Kitchen Power examines the promised lifestyle and everyday reality of rural electrification and the effect that it had on the lives of Irish women. Although women worked on the farm and in offices and shops, the 1937 Irish Constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann), 1937 had enshrined the importance of women’s ‘life within the home’ and the 1932 marriage bar prohibited married women from working in the public service. This was repealed in 1973 as part of legal changes brought about by second wave feminism and Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC). As a result, most women’s experiences of rural electrification were at home, where the kitchen was the focus of domestic work. This exhibition includes the voices of these women, telling their own stories in their own words.
In the 1940s and into the early 1950s Ireland was a country largely powered by manual labour, draft animals and fossil fuels such as turf, wood and coal, as electricity was rarely available outside of towns and cities. Rural electrification heralded dramatic changes in the way in which Irish people lived and worked. The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) began the electrification of rural Ireland in 1946, and the project ran until 1965, with parts of rural Ireland only receiving electricity in the 1970s.
I can always remember my mother saying, “this is heaven, this has to be heaven...because it took the drudgery out of the hard work people had to do". Maureen Gavan, interviewed by Geraldine O’Connor, Clones, County Monaghan, February 2017
The rollout of electricity accelerated a process of modernisation that saw electrical appliances installed in kitchens across the State. Advertisements and demonstrations promised a new, modern lifestyle to Irish women, without challenging existing gender roles.
The availability of domestic electrical appliances meant that the rural kitchen slowly changed from the traditional hearth to the fitted kitchen of the 1970s. The Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and groups such as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) worked at a grassroots level to improve the quality of women’s daily lives.
International ideas about modernity and progress influenced the lives of a generation of women who saw rural Ireland change dramatically over two decades. These ideas met traditional customs and gender roles in the rural kitchen, where fantasy met reality.
The exhibition, which was developed by the Museum in partnership with Kingston University and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and with support from the ESB, Irish Farmer's Journal, Age & Opportunity, and GMIT Letterfrack, is the flagship temporary exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life this year.