The small island off the coast of Kerry was the home of the birth of global communications 150 years ago and the beginning of globalisation as we know it. The smartphones in our hands today bear testimony to Valentia Island’s case to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And that’s why efforts by a team of enthusiasts – including the great-great-grandson of Cyrus Field, one of the men who laid the first operational trans-Atlantic communications cable – have a fighting chance of making Valentia Island and the station where the first trans-Atlantic communications took place in 1866 a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the first successful trans-Atlantic cable transmission between Valentia Island and Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada.
Before this, the fastest messages took several days to cross the Atlantic by ship.
The first trans-Atlantic cable, which went into operation in 1858, failed after a few weeks.
But through the perseverance of American entrepreneur Cyrus Field, the world’s largest ship – the Great Eastern, which he bought for a song at £25,000 – laid cable over 1,686 nautical miles.
‘A historian at the time wrote that, on a single day, the world read closing quotations from Wall Street, learned the prices on the Brussels grain market and the fact that Congress had readmitted Tennessee into the Union – the world changed’
– MINISTER PASCHAL DONOHOE
After bringing the cable ashore at Valentia, the first trans-Atlantic cable communications in 1866 included a congratulatory exchange between Queen Victoria and US President James Buchanan.
For the next 100 years Valentia Island was to become a global hub for communications and engineering until the arrival of satellite communications led to the station’s closure in 1966 by Western Union.
Local historian Michael Lyne explained to Siliconrepublic.com that, at its peak, the cable station employed 220 people, and had 23 houses for married men and families and 28 rooms for unmarried engineers. It was a virtual town with its own libraries, billiard rooms, tennis courts.
“Life was comfortable for the people who came there and it had an impact on the local economy resulting in jobs for local people and farmers bringing down turf from the hills. To work there meant a big salary.”
For its 100 years as a world communications hub, the cable station was the beating heart of diplomacy, stock prices and personal telegrams. As Paschal Donohoe TD, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, pointed out at a dinner last night (14 July): “A historian at the time wrote that, on a single day, the world read closing quotations from Wall Street, learned the prices on the Brussels grain market and the fact that Congress had readmitted Tennessee into the Union – the world changed.”
But by the time Western Union closed the cable station in 1966, it had only 33 workers and, according to Lyne, the population of the island subsequently dropped by 100 people literally overnight.
Valentia Island: the 1916 connection
The cable station also played a pivotal role in how word of the 1916 Rising reached the world.
Lyne pointed out that when the Rising broke out, a local post office worker from Kenmare, Rosalee Rice, passed the news to her cousins, two Ring brothers, who worked at the station. They sent a cryptic message to John Devoy in New York: “Tom successfully operated on this morning” – code for the Rising had begun.
‘It was in all the newspapers in New York that the Rising was taking place in Dublin and they knew nothing about it in London – how could it be? There was only one way and that was through cable station in Valentia’
– MICHAEL LYNE
The British establishment and Scotland Yard had no idea how the newspapers of New York broke the story before the London newspapers, and realised that, because the GPO in Dublin was in Rebel hands, there was only one other place the news could have come from – the cable station on Valentia Island. Rice and her Ring cousins were arrested and interred.
“It was in all the newspapers in New York that the Rising was taking place in Dublin and they knew nothing about it in London – how could it be? There was only one way and that was through cable station in Valentia,” Lyne recalled.
Lyne said that the cable station wouldn’t have been forgotten by the local people of Valentia, but it was when a campaign arose to give the site UNESCO World Heritage status that things took on a new energy.
Island people and the miracle of communication
Five or six years ago, New Zealand-based Al Gillespie, an international lawyer who had worked with UNESCO as a rapporteur on similar World Heritage Site projects, was working on an environmental project and had occasion to do a Skype call with Stephanie Buffum.
Buffum was an environmental policy expert living on an island off Washington state on the US north-western coast.
‘These were intelligent, educated and often foreign people, not dissimilar from the internet workers in Dublin today. And remember, this was 20 years after the Great Famine’
– AL GILLESPIE
It was through this chance call that Gillespie established that Buffum was married to a Cyrus Field IV, great-great-great-grandson of the man who stubbornly made the first active trans-Atlantic cable a reality.
From there, they harnessed the support of local people, including Lyne, to make the case for Valentia Island to be made a World Heritage Site.
Today, the foundation committee behind the campaign include IDA Ireland CEO Martin Shanahan and, fittingly, Denis Jennings, the Irishman who made a fateful decision in 1983 that set the technology world on its course to the internet as we know it today.
According to Gillespie, Ireland is woefully underrepresented in terms of World Heritage Sites and is missing out on serious economic potential. “You have only two out of 1,000 World Heritage Sites listed in Europe.
“People don’t think of the Irish as great engineers and, as a country, you have allowed yourself to be painted into the corner as artists and writers. But you are so much more.
“Before there was Silicon Valley, there was Valentia Island, where educated people did specialised work and these workers need to be commemorated.
“When people think about the industrial revolution, they think about factories. But when it comes to telecoms, Valentia Island was at the heart of the international telecoms revolution. Not only that, but the original cable companies were forerunners of corporate responsibility – they rewarded their workers well and were socially progressive, and that was 150 years ago.
“These were intelligent, educated and often foreign people, not dissimilar from the internet workers in Dublin today. And remember, this was 20 years after the Great Famine.
“When the cable started in Valentia, globalisation began. In 1870, the world’s first international organisation was created – the International Telegraph Union – to regulate the telegraph and manage the traffic of information across the Atlantic.”
Gillespie said that recognising communications and digital history is an increasing focus of UNESCO and the time is right for Valentia Island to step up to the plate.
“In terms of industrial heritage, there are 45 sites on the list in Europe, but only one relates to telecoms and that is a 1924 radio station in Varberg, Sweden. If you think about it, Ireland has sites that pre-date that related to the work of Marconi, and there is even a 1912 wireless station on Valentia Island that is still operational.”
From an economic perspective, Gillespie believes gaining Valentia Island an international verification could have major tourism potential.
“The dominant tourist today is Chinese, not American. They don’t really care about cathedrals and castles, but they do identify with the mobile phone and, if you can link the mobile phone with something that began in Ireland, you can tap huge potential.”
Gillespie points out that, across the world, countries are constantly nominating sites for World Heritage status because they recognise the economic importance of such verification. However, Ireland is staggeringly remiss.
“The best industrial sites in Germany with UNESCO recognition attract 1m visitors a year,” Gillespie said.
“The next stage is to engage the local community and then be part of the tentative list for 2017 for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to apply to UNESCO.”
Soon, Gillespie says, the World Heritage community will be recognising the locations where the first email was sent, the first website built and other key markers of the communications age.
Gillespie concludes that a site that was pivotal to world communication for the best part of 150 years should not be forgotten.
“The heritage community is aware that it needs to be about more than cathedrals and canals. It doesn’t need to be spectacular, but it needs to be relevant.”
Valentia lighthouse image via Shutterstock