A Very Big Dam

So … you’ll recall that the weather was lovely in Ireland for this trip, a good 10°F warmer than I was expecting. And other than a little bird poop and a flat tire (spelled tyre in the land of Erin), the holiday was proceeding nicely.

Wednesday, 17 September 2003
Tralee, Co. Kerry – Ennis, Co. Clare
The first order of the day: find a tire store, to replace the damaged one. The proprietress of the townhouse we stayed in directed us to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service, run, she told us, by a brother and sister. He looked to be about forty, she, probably thirty. We pulled up, and indicated our need for a replacement tire—and thank goodness Gerry was with me: after one conversation, he turned to me and said, as an aside, “I bet you didn’t understand a word he said”—which was absolutely true. Although I was paying close attention, the exchange might as well have been in Greek. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” Gerry reassured me, and went on to say he hadn’t caught every single word of it, either.

I want to go back, to hear that Kerry accent again!

The tire store was an interesting place, for a girl used to doing business at American Tire on Broad Street in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was located in a building dating from, perhaps, the 1930s, and looked like it was originally intended for farm machinery. There was no show-room (I love the smell of new tires!), and no neat waiting room with a television and coffee pot. There were dust-covered tires everywhere, helter-skelter, of all sizes and types. The most visible were all tractor-size, though, so I was relieved to see Tony appear with exactly the size tire we needed. Within thirty minutes, not only did we have a new tire on and balanced, we’d had a screw removed from a second tire (and I still have that screw!). No waiting!

I confess I was shocked by the cost, though: 100 euro (roughly $120) for the new tire and the plug. The Focus is a small car; in the States I would have expected to pay about $50 for a tire for it, and about $15 for the plug. This bill was double what I was expecting—yet when we returned the car to Avis at the end of the trip, I was assured that we actually got a very good deal.

Once we had the tires all sorted we were off to Limerick (the third largest city in the Republic)—and beyond. Leaving Tralee, the countryside became flatter, especially as we got close to Limerick—which makes sense, as it is in the lower Shannon delta. I’d requested a visit to Ardnacrusha, the huge dam built on the River Shannon in 1925–1929, so once we’d skirted the edge of Limerick city, we got off the main road and picked our way through back roads toward the river and the dam that harnesses it.

This actually is O’Brien’s Bridge—built in 1506.

This actually is O’Brien’s Bridge—built in 1506.

At O’Briensbridge village (so named for the charming, arched bridge spanning the Shannon), there was a lay-by right on the river, so we pulled over to take in the view. Across the street, there was a little roadside shrine, and along the river, a park, and—a pleasant surprise—a plaque commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Electricity Supply Board, Gerry’s employer and the operator of the dam we were on our way to see.

The Shannon is beautiful here, and this little park is very quiet.

The Shannon is beautiful here, and this little park is very quiet. 2003.

I’d heard so much about this dam—the project was called the Shannon Scheme—from Gerry: the visionary ESB head who championed the project, the young Irish engineer who’d helped plan it, those who fought against it, the political situation at the time … The naysayers claimed that Ireland would never need the amount of electricity Ardnacrusha was projected to produce, yet now the dam supplies less than 3 percent of the country’s entire consumption. And they were furious when the contract to build the thing was awarded to Siemens-Schuckert of Berlin, feeling the contract should have gone to a British firm (and the Brits weren’t happy about it at all). But the German company had experience in constructing hydro-electric power stations—and because of the economic climate of postwar Germany, Siemens were delighted to get it.

Gerry in the doorway at Ardnacrusha. Note the beautiful wooden door and the brass plaque above it.

Gerry in the doorway at Ardnacrusha. Note the beautiful wooden door and the brass plaque above it, 2003.

Well, the thing was built, in spite of everything. In addition to the dam itself, and the outbuildings, it required the construction of 60 miles of railway and the use of 138 locomotives. Ahead of the opening, four major bridges had to be built, four streams were diverted and seven million cubic meters of earth and 1.2 million cubic meters of rock were shifted.

And in 2002, Ardnacrusha and the Shannon Scheme received two prestigious awards. First, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed the Landmark Award—previously won by the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal—for being a “huge achievement” in civil engineering terms. This award has been presented 225 times.

The Milestone Award is a prize awarded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., although the organization is most popularly known and referred to by its acronym, IEEE. This award, for electrical engineering, is harder to win than the Nobel Prize or an Oscar, and has only been awarded to forty-five other recipients, including the Japanese Bullet Train and the first Space Shuttle. The IEEE (Eye-triple-E) is a nonprofit technical professional association of more than 380,000 individual members in 150 countries.

Only eight organizations worldwide have won both these awards. Pretty cool, huh!

Turbines at Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Turbines at Ardnacrusha, 2003.

We arrived at midday, and toured the site. Not much had changed here: the original buildings from the ’20s are still in use today.

We walked around outside and had a look. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

We walked around outside and had a look. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

It’s like something from another world. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

It’s like something from another world. Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Ardnacrusha, 2003.

Ardnacrusha, 2003.

A view of the Shannon from Ardnacrusha.

A view of the Shannon from Ardnacrusha.

Note how flat the countryside is here in the Shannon delta.

Note how flat the countryside is here in the Shannon delta.

It was also a thrill so see one of the original paintings done by Sean Keating, the artist who was hired by the ESB to record, in sketches and oils, the building of the dam. This project was chronicled in a lovely book the ESB published a few years ago, one of several books of historic interest that Gerry’s department has had a hand in shepherding to publication.

From Ardnacrusha it was an easy ride into Ennis, and our B&B, the Fountain Court. Almost a week into our adventure, it was time for a splurge, and the Fountain Court was just what we needed: huge rooms, four-poster beds, a bathroom big enough to turn around in … oh yes, this was definitely a luxury wallow! The view—from anywhere on the grounds, as the Fountain Court sits on high ground—was spectacular, and the service we received was excellent.

It was a cool, overcast day and the view was lovely.

It was a cool, overcast day and the view was lovely.

It was not within walking distance of the town centre, however, so once settled we drove back to Ennis, the county seat of County Clare. Ennis takes its name from ‘Inis,’ which is the Gaelic name for island, due to its situation between two streams of the River Fergus. The town dates back to the eleventh century and developed around a Franciscan abbey; some traces of seventeenth-century buildings may be still be seen in the older streets. With a population of just 22,000, Ennis is a perfect little country town, while it is conveniently located near much larger metropolitan centers such as Limerick and Galway cities; also, Shannon International Airport is only twenty miles away.

As had become habit, we strolled around town until we found a place that appealed to us; in this case, it was Brogan’s Pub, on O’Connell Street, where I had roast chicken with stuffing (real bread stuffing like my mother used to make; I’ve never quite adjusted to the South’s cornbread stuffing), cabbage, carrots, chips (fries). I was constantly impressed by the Irish ability to serve a really hot meal: plates always came out of the kitchen steaming hot, carried with a dish towel. Very homey.

Back at the Fountain Court we watched televised soccer, as the Glasgow (Scotland) Celtic played Bayern Munich. Glasgow Celtic are a curious phenomenon: although the team is located in Scotland, its fans are more Irish than Scottish—they fly the Irish tricolor over the stadium, and sing the Irish national anthem during games. There are thousands of season ticket-holders in Ireland, who actually fly in to Glasgow every other week for home games. It’s impossible, Gerry tells me, to explain the culture to the uninitiated.

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