The Electrification of the Rural Irish Home: Housewives, Electrical Products and Domesticity in the 1950s and 1960s

Lead Research Organisation: Kingston University
Department Name: Sch of Cultural Industry, Critical Study

Abstract

Domestic electric products only became widespread in Ireland after World War II as a result of the rural electrification project carried out by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB). These products were seen as symbols of modernity and liberation in other countries, but rising standards actually created more work for the housewife, with ideas of female self-worth becoming tied up in domestic labour. This project will use oral history, archival research and object analysis to investigate the meanings of these imported electrical products in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in relation to dominant Catholic attitudes to women and domestic work, emphasising the sole social role of women as remaining in the home. This project builds on the PIs existing PhD research on design, electrical technology and national identity in 1920s Ireland.

The project will engage in project partnership with the National Museum of Ireland Country Life (NMI), the main centre for research into the material culture of rural Ireland, and includes an intergenerational oral history project with members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA). It will work with the organisation historically responsible for rural electrification, the ESB, civic and third sector organisations for the elderly and museums with electrical product collections, in order to promote collaboration, knowledge exchange and community engagement. It is extremely important that this oral history research be carried out now, as this generation of women are in their 70s and 80s, and it is vital to record their first-hand testimony now. It will also produce creative and academic outputs, including a website, social media, exhibition and events programme, which will allow elderly women's voices to be heard and valued in a public forum and contribute to their wellbeing. It is also very timely from an academic point of view, due to the increasing interest in post-war domesticity in Irish history and area studies, where object-based analysis is not well developed, and the project will foreground the usefulness of design historical methods in understanding the materiality of post-war life.

The research will be of direct interest to the generation of women who ran such homes, as well as a wider public in Ireland and the Irish diaspora who grew up in such interiors. The initial direct benefit would be to elderly Irish women by contributing to their wellbeing and sense of value in the community. The research collaborations with museums will also benefit them by aiding them in their interpretation of their collections and emphasising their contemporary relevance. Other beneficiaries would be age charities and nursing homes, as the oral history research could later be incorporated into reminiscence therapy, both in residential care and in the community.

In terms of collaboration and leadership activities, the overall project would be relevant to researchers in the fields of Irish design, technology and design history, Irish history and Irish Studies, as well as researchers working on the home in other national contexts (e.g. UK, Denmark, USA, etc.); also anyone with an interest in the cultural context of electrical products, including product designers, engineers and interior designers. The study will be located within design history, but with influence from the history of technology and social history, making use of oral history, archival research and object analysis. It would also contribute specifically to the national discourse on Irish design, opening it up to an engagement with issues concerning domesticity and the role of women and technology. It would be the first research project of this scale on Irish design history, and by expanding the outputs past academic publication, would provide an example of best practice for researchers in both Irish design history and for other researchers considering material objects in a historical context.

Planned Impact

The PI will engage with collaborators such as the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), the National Museum of Ireland, Country Life (NMI) and civic organisations such as Age & Opportunity and the Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA), as well as Irish nursing homes. The project will relate to a number of groups:

1) The project's main impact will be with elderly Irish women who were rural housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, affirming the importance of their life experiences to Irish society and improving their well-being. This will partly be through their involvement with the oral history aspect of the project, but also the programme of arts and heritage events running in conjunction with the exhibition. It is envisaged that the exhibition event programme will include events co-ordinated in conjunction with Age & Opportunity projects such as the Wandering Methods art project responding to exhibition objects, and the yearly Bealtaine festival of creativity in older age.

2) The main benefit to civic institutions such as the ICA and nursing homes will be to their members, residents and staff, both young and old. The communities of older women represented above are central to this project and will foreground the value of their life experience and value, to the younger members of their community and to wider civic society. Charity organisations such as Age & Opportunity will be aided in fulfilling their goal of inspiring older people to their full potential, by facilitating opportunities in arts and culture, as above. The use of social media not just to disseminate updates and information about the project, but to crowdsource products and additional interviewees is likely to come through the younger relatives and friends of such women, helping to cement intergenerational links.

3) The project will impact public sector organisations including the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), whose archive collects material relating to the semi-state's organisational history, but relies on external academics to interpret and disseminate its collection of material on electricity and electrification in Ireland. As the main archival and object source, this project will play an important role in interpreting their collection for the previous groups mentioned above and the general public.

