The ‘blue moonlight’ of Galway 1893

Week II

The former Presbyterian church at Nuns Island, now an arts centre, where Alice Perry (pictured) paid in 1968 for a plaque to be erected in memory of her father and family, whose pioneering work is forgotten today.

The former Presbyterian church at Nuns Island, now an arts centre, where Alice Perry (pictured) paid in 1968 for a plaque to be erected in memory of her father and family, whose pioneering work is forgotten today.

Our Swedish journalist Hugo Vallentin arrived in Galway in the late summer of 1893. He had spent the previous weeks travelling through Dublin, Cork, Killarney and Limerick, assessing people’s reactions to the progress of Gladstone’s Second Home Rule act, which he believed was a question of interest to the whole ‘civilised world’.

He was not reluctant to express, in forthright terms, his pro-Home Rule sympathies in his articles to his liberal Stockholm newspaper, Aftonbladet. He describes in some detail the poverty that he sees, and criticises British landlords and legislators, who he believed displayed an incredible ignorance of Ireland and its people. But coming to Galway he experiences another shock. Despite the poverty, and the many half-ruined buildings, he is abruptly brought into the new modern age of electricity.

Describing the Perry brothers’ Corrib hydroelectric scheme, where they ingeniously used the fast flowing river to generate electricity, he writes… ‘when evening came, the arc lamps cast blue moonlight amidst the quays of the old town, and the copper wire was wound daily into more and more buildings. ‘But not only that. I have had the oppertunity here, in old half-ruined Galway, to see electricity generated in a way I had not seen before, and as a journalist this interested me greatly.’

Could it be that before a wealthier Stockholm Galway’s public lighting system was lit by electricity, and its cost efficiency began to push the old gaslight out of business?

Application of electricity

On November 1 1888, James Perry, an engineer and county surveyor, and his brother John, applied to the Galway Town Improvement Commissioners, on behalf of their newly formed Galway Electric Company, to erect poles ‘as an experiment for the electric lighting of the town’. The brothers had recognised very early on the rapid application of electricity.

They now bought an old flour mill which straddled the river at Newtownsmith (where the department store Born is now ), which had been there since the 17th century. They installed a hydroelectric turbine in the watercourse, which was linked to a generator producing alternating current.

Understandably the Galway Gas Company objected to any electrical developments in public areas. But three years before Vallentin came to Galway the Harbour Commissioners awarded the contract to the Perry brothers to light the port and docks area at a cost of £40 per annum. This must have been the ‘blue moonlight quays of the old town’ that Vallentin remarks on on his arrival in Galway.

In 1886, three years after he left, the Galway Electric Company won the contract to supply electric light to the whole town (Salthill was excluded ), which was the death knell of the gas company.

ESB takeover

Years later in 1929, shortly after the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board, Major Sam Perry, James Perry’s son, and managing director of the Galway Electric Company, announced that he was closing the company which in future would be managed by the ESB. The Perry electrical company had been an innovative and strong commercial success. In a city of 14,000 inhabitants it directly served 1,017 houses and businesses, and employed 19 people. The ESB subsequently acquired the Galway Electrical Company and premises at Newtownsmith.

James Perry had died in November 1906, a month after seeing his daughter Alice Perry obtain a first class honours degree in civil engineering, the first female engineering graduate of any university in the UK or in Ireland. She took over her father’s duties as county surveyor until April 1907 when a male replacement was chosen.

Next week: More about Alice Perry.

NOTES: The information on the Perry brothers, and their successful Galway Electrical Company is taken from an essay on Galway Waterways: Electrification and Electrocution posted by Roger Derham.

The visit to Galway by Hugo Vallentin is taken from an essay A Swedish View of Galway 1893, in the current Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (volume 70, 2018 ), edited by Dr Jackie Uí Chionna.

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