I worked for Bord Gáis, the Irish national gas company in the early noughties. One day in the office a presentation was being made to a retiring employee. As part of the presentation they gave him a bronze figureen of a lamplighter, a stock figure of Victorian cities. But on the pedestal of the bronze it was called “The Glimmer Man”. I could not believe my eyes.
Then today I was listening to a podcast of Blindboy from the Rubber Bandits reading his short story: “Arse Children”. He gives a long descriptive passage of Eamon De Valera looking out the Mansion House window as a “Glimmer Man” came up the street extinguishing the gas lights. Again my stress levels went up to 90 as I wondered what planet he was born on.
Then I thought a bit and realised Blindboy comes from Limerick and they know feck all about Gas down there. OK they did have towns gas but I think the Glimmer Man was a particularly Dublin phenomenon.
During “The Emergency” as we in Ireland call the Second World War (because we were neutral) gas was made from Coal. Coal was imported from Britain, and in the war they needed their coal so our supply dwindled. Dublin was served by a private towns gas company called “The Alliance and Dublin Consumers Gas Company”. That mouthful was rendered lovingly by Dubliners as “The Gas Company” and when I worked in Bord Gáis the Dubs still universally called it the Gas Company.
In the face of contrained supplies the Gas Company issued a series of ads asking consumers to conserve supplies. “Don’t waste Gas….not even a glimmer”.
The Gas Company turned off supplies to conserve what coal they had. Restricting supply to only 10 hours a day reduced consumption by only a quarter. They had to take more radical action. So supply was permitted only 5 hours per day, and it was not supposed to be used for home heating.
Dubliners discovered that you could open a valve on your stove and coax a gentle flame out if it using the residual unpressurised Gas in the pipe network. From the ads this flame got the nickname “glimmer” and Dubliners talked about “cooking on the glimmer”.
The Gas Company hired some inspectors to go from house to house and flat to flat to inspect the facilities. They would check if heating appliances were warm and during the restricted hours they would check to see if stoves were hot.
These inspectors got the nickname “glimmer man” and they were hated by the Dubliners. My parents grew up as children in Dublin during the war years and they had vivid memories of gangs of children racing through the streets ahead of the inspectors to warn mothers of the approach of the glimmer man. Cooking pots or kettles had to be hidden and the stoves had to be cooled down.
The consequences of being caught by the glimmer man were dire. He had the power to cut off and lock your supply. He was a universally hated figure. People spoke of the glimmer man of the war years the way they speak today of commercial car clampers.
Having grown up knowing the hatred of the glimmer man you can understand my astonishment to find that the term is used in loving, warm, nostalgic terms by people who have no clue of its origins.