4) Museums with collections of domestic electrical products will particularly benefit from the exhibition output, contributing to their understanding of their own collections, as well as exhibiting them to interested publics. The curated exhibition in the NMI Castlebar will increase their visitor numbers and create employment in the museum sector in rural Ireland, including the engagement of a professional exhibition designer to materialise the final exhibition. The series of public talks by the PI and other stakeholders will enhance the impact of the exhibition and develop further dialogue on issues surrounding domestic electrical products, the role of women in the home and aging with dignity.

5) The project will also impact on a larger section of the general public, contributing to the ongoing public debate about the role of women in Irish society. This wider audience will be engaged through the exhibition and the associated event programme, as well as through the website, social media and coverage in the national media (e.g. The Irish Times and RTÉ).

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Kingston Research Week audio installation 
Description The audio presentation showcased a number of the Electric Irish Homes oral history recordings collected to date, alongside photographs of the participants and contextual images from the research project. It ran for the duration of the KU Research Week, as part of the Knights Park exhibition of Faculty research work. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Broader understanding of the project amongst Kingston staff, postgraduate and undergraduate students 
 
Description A year and six months into this research project, the initial impact emerging is of the social type: The continued response from groups involved with the oral history project has been that it has increased their confidence and wellbeing, as well as strengthening community links, both across and through the generations. The response to the social media accounts and the project website has reached a number of different audiences, both in the UK and Ireland, ranging from other academics, museums and archives to interested members of the public. I have presented to a number of different audiences about the project, including professional Irish designers, members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association and academics in design history, oral history and environmental history, sparking debates amongst these groups about related topics.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal

 
Title Community Oral History Interviewing 
Description The interviews are carried out on an intergenerational community basis, initially through the facilitation of the ICA guilds. This involves training one (or two) younger women from the community in oral history recording techniques, and providing them with the recorders and other tools to carry out the project. They then carry out the interviews, and the recorders are sent back to the PI, who organises for transcription and editing of the files, and sends back copies of the recordings to the interviewees, for their own use, according to best practice in the field. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This research method has a direct impact on both the interviewers and interviewees, contributing to their wellbeing and sense of value in the community, as well as strengthening community links. 
 
Title Oral history interview database 
Description This database consists of oral history interviews conducted both by the PI and by local interviewers, who have been trained in oral history techniques by the PI and National Museum staff, as outlined in the project data management plan. It includes WAV files of the interviews, PDF scans of the consent forms, TIFF photographs and RTF transcripts of the interviews. It currently holds 10 interviews, with another 10 currently being recorded. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This database will be used as source material for the main project outputs (a monograph and exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland), feeding into the impacts resulting from these outputs. 
URL http://electricirishhomes.org/oral-history/
 
Description Age & Opportunity 
Organisation Age & Opportunity
Country Ireland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I am bringing my skills in historical research and analysis, and the oral history project with older women, which will provide the basis of the creative project that A&O will run in conjunction with the National Museum exhibtion in 2019.
Collaborator Contribution Age & Opportunity are an organisation that promotes creativity in older age. They will be running an events programme at the National Museum in conjunction with the project exhibition there, which will engage older adults around the Castlebar area.
Impact Most of these outputs are still pending, as the project is in the first year, and the collaboration with Age & Opportunity is mostly run towards the end of the project.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Electricity Supply Board 
Organisation Electricity Supply Board Group
Country Ireland 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution I am developing a research project which is largely about the ESB corporate history, using their corporate archives as a main source. I bring a level of skill in historical analysis and contextualisation that their staffing does not cover, as well as the ability to collect a number of oral history interviews about their corporate history.
Collaborator Contribution Archive access, and publicity.
Impact Most of these outputs are still pending, as the project is still in the first year, but they have already included: - Social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) and project website, ongoing
Start Year 2016
 
Description National Museum of Ireland, Country Life 
Organisation National Museum of Ireland
Country Ireland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I bring my background and skills as a design historian, in terms of research and analysis, as well as exhibition funding that is not available within the Irish museum sector. I have access to a robust level of academic discussion about the themes and ideas that the project focuses on, as well as networks that include academics, charities and other organisations in Ireland and in London.
Collaborator Contribution The museum are contributing curatorial expertise, installation logistics, exhibition space and equipment, as well as their reputation within Ireland, access to their networks
Impact Most of these outputs are still pending, as the project is in the first year, but they have already included: - Social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) and project website, ongoing - Northern Standard newspaper article about the oral history project, February 2017
Start Year 2016
 
