Bringing Ardnacrusha to Life

How has Ireland’s greatest building and engineering achievements come to be, and what impact did they have on the development of our towns and cities.

These were the questions that were explored in a recent RTE documentary series, Building Ireland.

One of Ireland’s greatest engineering projects, the Ardnacrusha Power Station, naturally featured in this interesting series with the programme exploring the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and its local, national and universal impact.

"The River Shannon has been the lifeblood of Ireland for millennia. 360 Kilometres long, it slowly cleaves the island east/west, from Cavan in the north to Limerick in the south. If you could harness the force of this mighty river, you could power an entire state, and open the door to the future," explains engineer Tim Joyce, as he fulfills a life-long ambition of getting up close to the station for the programme.

“You have to remember that Ardnacrusha was as much about nation-building as it was about engineering, and the fact that it was built by Siemens-Schuckert – a huge German company – is really significant. It was a symbol of the Free State emerging from the shadow of the British Empire, and reaching out to the wider world.”

Ardnacrusha Power Station

Big Undertaking

The biggest hydroelectric project in the world at that time (1929), it is the statistics from that project that still astounds many.

It took four years and 5,000 men to build, with more than 700 tonnes of explosives used to blast away 1.2 million cubic metres of rock. The entire project – spearheaded by a then 28-year old Thomas McLoughlin – cost 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. Within 10 years of its opening, it was generating 96% of the state’s electricity.

To give a real insight into the day-to-day workings of the station, the experts interviewed the people at the coalface of the operations. Alan Bane, Plant Manager, detailed how the scheme turned water into electricity while Tom Hayes, Civil Engineering Manager at Ardnacrusha, spoke about the challenges of diverting the river to create enough of the drop and provide sufficient water for the station to function.

Architectural Matters

Architect Orla Murphy investigated the building’s striking structure, penstocks, sluice gates and weirs.

“This is so much more than a functional, industrial building. It’s where technology and engineering are put on a pedestal to be worshipped and admired. This is the Generating Hall, where these huge vertical windows flood the space with natural daylight. It’s as if you are in a cathedral. And I suppose in a sense, you are; this is a cathedral of industry, built, not just to serve an engineering function, but also to celebrate it.”

Geographer Susan Hegarty, meanwhile, investigated why the engineers chose the Ardnacrusha site and to examine the River Shannon - an almost completely flat, slow-moving river.

"The River Shannon is the longest in these islands, the only problem is - the terrain the Shannon runs through is, by and large, flat as a pancake. Over most of its course, there's not nearly enough of a drop in the terrain to power the turbines and produce electricity. The basic idea is to dam the river where it drops and use the build-up of pressure of water to power the hydro station."

Reflecting on McLoughlin’s ambitious project, Joyce remarked on its lasting positive impact.

“The greatest legacy of Ardnacrusha is that it reminds us of a time when an impoverished State sought radical, ambitious world-leading solutions to its infrastructural problems. Over the coming decades, the light of modernity would spread into every corner of every province."

You can watch the full programme on the RTE Player for a limited time here