Could Valentia Island in Kerry soon become a World Heritage Site?

9 Dec 2015

A standing stone on the island of Valentia in Kerry on Ireland’s south-west coast. From 1858 to 1966 it served as a vital telecoms link connecting North America with Europe.

Plans to turn Valentia Island on Ireland’s south-west coast into a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its role in connecting Europe with North America via a transatlantic cable for 100 years are picking up speed.

Efforts by a team of enthusiasts from around the world – including the great-great-great-grandson of one of the men who laid the cable in 1866 – are closer to being rewarded, as the application passes through several hurdles.

It is understood that the island is closer to being added to a “tentative” list of sites that the Irish Government could recommend to be preserved as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

‘My feeling is that this is a technological world heritage for the role it played in uniting mankind’

Valentia was the eastern terminus of the first commercially viable transatlantic telegraph cable. The first attempt in 1857 to land a cable from Ballycarbery Strand on the mainland just east of Valentia Island ended in disappointment.

After subsequent failures of cables landed at Knightstown in 1858 and Foilhommerum Bay in 1865, the vast endeavor finally resulted in commercially viable transatlantic telegraph communications from Foilhommerum Bay to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland in 1866.

One of first transatlantic communications consisted of morse code messages exchanged between the UK’s Queen Victoria and the then-president of the US James Buchanan on 16 August 1858.

Transatlantic telegraph cables operated from Valentia Island for 100 years, ending with Western Union International terminating its cable operations in 1966. spoke to the great-great-great-grandson of one of the leaders of the team that envisioned and laid the transatlantic cable, Cyrus West Field.

“My feeling is that this is a technological world heritage site for the role it played in uniting mankind,” says Cyrus Field IV, a lawyer who lives on Shaw Island near Seattle on the west coast of the US.

Field said that it was significant that Kerry is also home to Skellig Michael, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its antiquity but also due to the role it played in preserving the written word in Europe during the Dark Ages.

“The first-ever radio communications also took place between Valentia and Canada. Kerry has always had quite a legacy as a communications stronghold in history.”

Field’s involvement in the efforts to preserve Valentia as a UNESCO site was accidental. His wife Stephanie Buffum is an environmental policy expert working at a non-profit and had been collaborating on a land use project with a New Zealand law professor called Al Gillespie when Cyrus popped into the conversation during a Skype call.

Gillespie happened to be passionate about Valentia’s role in telecoms industry history and asked Field if he was possibly related to Cyrus Field I. “It was a weird coincidence because he was working on a project to preserve a potential world heritage site.”

A rapport was struck and the wheels began to be put in motion to preserve Valentia as a world heritage site.

However, while the wheels are well in motion, the timing may be off, and by the time Valentia is made a UNESCO World Heritage Site it could be well after the 150th anniversary of the line’s completion next year.

Field says that preserving the island is both practical – it hasn’t been disturbed much since the cable went operational almost 150 years ago – and potentially economical, in that it could attract tourism.

Who was Cyrus Field?


The cable connecting Valentia in Kerry with North America depicted coming ashore in Newfoundland in 1858

Field explains that his great-great-great grandfather Cyrus West Field was an inspirational figure who made his fortune in the paper industry and had retired on health grounds in his 30s.

Not patient with sitting around, Field travelled the world and financed expeditions to Columbia and Equador with the romantic artist Frederic Church. With a nose for business, Field realised just how slow it took for news to circulate around the world at that time and how isolated everything was.

On his return to North America, he got involved with his brother on cable projects to connect islands around Canada and in the Pacific Ocean.

Together with Peter Cooper, Abram Stevens Hewitt, Moses Taylor and Samuel FB Morse, Field formed the Cable Cabinet of entrepreneurs, investors and engineers in 1854 and was instrumental in laying the 400-mile telegraph line connecting St John’s Newfoundland with Nova Scotia.

His work made him quite wealthy and he was attracted to the even more ambitious project to connect Valentia Island in south Kerry to Heart’s Content in eastern Newfoundland. The cable broke three times before finally becoming fully operational in 1866.

Although Field’s paper business folded in 1857, he returned to the US to a triumphant welcome. “This has been a great day here. The occasion was the reception of the welcome of Cyrus W. Field, Esq., the world-renowned parent of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable Scheme which has been so successfully completed,” trumpeted The New York Times on 23 August 1858.


The New York Times on 23 August 1858

However, despite Field’s success in connecting two continents, his business affairs in later years weren’t so successful.

Annoyed with how inefficient transport in New York had become, he envisioned a forward-looking plan to build elevated railroads across the city and became president of the New York Elevated Railroad Company in 1877.

“His reputation, however, became tarnished because he got involved in the project with two unscrupulous business partners – Jay Gould and Russell Sage. He believed it honourable to make money but not by gouging the public. And so he was squeezed out and ended up losing his entire fortune – $6m – in one day.

“He ended up both broke and broken by the experience,” says his great-great-great grandson.

“While I feel sad about that I am also somewhat honoured and proud that he wasn’t just into making money but believed that by doing useful things you could make money. All through his life, he made money and lost it again but he was always moving n to the next project.”

Cyrus Field IV says that he feels by preserving Valentia Island as a World Heritage Site it would be honouring the memory of his ancestor and the enduring role of Ireland’s southwest in connecting humanity.

“It is a site of outstanding value and would be in the top 1pc of historic sites of the telecoms sector from the industrial revolution with clear links to the 21st century.”

See here for a comprehensive list of articles resources relating to various 19th-century cable projects right up to the fibre optic age

Valentia Island picture at top via Shutterstock

World’s first trans-Atlantic cable reaching Newfoundland image via Shutterstock

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