Description 'Made in Ireland'?: National Narratives and Global Networks in Irish Design History 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This paper was presented as part of the Design History Society 40th Anniversary Strand, in a panel titled 'Making and Unmaking National Identity: Design 'In', 'Of ' and 'From' Ireland', attended by an international group of design historians. It was followed by a discussion with the audience about design history methods and approaches, in relation to the treatment of national identity in both Western and non-Western nation-states.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.makingandunmaking.net/programme/
 
Description AHRC History Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a presentation at the AHRC History Workshop in March 2017, speaking about my experience of applying for the Leadership Fellow ECR funding, both in terms of the application process and my career trajectory. I also took part in two workshops at the same event: the first discussion focussed on the positioning of history as a discipline, and the second focussed on the peer review process and the practicalities of positioning applications in terms of impact and engagement.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Article in Irish Countrywomen's Association Newsletter 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact The Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA) published an article in their April 2017 newsletter about the project, focusing on the involvement of Clones and Aghabog ICA groups in the oral history interviews. This newsletter is distributed to all ICA members on a national basis, with anything up to 10,000 Irish women receiving copies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Brown Bread and Washing Machines: Nostalgia and Perspective in Irish Women's Experience of Rural Electrification 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This paper was given at the Oral History Network of Ireland annual conference, which took place in Galway and was on the theme of Work and Leisure. The paper was part of a session on Rural Lives, and focused on analysing the expressions of nostalgia in the oral history interviews collected to date. These were considered in light of Svetlana Boym's ideas about nostalgia, and the emotional connections to activities such as baking, compared to ones such as washing clothes. This was situated in terms of hard manual work and emotional context, both at the time and in post-Crash Ireland, where the Recession has introduced a new generation to living without luxury.
The paper sparked a discussion about oral history interview methods, particularly in terms of briefing and supporting volunteer interviewers, and resulted in one of the other presenters volunteering to carry out interviews for the project in Wexford.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.oralhistorynetworkireland.ie/ohni-conferences/2017-conference/
 
Description Domesticating Energy seminar, Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The 'Domesticating Energy' seminar was run by the AHRC Material Cultures of Energy project, and was held in Pembroke College, University of Cambridge in May 2017. The seminar ran for two days and included international participants from Europe and the United States presenting current research on energy use in domestic environments, from 17th century firewood to solar panels. The papers sparked a lively discussion, both about the material discussed, but also about methodological concerns in the study of energy history, covering both quantitative and qualitative approaches.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Electric Irish Homes Facebook account 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I have been running a project Facebook account since summer 2016, which documents my research progress and activities of partners, as well as disseminating related ideas and news. It is also used as a channel for interaction with other researchers, museums, art colleges and interested general public in relation to the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://www.facebook.com/ElectricIrishHomes/
 
Description Electric Irish Homes Instagram account 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I have been running a project Instagram account since late 2016, which documents my research progress and activities of partners, as well as disseminating related ideas and news. It is also used as a channel for interaction with other researchers, museums, art colleges and interested general public in relation to the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://www.instagram.com/electricirishhomes/
 
Description Electric Irish Homes Twitter account 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I have been running a project Twitter account since summer 2016, which documents my research progress and activities of partners, as well as disseminating related ideas and news. It is also used as a channel for interaction with other researchers, museums, art colleges and the general public in relation to the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://twitter.com/electricIEhomes
 
Description Electric Irish Homes project website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project website went live with four static pages (about, oral history, publications, exhibition) and a dynamically updated blog. This represents the current stage of the project, with later pages about the monograph and the creative programme planned, as well as the addition of audio oral history clips to the appropriate page. It has been well received and has already generated interest through social media channels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://electricirishhomes.org/
 
Description Electric Irish Homes: Age & Opportunity Arts & Culture workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact These three workshops were run as part of an Age & Opportunity taster day for members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association at their headquarters at An Grianán, Termonfeckin, Co. Louth. It consisted of an introductory talk about the Electric Irish Homes project and about oral history, and the second half was an oral history workshop based around participants' memories of electric appliances.

