Valentia to mark 160th anniversary of first transatlantic cable message

13 Jul 2018

A standing stone on Valentia Island. Image: Louis Michel Desert/Shutterstock

Plans are afoot to make cable station on Kerry’s Valentia Island into a major UNESCO World Heritage site.

Almost 160 years ago, the very first telegram was sent from Valentia Island in Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland by Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan of the US.

The telegram, which was sent on 16 August 1858, read: “The queen is convinced that the president will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the two places whose friendship is founded upon their common interests and reciprocal esteem.”

‘What happened here in Valentia was such an important contribution to the development of communications and we must look at how to deal with global problems we haven’t solved’

Today (13 July), the island is marking the looming anniversary of that historic message with the handover of the ownership of the cable station to the people of Valentia by its current owner, Ranka Pollmeier. It is also holding the second Valentia Island Lecture on Globalisation with speakers from Canada, the US, Europe and Australia, including the former director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and futurist Prof Genevieve Bell.

In many ways, Valentia was at the heart of global communications long before the internet or mobile phones came along.

For the best part of 100 years, after that fateful cable was sent, 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.

Before the historic message was sent by Queen Victoria, the fastest messages took several days to cross the Atlantic by ship.

The telegram came a year after the first transatlantic cable failed. But, through the perseverance of American entrepreneur Cyrus Field, the world’s largest ship at the time – the Great Eastern, which he bought for a song at £25,000 – was used to lay cable over 1,686 nautical miles.

After bringing the cable ashore at Valentia, the first transatlantic cable communications included the congratulatory exchange between Queen Victoria and Buchanan.

And now, the ambition for the people of Valentia as well as individuals across the academic, technology, telecoms, scientific and political world is to pursue UNESCO World Heritage status for Valentia’s cable station.

Cable station on Valentia edges closer to UNESCO World Heritage status


The cable connecting Valentia in Kerry with North America depicted coming ashore in Newfoundland in 1858. Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock

During the past year, the project has received some significant endorsements. In December 2017, the government of Canada announced the addition of the Heart’s Content cable station to Canada’s list of candidate sites for UNESCO World Heritage recognition.

The ministerial advisory committee, while concluding that “the Heart’s Content/Valentia cable station ensemble is an outstanding example of a telecommunications site, representing the technological achievements of the mid to late 19th century” also encouraged the “Government of the Republic of Ireland to consider inclusion of Valentia on its Tentative List for World Heritage sites”.

Last February, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, visited the cable station and said that he was “very much in favour and support of those who are seeking recognition of the connection between Valentia and Heart’s Content as a UNESCO World Heritage site”.

He went on to say: “What happened here in Valentia was such an important contribution to the development of communications and we must look at how to deal with global problems we haven’t solved, and look for new ways and new models.”

Also in February this year, the Government’s National Development Plan 2018-2027 mentioned the Valentia project as an example of a heritage asset that should be protected.

The subsequent €1.2bn plan – Investing in Our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018-2027 – published by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, TD, in April listed the Valentia cable station as one of the key projects in Ireland for which the quality of the visitor facilities would be enhanced and the interpretation facilities improved.

“We look forward to the opening of the Tentative List process by the Irish Government in the second half of 2018, which will be the first step towards recognition by UNESCO of Valentia’s worldwide significance,” Leonard Hobbs of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation explained.

“We are confident of the Valentia project being selected for inclusion on the list when the process concludes 18 months later.”

Back to the other major milestone today, the historic cable station building will be handed over by Pollmeier to be accepted on behalf of the people of Valentia by Kerry’s ‘First Citizen’, Norma Foley.

Foley thanked Pollmeier for her longstanding commitment to the island. “This generous gift … will enable future opportunities for the people of Valentia and attract many more visitors to this very historic place.”

The venture to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status has strong support from both BT and IDA Ireland.

“The first transatlantic message sent 160 years ago this year was a significant milestone in global communications as it represented the start of our interconnected world,” said IDA Ireland CEO Martin Shanahan.

“Valentia was at the centre of this project, thus beginning the transformation of Ireland from a country on the edge of the old world to a country at the centre of the new world. IDA Ireland is delighted to join with the community at Valentia in recalling this epic achievement at this year’s Valentia Lecture.”

BT Ireland MD Shay Walsh said that the ambition for UNESCO status resonates strongly with the telecoms giant.

“For BT, the Atlantic cable signified a major milestone in our company’s 172-year heritage, connecting into our inland telegraph network and ultimately creating a platform which profoundly changed both the world of communications and society itself. As a company that today thrives on helping our customers with their global communications needs, we greatly appreciate the significance of the project and we look forward to celebrating the 160th anniversary of the first transatlantic message.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years