Energy Institute


The story of gas in Ireland

Gas was originally manufactured from coal in the mid-1700s for public lighting and continued to be used in street lamps until the introduction of electricity in the early 20th century. The availability of gas was a mark of modernity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the gas service was extended to homes and businesses in towns and cities in Ireland, all of which had a local gasworks. For a time, it seemed that cheap oil and electricity would eclipse the gas industry but the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea spawned a whole new industry in Britain. With the discovery of Irish gas fields off the coast of Kinsale in 1971 natural gas has become the fuel of choice in heating and power generation (45% of our electricity was generated by gas in 2014). Bord Gáis Eireann was formed in 1976 and since then has developed the national gas grid to service cities in Ireland and now connects Ireland with UK via undersea pipelines to Scotland. With the discovery of Corrib gas field off the coast of Mayo in 1996, and its connection to the grid in 2015, over half of Ireland’s gas requirements are projected to be supplied domestically. Going forward, combined with advances in efficient thermal power generation, distributed heating systems, and heavy vehicles driven by compressed natural gas (CNG), natural gas is seen as an economic, reliable and relatively clean conventional fuel for transport, heat, and electricity. The alternative gas fuels of the future may include biogas and hydrogen using the existing infrastructure.

The use of gas in Ireland dates back to 1764, when gas for lighting began to be produced from coal in a process known as distillation. Gas mains were laid in cities and towns in Ireland from 1824 onward, initially to fuel public lighting.  Gas production relied on imported coal, and production of town gas from this source continued until the 1960s. By then, the technology for manufacturing town gas from oil had become available and was more economical than coal.  Hence gas companies switched to oil as the feedstock for gas manufacture.  The existing town gas mains were eventually converted to natural gas following the discovery of the Kinsale Head gas field in 1971.  The piping of gas to households and industries in Cork city and Dublin followed in the 1980s and shortly thereafter the development of a national gas grid rollout began.

In 1993 and 2001, undersea gas pipelines were laid from Scotland (the 1st and 2nd Interconnector pipelines) to ensure continued gas supplies in Ireland as the reserves of gas in Kinsale began to deplete.

The Corrib gas field began supplying Ireland’s gas grid in December 2015 and the field will provide over half of the country’s gas needs in its initial years of production.

As of May 2016, the Eirgrid website (dashboard on electricity generation) reported that over the previous month, some 48.5% of national electricity demand was generated from natural gas, with 23.3% from renewables (mainly wind) and 21.5% from coal.

According to the 2011 census, approximately 33% of all houses in Ireland were heated with natural gas, and 44% were heated by oil, mainly kerosene.


Ringsend gasworks



18th & 19th Century

The use of gas in Ireland dates back to 1764 when gas for lighting was first produced from a process involving the distillation of coal.

The 19th century saw a rapid expansion in gas production and the fuel became widely adopted for street and domestic lighting. At the start of the century, there were three gasworks in operation in Dublin, using raw materials such as coal, peat and, surprisingly, fish oil to produce gas. By 1881, that number had increased to 114, relying mainly on imported coal. In 1824, the first underground gas mains were laid and, despite public objections that echo the controversies of more recent times, gas distribution networks were established in the major towns and cities. The market for gas remained fragmented, however, and there were wide price variances from town to town. Some establishments maintained their own private gas plant, for example, in 1818, it was recorded that the Crow Street Theatre in Dublin supplied its own gas for lighting.


20th Century

The use of gas in Ireland continued to increase in the early part of the 20th century for lighting and heating as our towns and cities expanded. But the dominance of gas was increasingly challenged by the emergence of electricity, the difficulty and cost of sourcing coal during the First World War and the turbulent early years of the Irish Free State. These all contributed to the demise of many gas producers. At the completion of the Shannon hydro-electricity scheme in 1929, only 85 gasworks remained in Ireland.

Nevertheless, the remaining gas companies continued to be viable and there was increased production in the 1930s. The onset of the Second World War again created challenges for the gas industry. Coal was rationed and gas was only available in reduced amounts for fixed hours of supply. Stories of the glimmer man had their origins in the enforcement of rationing regulations.


1950s & 60s

By the 1950s, oil began to replace coal as the primary fuel for production of gas. Oil held several advantages over coal. It was cleaner and did not result in the same dirty waste streams as coal. It was also easier to transport and handle. Importantly, the price of oil had fallen to the point where it was competitive with coal. By the 1960s, oil had replaced coal in the generation of gas.

