Is Valentia Island’s UNESCO World Heritage status finally within reach?

5 Mar 2018

Woman touches an ancient stone near the Cromwell Point Lighthouse on Valentia Island, Co Kerry. Image: Alla Laurent/Shutterstock

Even the ‘highest office in the land’ backs Valentia Island UNESCO campaign to mark the true beginning of transatlantic cable communications.

There is an alarming paucity of artefacts and places on the island of Ireland that have attracted World Heritage Site status, despite this being one of the most ancient lands in both history and culture.

But soon, Ireland can strike a claim to having enabled the digital revolution and leave its mark on history if it succeeds in achieving World Heritage Site status for the cable station on Valentia Island, Co Kerry.

‘The man who decided he was going to put a cable across the Atlantic was the kind of a person who had a vision, and was told by the theorists of the time that it couldn’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted – and he prevails on the fourth attempt’

After bringing the cable ashore at Valentia, the first transatlantic cable communications in 1866 took place after a number of attempts, and included a congratulatory exchange between Queen Victoria and US president James Buchanan.

At its height, the cable station employed 220 people and made communications possible between Europe and North America. It was one of the first global hubs for communication and remained active until its closure in 1966 by Western Union.


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

You could argue that Ireland still carries that torch today with data centres, software and social media giants, and transatlantic undersea fibre cables pulsating and humming with the digital rhythm of our times.

For a number of years now, a campaign has been underway by the Valenitia Transatlantic Cable Foundation board and individuals including Trinity College Dublin’s Leonard Hobbs; locals such as Michael Lyne and Anthony O’Connell; Cyrus Field IV, the great-great-great-grandson of the man who brought the cable ashore; his wife Stephanie Buffum; New Zealand-based lawyer Al Gillespie; and countless others, including organisations such as IDA Ireland and BT.

In an interview with Gillespie two summers back on Valentia Island, he told me how 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,” he said, pointing out how a vital link in the world’s telecoms history is being ignored. He noted how a 1924 radio station in Varberg, Sweden, is listed with World Heritage status in terms of its contribution to industrial heritage.

So, why not recognition for the cable station on Valentia Island?

“Before there was Silicon Valley, there was Valentia Island, where educated people did specialised work, and these workers need to be commemorated,” Gillespie said at the time.

A presidential seal of approval for the Valentia Island UNESCO campaign

Is Valentia Island’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status within reach?

President Michael D Higgins meets Anthony O’Connell, a member of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation board, at the cable station on Valentia Island. Image: Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation

In recent weeks, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, became the latest supporter of the project to see Valentia’s cable station achieve UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Not only that, but Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport Brendan Griffin, TD, discussed a joint application to UNESCO for World Heritage designation for the Valentia cable station and its sister site at Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.

At a reception at the island’s former cable station in recent weeks, Higgins said he is “very much in favour” of seeing Valentia recognised as one the most important sites in the world, in terms of the development of modern communications and technology.

In December, Heart’s Content – which was linked by the 3,000-plus-kilometre undersea cable to Valentia – was formally recognised as a Canadian national treasure, and included in that country’s latest list of Tentative World Heritage Sites.

Campaigners believe that UNESCO recognition for Valentia would have major benefit to the local community and to all of Kerry, by increasing the area’s attraction to international visitors.

President Higgins said that “what happened here in Valentia was such an important contribution to the development of communications”.

He added that he is “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 referred to the entrepreneur Cyrus Field – the millionaire US businessman behind the cable plan – as an example from which the world can still learn.

“The man who decided he was going to put a cable across the Atlantic was the kind of a person who had a vision, and was told by the theorists of the time that it couldn’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted – and he prevails on the fourth attempt.

“We must look at how to deal with global problems we haven’t solved, and look for new ways and new models.”

So, what happens next?

The Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which is responsible for Irish World Heritage nominations, is not expected to update Ireland’s Tentative List of potential World Heritage Sites before 2020.

But campaigners in Valentia now hope that President Higgins’ remarks will help boost the island’s chances of being included on the list.

“When you get support from the highest office in the land, you know you’re on the right track,” said Anthony O’Connell, a member of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation board.

Just like President Higgins, we should all get behind this plan to see Ireland, and Valentia Island in particular, claim its rightful place as part of the world’s digital heritage.

Because it is all our heritage.

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