The workshops were attended by approx. 120 members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, Irish women in the 40-80 age range, including a number who lived through rural electrification and all of whom live in areas electrified during the project. The sample oral history interviews which the women conducted in pairs formed a taster for the experience of interviewing and being interviewed, as well as a prompt to memory of experiences common to their peer group. I have since been contacted by participants who wish to contribute to the project, mainly through being interviewed as part of the oral history project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Kingston Research Week - research talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a research-in-progress talk given as part of Kingston University's Research Week programme of research talks. Attended by staff and postgraduate students from across the Faculty, it focussed on outlining the project and then discussing the use of oral histories as a method of research, complementing more traditional approaches such as archive research. The discussion across the whole panel covered interdisciplinary approaches to research, as well as some of the specific cultural and historical contexts of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Kingston University Research Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I took part in a Kingston University research workshop on applying for research funding, discussing my experience of the funding process with both research and teaching staff interested in applying for similar funding. This included a presentation, question-and-answer session, and a small group discussion, which gave very good feedback in terms of approaches and strategy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description MSt Dissertation symposium, University of Oxford 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I was invited to speak about the research project at the Cambridge MSt dissertation proposal symposium, in June 2017. My section of the workshop included a presentation about my research project, and four student presentations, and a group discussion about each one in terms of content, focus and methodological tools. The students reported that the discussion about oral history and interview methods was particularly useful, as several of the overall group were using these methods for the first time.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Mise Eire conference on Irish design 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Mise Eire conference was run by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, in order to consider the expression of collective identity in Ireland in relation to design and craft. I presented some of my project research as part of a panel on new research on Irish design. There was an audience of about 100 people, covering a cross-section of Irish designers, design historians and museum professionals. The response included a number of discussions with professional practitioners about the situating of their own practice in relation to the research, and some leads to undiscovered research material.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://miseeireconference.ie/
 
Description Modern Interiors Research Centre work in progress symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I presented a paper on my oral history research at the yearly work-in-progress seminar for my research group, to an audience of staff and postgraduate students. This focused on the methodological issues surrounding the oral history, and sparked a discussion about ethics and research methodology which was relevant to the work of other researchers present.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description National College of Art & Design - MA Design History & Material Culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave an invited talk on my research project to the MA Design History & Material Culture run by the National College of Art & Design, Dublin, which focussed on the broader theoretical issues behind the project, as well as the methodological approaches, both standard and novel. This developed into a discussion of appropriate methodologies for design history research, and possible topics for students' own research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.ncad.ie/postgraduate/school-of-visual-culture/ma-design-history-and-material-culture/
 
Description Northern Standard newspaper article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact As part of the oral history project running with members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association Clones Guild, I responded to a media query from the Northern Standard, which then ran an illustrated article about the project on the 2nd February 2017 edition of the newspaper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description PRAM blog post - 'Research, 'impact' and an interesting ethical issue' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact My research was mentioned in a blog post on research impact in museums, which was written by Emily Pringle, an AHRC-funded researcher from the Tate. The post talks about the differences between working as a researcher for an academic institution and for an independent research organisation such as the Tate, and uses Electric Irish Homes as an example of research that works with the museum to develop an exhibition and book, rather than doing one and then the other.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://practitionerresearchintheartmuseum.com/2017/11/10/research-impact-and-an-interesting-ethical...
 
Description Research Talk - NCAD MA Design History and Material Culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave a two hour class on the MA Design History and Material Culture course in the National College of Art and Design, Dublin, which formed part of a module on modernity and domesticity. This talk outlined the project structure, main research themes and looked at some of the theoretical issues emerging from the material, as well as issues of methodology. The class was also attended by staff on the MA and included a lively debate about design history in Ireland, as well as theoretical and methodological issues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Research Talk - TVAD group University of Hertfordshire 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I visited the University of Hertfordshire to give a research talk on the project to an audience of staff and postgraduate students across design history, design and architecture, and social history (Theorising Visual Art and Design researh group). This focussed on the oral history aspect of the project and outlined the overall project. I looked at some of the oral history material collected, its contribution to my current thinking on the project and the methodological implications of using oral testimony in conjunction with archival material.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.herts.ac.uk/research/centres-and-groups/tvad-theorising-visual-art-and-design/tvad-talks
 
Description Royal College of Art - Design History seminars 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave an invited talk on my research project at the Royal College of Art research seminar, which is run jointly with the Victoria & Albert Museum. I am spoke about my research to an audience of postgraduate students and staff from the RCA and from other London universities, discussing both the content and methodology of the project, which developed into a discussion about methodology and approaches to similar topics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Sorcha's Electrification Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Irish Examiner newspaper published an article about the research project in the Farming section on Thursday 11th January, which was written by Helen O'Callaghan as part of her monthly column on the Irish Countrywomen's Association (ICA). The article based partly based on an interview with the PI, Sorcha O'Brien, and included quotes from the oral history interviews of project participants, a number of whom are members and officers of the ICA. The article has resulted in increased interest in the project, particularly in Munster, and has increased the number of participants involved in the area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018