William F. Roe

Written and read by Nicholas Maher

My talk today reflects on the life of the Kilkenny man William F Roe, and his immense contribution to Ireland’s development in his role as Chief Architect of Ireland’s Rural Electrification Scheme.

william roe placque
Placque commemorating William Roe in Patrick Street

One wonders back in December 1923, at the thoughts that went through the mind of the 19 year old William Roe as he looked out the front window of his home in Patrick Street, Kilkenny, and watched the sheer magic of the electric lighting system being switched on in time for Christmas. Little did he imagine perhaps at this moment of the pivotal role he would later play in extending the Rural Electrification Scheme up every country road and laneway in Ireland.
Born in 1904 at 25 Patrick St Kilkenny, he was the only son of William and Mary Roe who had a drapery business in High Street at the Cloth Hall, now Goods. Following home education until he was 9, he moved on to the CBS and St Kieran’s College and later to UCD and the Royal College of Science for Ireland and graduated in 1925 with 1st Class Honours in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
Roe joined the ESB in 1928 shortly after it was set up. His early working life saw him in Portlaoise, Waterford and Cork City. This tour of duty gave him an insight into the problems of ESB District staff and a sympathy with the electricity consumers which was to prove to be invaluable in his subsequent career. Wherever his job brought him he involved himself in community affairs. Roe recognised the influence and importance of working with local groups such as Parishes, GAA clubs and in particular Muintir na Tire in progressing any rural development. Roe recognised Muintir na Tire as being all about empowering local communities and they became a key aid and driver in encouraging communities to take part in the new Rural Electrification Scheme.
William Roe was appointed Chief Engineer in charge when the scheme was initiated on 19/01/1945. He regarded this project as the most important revolution in Ireland since the land wars of the late 19th Century, as he set about transforming the lives of rural dwellers. The sheer scale of the project can be gauged from early estimates of the materials required for its completion, namely – 1 million timber poles, 100,000 transformers and 75,000 miles of lines/cables. This was early 1945. The world was still at war and the post war world and what it would bring was very much an unknown. Material procurement in this environment and the scarcity of supply would prove to be a major challenge for Roe and his team in addition to the challenge of changing the mind set of rural Ireland in accepting this new concept of electrification.
Roe’s first task was to recruit the nucleus of senior staff and develop a detailed plan for carrying out the work, recognising communications at the outset as a vital management tool in the roll out and success of the scheme as it progressed. In 1946, 2 out of 3 Irish homes had no electricity i.e. 400,000 rural homes. On the supply side while preference was given to the purchase of Irish produce where possible, the required poles were never available in quantities needed and hence up to 1 million had to be sourced and imported mainly from Finland.
To roll out the scheme, Ireland was divided into 792 rural areas, 29 of which were in Kilkenny County. The first consumer under the Rural Electrification Scheme was switched on in the village of Oldtown in Co. Dublin on the 15/01/1947. The earliest rural area completed in Kilkenny was Pollroan Mooncoin, 7th in the national ranking. Work began there in Dec 1947 and ended in April 1948, using 1145 poles and 91 km of lines, serving 72 customers. By the 31st of March 1980, 468,000 consumers in rural Ireland were connected to the national grid, the last place being Black Valley in Kerry. By that stage William Roe had retired having managed the process up to 1970.
Micheal J Shiel in his excellent book on this subject refers to the electrification of rural Ireland as “THE QUIET REVOLUTION”. And so it was. How fitting it is that we also remember this quiet Kilkenny man who led and managed the project, spurred on by his commitment to social justice, becoming in the process the best known Engineer in Ireland at that time. Perhaps there are lessons that can be learnt from this period that could help the current roll out of Broadband to rural areas in Ireland.
William Roe died in 1981, age 77. In 2006 the ESB unveiled a commemorative plaque at Roe’s birth place – 25 Patrick St Kilkenny.