Valentia Island: The ongoing road to World Heritage status

25 Jul 2023

Image: Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation

Ahead of the annual Valentia Island lecture series, Jenny Darmody spoke to Leonard Hobbs about the latest milestones for the first transatlantic cable.

As we approach the 165th anniversary of the very first transatlantic telegram that was sent from Valentia Island in Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, exciting plans are afoot to pursue UNESCO World Heritage status for Valentia’s cable station.

This piece of industrial heritage was not without its hiccups. Within three weeks of that first message being sent on 16 August 1858, the cable was damaged by high voltages and stopped working.

In 1865, a second attempt was made to lay a cable, but this proved unsuccessful after it snapped. Eventually a final successful cable was laid in July 1866, “hence the world became a smaller place,” said Leonard Hobbs of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation.

Now more than a century later, the stage is set for the cable station to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status.

A World Heritage site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention. The status is designated to sites that have cultural, historical, scientific or other forms of significance.

Currently, the Republic of Ireland only has two sites inscribed on the World Heritage list – Brú na Bóinne and Sceilg Mhichíl – while Northern Ireland has one with the Giant’s Causeway.

In August 2022, the Irish Government announced a new World Heritage Tentative List for Ireland with just three sites on the list – one of which is the transatlantic cable in Valentia Island.

“Ours is unusual on two fronts. One, it’s a fairly modern project, but also, it’s going to be submitted as a transnational project with Canada, the other side of the cable,” said Hobbs.

“That will create some complexity, but also gives us great strength because the Canadians are blackbelts in this thing, they do one a year. They have an incredible list of sites that they’ve preserved.”

While the bid for World Heritage status will take a few years to come to fruition, work is ongoing on Valentia Island to preserve the area. Last year, a transatlantic cable visitor experience called The Eighth Wonder opened, which recounts the historical developments of the cable.

The inside of a visitors' centre at Valentia Island.

The Eighth Wonder Visitor Centre. Image: Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation

A digital hub for the community

Another major milestone this year was being able to acquire the first message building, which Hobbs said is “very important” when it comes to achieving World Heritage status.

“You have to control the assets when you go to UNESCO and we now have control of all the major assets. The cable station, we got control of that a number of years ago and now the actual first message building.”

While many sites on the World Heritage list, including the two current sites in the Republic of Ireland are often historical landmarks, Valentia, if it were successful, would be considered an industrial heritage site.

The next steps now will be making sure the buildings are properly preserved, and that requires a significant amount of funding, which the Valentia Cable Foundation is working towards, including through an online auction, which closes on Friday 28 July.

Also on 28 July is the annual Valentia Island lecture series, which is supported by BT Ireland and features Enterprise Ireland CEO Leo Clancy, Cool Planet’s Norman Crowley and cable security expert, Dr Camino Kavanagh.

Hobbs said when the buildings are restored and converted, there will be a digital hub for the community, “in the place where it all began”.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic