Campaign to make Valentia Island a World Heritage Site gains momentum

5 Jun 2017

Valentia Island, Kerry. Image: Mike Crough/Shutterstock

New radio documentary shines light on pivotal role Valentia Island played in world history more than 150 years ago.

The campaign to make Valentia Island – and the station where, in 1866, the first trans-Atlantic communications took place – a UNESCO World Heritage Site is gaining momentum.

151 years ago, the first successful trans-Atlantic cable transmission between Valentia Island and Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada, took place. But until now the Irish State has been lax in enshrining the island’s status and applying for its protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as other countries have done for their respective roles in the communications revolution.

‘The Victorians were online and they texted, dated, cheated and messaged just as we do. Valentia Island was a crucial part of a communications revolution’

Today (5 June 2017) at 11am, a radio documentary will air on Newstalk 106FM chronicling how, in the middle of the 19th century, the small community on this Kerry island was thrust unexpectedly into the world of global communications. The podcast can be accessed here.

The documentary was compiled by Andrew O’Donoghue, a technology broadcaster who previously worked at Apple.

How Ireland changed the world

Campaign to make Valentia Island a World Heritage Site gains momentum

GPO workers. Image: An Post Museum & Archive

The documentary tells the story of how communications changed Ireland and the world, and how the small community became, for a while, a thriving cosmopolitan bastion of global communications.

It features interviews with the deputy editor of The Economist, Tom Standage, and contributions from Dr Cornelia Connolly and Valentia locals Michael Lyne and Joanne Cahill, to name a few.

Last year, on the 150th anniversary of the first trans-Atlantic cable communication from Valentia to North America, reported how a campaign to make the case for Valentia Island to be made a World Heritage Site was underway.

The committee includes Cyrus Field IV – the great-great-great-grandson of Cyrus Field, one of the men who laid the cable – as well as experienced UNESCO rapporteur Al Gillespie, IDA Ireland CEO Martin Shanahan, and Denis Jennings, the Irish man who helped lay the foundations for the modern internet.

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,” Gillespie said last year.

Ireland is remiss in not honouring its heritage

Speaking with, O’Donoghue said he spent time with the people on Valentia and visited the Grimeton Radio Station in Sweden, a UNESCO site, as well as the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall, England.

“There are few historical communication sites in the world that rival Valentia,” O’Donoghue said.

Campaign to make Valentia Island a World Heritage Site gains momentum

A telegram sent around the time of the 1916 Rising. Image: An Post Museum & Archive

O’Donoghue asserted that there is a strong feeling that Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, at the other end of the cable, also deserves recognition.

“If Valentia was declared a site, would the other end of the line, Heart’s Content in Newfoundland deserve the same status? Yes, it would, and it would be both a novel and worthy gesture by UNESCO to declare the towns as a twin heritage site.

“In my documentary, Michael Lyne, a local businessman and expert on the history of the [telegraph] cable tells me about the agreement that the community at the sister site to Valentia – Heart’s Content in Newfoundland – had committed to, providing equipment for a museum if one is opened on Valentia. Michael explains that the equipment from Valentia was auctioned off in the 1960s when the cable station closed, and I was told by locals that any unsold equipment was dumped in the sea at the time. It sort of illustrates the Cultural Dark Age in Ireland of the 1960s and 1970s when heritage was neglected by the state, and by us.

“I visited the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in Cornwall last year, and what they’ve achieved there is breathtaking. There’s a museum, a café, lectures, tours [and] educational events, and every day there’s a journey through 150 years of communications. Locally, money has been raised and also significant grants have been allocated to the Porthcurnow museum, which have allowed it to complete a £3m refurbishment program.

Campaign to make Valentia Island a World Heritage Site gains momentum

Image: Andrew O’Donoghue

“This should be the model for Valentia, which is arguably a more important site in the history of communications. A combination of National Lottery, state, local  and public funding could help Valentia launch a program that first establishes something notable, something viable, before the grander but worthwhile task of international recognition.”

O’Donoghue notes that, even without a museum or an official tour, Valentia remains a place of intrigue for anyone interested in how we communicate today.

“The Victorians were online and they texted, dated, cheated and messaged just as we do. Valentia Island was a crucial part of a communications revolution and, if you visit, it won’t be long before you find a local who’s incredibly pleased, and proud, to tell you all about how it started, on a small island off the coast of Kerry,” O’Donoghue said.

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