Love, Obey and Carry Water: Electricity in the Irish Countryside

In our last blog post, Ciara Meehan looked at how Dublin housewives converted to electricity in the 1960s. In this latest post, Lorna Sixsmith explores the experience of the rural dweller.

Guest Post from author Lorna Sixsmith.

Electrical items, like this Pifco Curling Tongs, will be on display at the Electric Generations exhibition.

While townspeople were buying electric cookers, refrigerators and dishwashers for their kitchens, using electric irons for their clothes and electric tongs to curl their hair in the 1950s and 1960s, were country people able to avail of the same modern conveniences?

The contrast between town and country facilities was highlighted in many publications:

The townswoman has a supply of running water, a neat range that will not burn much fuel and will supply to wash-basin and bath in the bathroom and to the wash-up sink in the kitchen or scullery. She has hot and cold water, good sanitation, electric light, a plug for her electric iron …

The countrywoman must drag in the cold water from outside the house. For every basin of hot water she wants, she must lift a heavy kettle on and off the fire. On washing-day, washtubs must be filled and emptied time and again; what it costs in labour to keep her churn and milk vessels clean!

The open fire-place in the country house looks grand and when we think of the lovely cakes that come out of the pot-oven, it makes us quite sentimental – but the truth is that half the heat goes up the chimney with the draught and the old pot-oven is unwieldy and clumsy and out of date.

Now when night falls, the townswoman presses a button and at once there is a light and cheerful glow about her. The countrywoman, like the Wise Virgin in the gospel, has had to clean and tend and fill her lamp before lighting it and else she has to depend on her halfpenny dip. Millions have been spent on the Shannon scheme but it is not the countrywoman who has the benefit of it. [1]

Much depended not just on the availability of an electricity supply, or the affordability but also the family’s attitude. Getting an electricity supply was often a long waiting game: waiting for the supply to come to that area and to hear if one was considered an “economical farm”. Would the ground rent charge mean it was worth running a supply to that farm? Could the farmer afford it?

My paternal grandparents lived within three miles of the most densely populated rural areas in Ireland: highly populated due to the work provided by the coalmines. My grandfather campaigned hard to get an electricity supply to the farm from 1948. It would have been fruitless if electricity hadn’t been supplied to a dormant coalmine nearby with a view to mining it again. The ground rent for the farm was calculated at £14 per annum so it was considered to be an “economical farm”. Many neighbours had to wait another 15-20 years for an electricity supply and one of the last to be connected waited until 1981.

The electricity supply meant the 14 cows could be milked two at a time by machine (called a bucket plant) and numbers increased to 21. If they had a busy day in the fields, they didn’t have to worry about finishing early to get the cows milked in daylight as they had electricity to light the cowsheds.

The electricity brought advantages to my grandmother too. She got an electric oven and could now attend church on Sundays – previously she had stayed at home to keep the fire burning in the oven, singing hymns as she cooked. They got a refrigerator and the highlight for the children was the big block of ice-cream on Sundays. In 1951, a travelling salesman called to the front door to show them an Electrolux vacuum cleaner, and once he’d demonstrated the dust that was suctioned up from the sitting room carpet, he only had to mention the easy payment plan and that a neighbour had purchased one, and it was a sale.

Strangely though, it was 1964 before they got piped water into the house. Even though they had a washing machine that heated the water and had a wringer on top of it, it still had to be filled with water by hand, buckets of water hauled from the tap in the yard.

Some farmers were reluctant to get electricity and piped water, often for monetary reasons. The National Farmers Union argued that the addition of piped water on the farm would increase the rates and they were successful in delaying many water schemes in the country. The Irish Countrywomen’s Association ran a campaign to “Turn on the Tap” in the early 1960s and argued that women were being asked to “love, honour and carry water” at a time when the technology was available to get rid of the drudgery. Such was the strength of the NFA opposition that they even picketed an ICA exhibition in Waterford. [2]

An ESB mobile rural demonstration for both the home and the farm, 19 June 1956. Image courtesy of ESB Archives.

Some women may have been influenced by their peers in limiting their use of electricity and electric gadgets. My mother-in-law was told by her mother-in-law that she was too lazy to carry buckets when she got piped water installed shortly after getting married (1962). My mother got a dishwasher in 1968 and as you might imagine, at a time when some women were considered “too lazy to carry buckets”, she was the talk of the county for being too lazy to wash dishes! Her purchase of an automatic washing machine in the early 1970s was also frowned upon by her mother-in-law as it was considered to be a waste of water and washing powder (as the same water and powder in the twin tub washed all the clothes – from whites to good “coloureds” to the dirty farming clothes).

Therefore rural women often had to battle with the National Farmers Union, their husbands and their mother-in-laws before modern conveniences could be installed in the farmhouse.

However, some people, besides the ICA, were on the side of the farm woman. From the 1940s to the 1970s, there was concern about the number of young rural women heading for the bright lights of towns and cities rather than staying in the countryside to marry farmers. Some berated farmers for being so mean to refuse to spend money on modern amenities.

The Nenagh Guardian calculated that if a source of water was 100 yards from the house, the farm woman spent 76 cumulative days just walking to and from that well – time that could be spent more productively. (17 April 1965)

As late as 1973, newspaper editors were still trying to convince farmers to get piped water and electricity: using productivity and increased profitability as a “bribe”.

