The Shannon Scheme

In 1993, the PRII published a book ‘The Communicators – The History of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland’. The book was written by Michael Colley, and included a section on some of the great events in modern Ireland’s history and the role of public relations within those events. One of those great events was the Shannon Scheme, and the below is extracted from the book. The ESB Archives also has a section on public relations contribution to this Scheme.

In the Ireland of the early twenties there was a great deal of pride in the fact that independence has finally been achieved but there was also the bitter dissension of civil war and an acute economic depression.

When the government eventually accepted the proposal of a young Irish engineer, Dr Thomas McLaughlin, to harness the water of the Shannon to provide electricity, the project was heavily opposed by various interest including the banks, the owners of some of the existing generating stations around the country and other fuel interests. That was bad enough but when Minister McGilligan proposed that it should be operated as a non-profit organisation for the benefit of the people, the outcry from the financial and business establishment grew even more shrill with cried of ‘socialism’.

To his credit McGilligan and the government, supported by the Labour Party, saw the Bill through and work was commenced on the Shannon Scheme. It was an enormous scheme by Irish standards and probably the biggest engineering project ever carried out in Ireland; by international standards it was relatively small, but nonetheless it demanded an enormous workforce and it was to cost £5 million pounds…

It was necessary to develop the national interest in the project – and international interest as well. Ned Lawler who had just been appointed public relations officer to the ESB achieved those objectives superbly. Not only did he disseminate nationally and worldwide, stories and pictures of the work in progress but he also succeeded in getting front-page picture coverage in the English tabloids at that time. In addition to this he organised day visits by train and bus to the site at Ardnacrusha. Feeling that the Irish in Great Britain would be interested, he organised tours for them as well, by boat, train and coach. The response was fantastic. Thousands upon thousands of people went to see and marvel at the scale of the project.

But Ned Lawler had also to carry out another task. Those who originally doubted the validity of the scheme had to be persuaded that it was worthwhile because continuing opposition on their part would have made life very difficult for the newly formed Electricity Supply Board. For them he arranged special visits and also produced literature which pointed out the value of having a relatively cheap supply of energy – even though in this stage it was only going to go to the major towns and cities.

As the power station was being built so were the networks throughout the country and here again it was necessary to stress the value of the scheme, to reduce opposition or demands for compensation. The Act which set up the Electricity Supply Board had stated that the ESB would have free rights of way to build the power lines and in the event there was little or no opposition to this situation.

At the same time those who had called the project a white elephant and had claimed that its output would never be used had also to be silenced and this required an extensive public relations and promotional campaign to popularise the use of electrical appliances. …

Within a few years – in the early thirties – the total output of the station at Ardnacrusha was being used in Ireland – and this before any power was brought to rural Ireland. This surge in demand required the building of further power stations but next time round there was no opposition.


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