Another major development occurred in the 1950s – the emergence of natural gas as a replacement for manufactured town gas. In countries such as the Netherlands and later in the UK, naturally occurring gas deposits began to be exploited for industrial and domestic use.

In 1958, the first exclusive licence to explore for oil and gas off Irish waters was granted to the Ambassador Oil Company for a small sum because so little was known about the potential for discoveries.


North Wall thermal power plant

Converted from oil to gas in 1982



1970s & 80s

The 1970s and 80s witnessed a boom in off-shore oil and gas exploration in Irish waters. Seventy-three exploration wells were drilled between 1975 and 1985, mainly in the south and east, because deep-water production technology was not sufficiently advanced, nor the price of oil high enough by then to justify exploration in the North Atlantic.

Parts of the Ambassador licence were sold off and in 1971 one of the exploration wells belonging to Marathon struck gas 27 miles off the old head of Kinsale in Co Cork. This was a significant discovery with a reserve valued at £6 billion at mid-1980s prices. The Kinsale gas resource effectively transformed the gas infrastructure in Ireland. Bórd Gáis Éireann (BGE) was established under the Gas Act of 1976 with the responsibility for the purchase, sale, transmission and distribution of natural gas throughout Ireland. BGE constructed the Cork-Dublin pipeline in 1982 and it became the backbone of the national gas system. This transmission pipeline was supplemented with further transmission pipelines funded by the European Regional Development Fund. BGE also took over the Alliance and Dublin Gas Company and manufactured towns gas made from oil was rendered obsolete.

In 1989, a second smaller gas field was discovered in Ballycotton off the coast of Co Cork, near the original Kinsale discovery.


1990s

By the end of 1994, Bórd Gáis Éireann was serving 222,600 domestic consumers and around 8,000 commercial and industrial customers. The ESB was its largest single customer, receiving 42% of all
gas delivered; about 26% of the fuel used in electricity generation in 1994 was indigenous natural gas.

Approximately 72% of the Kinsale and BallyCotton gas fields were extracted between 1978 and 1994. As it became increasingly clear that gas reserves were declining, the first subsea interconnector pipeline to deliver UK gas for Ireland's growing gas demand was built in 1993.

In 1993, Enterprise Oil was awarded an exploration licence and in 1996 the company announced the discovery of the Corrib gas field in the North Atlantic, west of Co Mayo. The proposal to bring the gas ashore by the company (which has been since taken over by Shell) became highly controversial and ran into protracted opposition from objectors. The controversy caused major delays and costs in the planning and approval process but also led to reforms that may benefit future projects.


Bellanboy gas terminal,

Serving Corrib gas field



21st Century

In the 2000s, Bórd Gáis Éireann undertook a major infrastructure programme, costing €1.4bn. A second undersea interconnector to Scotland was completed in 2002 and the national gas network was extended to include a Mayo-Galway pipeline. In addition, two pipelines to Northern Ireland were completed.

While the natural gas network was originally developed to allow the exploitation of the Kinsale gas field, it has now expanded to become a comprehensive network that can supply an increasing number of customers around the country. This network continues to be operated and developed by BGE.

Gas from the Corrib gas field finally started to flow in December 2015 and this source is estimated to meet over 50% of Irelands needs over the next five years. Prior to the Corrib supply, Ireland received 96% of needs via the Scotland interconnectors, after the depletion of the Kinsale gas supply.

The majority of gas in Ireland is currently used to generate electricity. As of May 2016, the Eirgrid website (dashboard on electricity generation) reported that over the previous month, some 48.5% of national electricity demand was generated from natural gas, with 23.3% from renewables (mainly wind) and 21.5% from coal.  Bórd Gáis itself operates an electricity generating plan in Co. Cork, allowing it to serve both gas and electricity customers.

In rural areas outside the gas network, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is used for cooking, heating and hot water. LPG is imported and some is also produced in Ireland as a product of crude oil refining in Ireland's only oil refinery at Whitegate on Cork harbour. Because of the limited coverage of the natural gas network to rural areas, more households in Ireland still used oil fired central heating compared to natural gas central heating in 2011. As of the 2011 census, some 33% of all houses in Ireland were heated with natural gas, and 44% were heated by oil, mainly kerosene.