Thomas McLaughlin: Visionary Behind the Shannon Scheme

By Deirdre McParland, ESB Archives

I would like to introduce you to Thomas McLaughlin, who became first Managing Director of the Electricity Supply Board ( ESB) in 1927. Known as Tommy by his friends and colleagues, similar to many of our newly recruited employees, he was a young graduate when he began his career with ESB.

Source: ESB Archives

When Tommy achieved his PhD in engineering at the age of 27, Ireland was just coming out of the War of Independence and Civil War . The country was broken and it had to be rebuilt from within. At this time, there were about 160 small electricity producers in Ireland and electricity was mostly only available to those living in affluent and urban areas and who had the financial where with all to afford this modern luxury.

Tommy was ambitious and knew he needed to perfect his craft and gain experience so he seized the opportunity to work abroad with Siemens Schukert in Berlin . He began studying the design of power plants in Europe and along with Siemens looked to Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon to generate electricity. We really gain an insight into Tommy’s determination and his vision at the time through an interview he did in 1938 with Radio Eireann reflecting on his mind-set at the time in which he stated:

No sincere student could have lived through that whole period of intense national enthusiasm without feeling a passionate desire to do all in his power to assist in national reconstruction……It was with this intense feeling I began my career abroad, and the ideal never for a moment left me until it brought me home again to see the Shannon Scheme realised…..”

These were powerful words but actions speak louder than words. Tommy came home at Christmas time in December 1923, and a few days after Christmas he also seized the opportunity to informally meet the new young Irish state government, many of whom were his college friends, on his and Siemens plans to harness the River Shannon and build the largest engineering project in Europe at that time. The government, while they liked the plans, weren’t 100% convinced, so they hired an international team of experts to review and tweak the proposal. Despite, the scheme being referred to many as a ‘white elephant’, McLaughlin like all great innovators had tremendous self-belief and he was determined to open Irish people to a brighter future by the electrification of the entire country.

Source: ESB Archives

Following approval from the government, construction began in August 1925 and the young Government invested 1/5 of the national budget at the time, so not pressure at all on young Tommy! At a time of huge unemployment in Ireland, the scheme provided employment to 5,000 workers, flocking from all over Ireland and Scotland and it was a great collaboration and sharing of expertise between German and Irish engineers.

While construction was ongoing, ESB, the first semi-state body in Ireland was established on 11 August 1927 to manage, produce and distribute the new electricity network and Thomas McLaughlin was the natural choice to become the first Managing Director of ESB.

The scheme was opened by President of the Irish government William T. Cosgrave on 22 July 1929. Today the Shannon Scheme is perhaps the most important industrial project ever completed in the Irish state and to this day it continues to make a significant contribution to the industrial, commercial and social development of the country.

Source: ESB Internal Magazine, Electric Mail, December 1987

McLaughlin remained an influential figure in ESB until his retirement in 1958 and played a pivotal role in overseeing the implementation of the Rural Electrification Scheme realising his ambition to bring electricity to the whole country of Ireland.

Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Deirdre and the Electric Generations team here.

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