A light to illumine the darkness

In his column 'Let the Busy World be Hushed', Fr Jason Murphy reflects on darkness and light and embracing the light, particularly at this time of year...

Bill Stewart first supplied electricity to the town of Belturbet nearly 100 years ago in the months after the Partition of Ireland. He brought light to 135 homes and businesses in the town and the people who travelled upstream on the river in the dark of night from Galloon and Derryvore in County Fermanagh could see the lights of the town that shone out, somewhat dimly, like beacons on top of the hill above the military barracks. It was to be one of the first towns in all of the newly-established Free State with its very own electricity supply, harnessing the current of the high waters of the Erne, even before the ESB was established and the Ardnacrusha Power Station built.

The surrounding townlands remained in darkness for a further 40 years, while the townsfolk basked in the light until the Rural Electrification Scheme began its work in County Cavan in Gowna in 1948 and only reaching the outlying townlands of Belturbet, first in 1958 under the Ballyhaise scheme of works on one side of the river and then the Kilconny scheme of works in 1961 on the other. It was then that the laying of poles began in earnest along its country roads - men stringing wire from one pole to the next until most of the homesteads under slate, thatch and corrugated iron had a light bulb shining from the ceiling.

One of the last townlands in the area and indeed the country to receive the light in the Spring of 1961 was the far reaching townland of Derravona some four miles outside of Belturbet next to the Bloody Pass along the River Erne. It fell under the Kilconny scheme of works, which saw 50 miles of wires strung from 925 poles along the roads outside the town down as far as McDonald’s homestead on the river, neighbouring the Crom Estate.

Up until then, people had for generation upon generation depended upon a different light, the authentic light of a flame - be it from a turf fire, a tallow candle or a paraffin lamp to illumine the darkness of those long mid-winter evenings. Light was a precious and a scarce commodity and the light of the open hearth welcomed people who called a ceili as the fox barked in the fields beyond and sent shivers along the spine of those who traversed the roads and listened for every move in the hedgerows along.

In those tumultuous days of early 1920s, as light came to the town, men gathered of an evening in the home of the McElgunns in the townland of Derryerry to listen to the news read for them by one of the brothers there who had fought in the Great War; one from around the roads who could read to them from the Dublin papers. He sat next the hearth with the light of the fire illumining the pages as the flames danced on the animated faces of those who gathered round and listened intently to hear of a different flame being carried aloft in other parts of the country.

As they watched the sparks rise up the chimney, they talked in whispered tones of the flames that could be seen for miles around at the burning of Lanesborough Lodge just a mile or two along the road in the townland of Quivvy, set alight to avert the cursed Black and Tans being billeted there. A flame was set alight within their hearts as big Lizzy Fitz from the island of Galloon poured strong tea and handed out cuts of freshly baked soda bread to men who had miles to walk in the darkness before they reached their homes with all the news.

In the years that followed, the electric light brought a great change to the country, no more the smell of paraffin wafting through their homes nor the buying of candles each week bundled up in brown paper from Magee’s or Gillick’s within in the town. Nevertheless this new-fangled electric light did not lend itself to the telling of ghost stories when neighbours would call a ceiling, recounting tales of the banshee and the headless horseman that were passed down from one generation to the next. Gone were the shadows that gathered in the corner of the room silhouetted against the whitewashed walls by the flames of the hearth fire. No more the concealed sniggers of children as they knelt in the shadows around a blessed candle for the rosary, for all now was now laid bare.

Women too cursed the coming of the electric light for it revealed dust where there was never dust before, cobwebs appeared in the high corners of the ceiling where there was never heard tell of a spider. Mantle pieces and dressers had to be wiped down and delph taken from their shelves and washed clean for the light revealed the smuts that gathered in places where the low light of the candle could never reach. Walls were freshly whitewashed and all hidden places were exposed, with the coming of the light. The electric light was the catalyst for change, a change that was to permeate and transform all of rural Ireland and how we were as a people.

In this season of Advent we await the light, the true light, a light that will illumine the darkness and lay bare all that has remained hidden. It is a light that penetrates deep into the loins of the heart and in these weeks we are asked to embrace this light, a light that shines eternally. In a time of the year when it was that tools and implements were once laid down and people gathered to reflect around the warm light of the hearth, we too might consider pausing to reflect on where it is we need this light to shine so as to banish the darkness that dwells in those corners that escape the light to allow us to be as God intended, beacons of the true Light.

These poles and wires on which starlings and swallows gathered in the summer evenings that followed, became a feature of the landscape, criss-crossing fields and fen, and soon light shone from behind net curtains the length and breadth of the country.