom to be got from Irish salmon.

If we think this is all a bit fanciful, it is important to reimagine the Ireland of the 1920s, where industry barely existed outside of the Henry Ford factory in Cork and Harland and Wolff in Belfast, the latter of course not in the Free State’s control. What did it mean to place an industry, indeed an industry which itself had the potential to be the beating heart of future development as well as a transformative power in domestic and agricultural life in a strictly rural location? The ESB’s publicity department ran tours of the facility, securing discounts on trains and buses. The site speedily becoming a new type of national monument. O’Brien points out the significance of a monument that offered a future in the context of the thousands of historic sites that sang of what had been lost in the past.

The impact of all of this is evidenced again and again in tourist photos, family outings to the site and very quickly in the form of personalised postcards (where photographers turned their own images into postcards), commercial postcards and finally albums of cigarette cards. By examining all of these types of images, especially those lovingly placed in dedicated albums and even given to local history societies and museums, as distinct from random snapshots, she recognises their value as cultural icons across social divides all over the country. And it wasn’t just the natives who came. Lord Leverhulme, the archbishop of Westminster and the chairman of the New York Power Board were just three of the distinguished foreign guests who visited Ardnacrusha in 1928, alongside German boy scouts and Irish workers and their families.

O’Brien quotes Tom Garvin who argues that “the central problem facing the creators of a new state is that of creating a new sense of community” and this purpose underpins the visual activities of the new Free State. Be that as it may, the state did not commission Sean Keating to paint the Shannon Scheme. The impetus for this was the artist’s own, and was entirely in keeping with Keating’s mission to both document and historicise the project, signalling that progress towards a modern Ireland was more likely to come from the new men, the engineers and industrialists, than from the warring nationalist and religious factions of the War of Independence and Civil War. Nor did the state invite his colleague George Atkinson, another senior figure in Irish art education and in the Royal Hibernian Academy to make his very different, more landscape-oriented prints of the scheme. Atkinson was returning to print after a fallow period and may have felt that because of its wide hold on the popular imagination, the work at Ardnacrusha would offer a perfect outlet for his medium. O’Brien tracks down two watercolours by Brigid O’Brien Ganly, whose visits to the site were more likely to have been informed by her family connections to the area than to any encouragement from the state. Official patronage of visualisations of the Shannon Scheme were, instead, almost entirely German. O’Brien gives considerable space to Anton Scheuritzel, sent by Siemens to document their first big project since 1918. Scheuritzel’s sixteen offset lithographs concentrate almost exclusively on the engineering and technological feats and position the project as a great German one to bring power to homely, romantic Irish cottages.

The state’s visual activities in relation to the scheme were confined, initially, to the ESB’s advertising and promotional campaigns through tourism and transport. But a major achievement for the new company was to have a special postage stamp, complete with first day cover, designed by the English born, but Irish-resident, artist Edward Louis Lawrenson. The Free State was not given to changing its stamp designs in those days. Its willingness to do so in 1931 points to the government’s pride in the new power-station and its recognition of the postage stamp as the most pervasive means to circulate new achievement at the time, to be an ambassador for the project and thus for the new modern Ireland. O’Brien devotes chapters to an analysis of what each of these differing media representations meant in terms of personal memories, friendships between the German and Irish workforce, soon to be separated as the Germans returned home, and those who saw the project as epoch-defining and so collected the cigarette cards and postcards

Where art-historical writing generally prioritises the single artist/genius and the grand statement, and facilitates a hierarchy of media as well as subject categories or genres, it all too often fails to address the stories that are not aimed at the grand statement but present no less truthful, equally valuable and often more personal accounts. Some of the visual documents emerging from the Shannon Scheme tell stories of technological achievement, others spell out the pressures of nation-building and, thanks to Sorcha O’Brien, still others tell of personal and collective experience and aspiration. The unfailingly democratic nature of books like Powering the Nation reminds us of the importance of all of those accounts and opens up opportunities for vastly more expansive and democratic ways of seeing, and therefore knowing, in the future.


Catherine Marshall is an art historian and curator, formerly founding head of collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Co-Editor of Twentieth Century, Vol. V,  Art and Architecture of Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy and Yale University Press, 2014.



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