Pity the poor farm wife who is still toiling to the well or hand pump every day with buckets, barrels or milk churns. Think of what this drudgery is costing her in terms of time, labour and loss of output. Apart from the disadvantages, remember that a constant supply of fresh, clean water will improve weight gains in stock, is necessary for satisfactory milk yields from the dairy herd and is indispensable for quality milk production ~ Western People 5 May 1973

Single women were only too aware of the conditions of some farmhouses and those who wanted more than a long walk to the river on a daily basis were clear in their requests for a marriage partner when advertising in the personal columns.

Molly Bawn is a Longford farmer’s daughter. Early 30s, non drinker and non smoker, would like to get in touch with a farmer 36-40 with his own farm and modern home from midland counties with view to marriage. Snaps please ~ Irish Farmers Journal 19 March 1966

Some farmers’ daughters didn’t want to marry farmers. This lady, in possession of a substantial dowry, was doing her utmost to get away from farming life.

Farmers Daughter (R[oman] C[atholic]) good appearance and address with £1,200 dowry, wishes to meet a respectable RC shopkeeper or government official with a view to matrimony ~ Irish Examiner 30 May 1953

However, some women did marry farmers, be it by arranged marriage or for love. The work of collecting water was seen as the biggest stumbling block to progress in terms of being hard work and time-consuming. One Co. Clare woman remembered that wash day involved the carrying of twenty two buckets of water. Once electricity and piped water were installed, and a washing machine purchased, all the children sat down and watched it with pure joy.

While the town wife might have felt annoyed if her husband didn’t help with the washing up, even though Maura Laverty, agony aunt in Woman’s Way magazine, felt it was “most unfair to expect the breadwinner to wash dishes” (31 August 1963), many farm women would probably have been happy with hot water from a tap. Many still had to carry the water, pour it into the kettle to heat it, pour it into a basin, wash up, throw the water outside the door – and all before she milked cows and fed calves each evening too.

References

[1] Muintir na Tíre Official Handbook, 1941

[2] Aideen Heverin, The Irish Countrywomen’s Association: A History, 1910-2000 (Wolfhound Press, 2000).

More about Lorna Sixsmith

Lorna Sixsmith is a farmer and has independently published three books: Would You Marry A Farmer?, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife and An Ideal Farm Husband. Two short memoir pieces have also been published in anthologies (Around the Farm Gate and Then There Was Light). Her books are on sale in Irish bookshops, gift shops, through a number of online retailers, and in a growing number of farm shops within the UK.

Her second book How to be a Perfect Farm Wife won the Carousel Aware Prize for independently published books in 2016 (Non Fiction category) and her third book An Ideal Farm Husband was launched by the Irish Independent at Ireland’s largest agricultural event, the annual Ploughing Championships, in September 2016.

Lorna has been interviewed or had her books featured in numerous papers and magazines which include: Farming Independent, Irish Independent, Farmers Journal, Irish Examiner, Irish Country Living, Farming Life NI, Irish Farmers Monthly, Sunday World, Woman’s Way, NFU Magazine, Farmers Guardian, Writers Forum and the Ear to the Ground magazine. She has been interviewed on TV3’s Ireland AM, RTE’s Today Show and TG4’s Roisin, plus RTE’s Ryan Tubridy Show, Countrywide and Today SOR, Today FM’s The Last Word and Newstalk’s Breakfast Show and a number of regional stations. Lorna has also been a panellist on Midday, Prime Time, Claire Byrne Live and Vincent Browne either as an author or as a spokesperson for farming matters.

Is she a perfect farm wife? Well, with allergies to dairy products, grass pollens, straw and some animals, the chances are slim but she keeps trying!

Visit LornaSixsmith.com for further details, or follow Lorna on twitter at @IrishFarmerette.

Praise for Lorna’s Books

“Lorna’s second book on the up and downs of life as a farmer’s wife is a delightful read, full of sharp observations on the realities of an agricultural life, mixed with a little social history, the odd recipe and some priceless tips on how to achieve the mythical status of the Perfect Farm Wife” ~ Horse and Countryside, December 2015

“This excellent book is an effective antidote to the dominant model of Irish countrywomen’s experience during the last 150 years, where farm life has generally been presented as perpetuating a cycle of oppression, alienation and despair leading to a mass exodus of women from the countryside” ~ Jonathan Bell, Farming Life NI, March 2016

“How to be a Perfect Farm Wife captures the rich essence of life on Irish farms in the early 21st century and the always-changing, ever multi-functional, role of the farmers’ wife. But its delightfully witty and heart-warming style is sure to appeal to an audience far beyond the farm gate” ~ Farming Independent September 2015

“An Ideal Farm Husband is a book which works successfully on different levels. As well as being a source for social historians, anthropologists and novelists interested in the evolving roles and relationships of men and women on Irish farms, it is also a handbook for the modern male farmer” ~ Mervyn Watson

“I actually thought Would You Marry a Farmer? was a novelty book, the kind you would buy for a gentle joke at Christmas, but it is so much more. It’s partly social history, cultural exploration, gender-studies, satire, biography and it’s also a lot of fun” ~ Amazon Customer

 

 

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