The Transatlantic Cable – An Irish Perspective

(A paper submitted to the 2001 IEEE Conference on the History of Telecommunications, Student paper winner for Europe and Asia.)

Changes in the telecommunications industry over the past decades have been significant. The last 20 years has seen a dramatic growth in the dependence of industry and commerce on telecommunications and wireless technologies. Nonetheless the laying of the Transatlantic Cable was in many ways much more monumental, altering for all time personal, commercial and political communications. The cable was laid in 1865 and connected people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The pace of technological change subsequently accelerated with communications and computer technologies converging rapidly; the telephone was invented in the 1870’s, radio waves in the 1890’s.
This article focuses on the transatlantic cable from the ‘Eastern side of the Atlantic.’ Specifically concentrating on the laying of the cable in County Kerry, Ireland and providing an account of how this important and pioneering telecommunication network affected the Irish community of the time. The paper describes the context and explores the community on Valentia Island and life in the Cable Stations at that time.



Between 1845 and 1850, more than a million Irish people starved to death while massive quantities of food were being exported from Ireland. A half million were evicted from their homes during the potato blight, and a million and a half emigrated to America, Britain and Australia. It began with a blight of the potato crop that left acre upon acre of Irish farmland covered with black rot; peasants who ate the rotten produce were ill and entire villages consumed with cholera and typhus.

Landlords evicted peasants, who then crowded into disease-infested workhouses. Other landlords paid for their tenants to emigrate. But even emigration was no panacea, as ship-owners often crowded hundreds of desperate Irish onto rickety vessels labelled ‘coffin ships’, which usually lost up to a third of their passengers to disease and hunger.


Figure 1 Images of the poverty during the Irish Famine

The combined forces of famine, disease and emigration depopulated the island; Ireland’s population dropped from 8 million before the Famine to 5 million years after. While Britain provided much relief for Ireland’s starving population, many Irish criticized Britain’s delayed response – and further blamed centuries of British political oppression on the underlying causes of the famine. If Irish nationalism was dormant for the first half of the nineteenth-century, the Famine convinced Irish citizens and Irish-Americans of the urgent need for political change.

A Map of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable is shown in Figure 1 depicts the poverty in Ireland during the Irish Famine, approximately 10 years before the laying of the Trans-Atlantic cable, Figure 2.


Figure 2 Map of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable, 1858

The Knight of Kerry

In the early 1800’s the principal landowners in Co. Kerry were the Knights of Kerry. Sir Peter George Fitzgerald, the 19th Knight of Kerry, resided on the island of Valentia. His landholdings in Co. Kerry, which in 1876 consisted of 4,769 acres, were not very extensive, comparatively speaking. But the reality that was Peter Fitzgerald, and indeed Valentia’s memory of him, was far more ambivalent than what his memorial, which was erected by his family, Figure 3, would suggest. As landlords go, he meant well but he opposed Home Rule and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. However, the Knight of Kerry was proud of County Kerry and Valentia Island, eager to promote its interests, and thus his own investment, as a seaport and as the European end of the new Transatlantic cable.


Figure 3: Knight of Kerry Monument and Inscription

Laying the Cable

The first laying of the cable was made in 1857: on 5th August, amidst great rejoicing, the shore end of the cable was landed at Ballycarbery Strand, Valentia Harbour. The attempt was covered by reporters, who dispatched long accounts of the event and descriptions of Kerry weather and scenery; and by artists who sketched the scenes.

For the first attempt, the Knight of Kerry entertained the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Atlantic Telegraph Directors and those of the Great Southern and Western Railway, but also a number of ‘scientific gentlemen’. They travelled by road from Killarney and were then entertained by the Knight. Speeches were made, toasts drunk, the Church of Ireland clergyman composed and read a special prayer for the cable laying. The cable ships sailed on August 7th, but the attempt failed when the Niagara broke the cable 280 miles out from Valentia.

The second attempt was made the following year. The cable had been brought in on the island itself this time, at Knightstown. Again the ‘scientific gentlemen’, reporters, all and sundry crowded round the little group of men in a darkened hut trying to read weak electric signals.

In 1865, they tried again. This time, Foilhomurrum Bay, beside the old Cromwellian fort opposite Port Magee, was chosen as the spot where the cable would be brought ashore. Vast crowds assembled: it was like fairground. People of all sorts, rich and poor, old and young, assembled. There were tents selling drink, potatoes boiling in pots outside, fiddlers and pipers, dancers and games of chance, an improvised roulette wheel, a ‘find a pea’ merchant. The old drawings show the gentry in top hats, the ladies in voluminous skirts, and the peasantry in the background, almost another race, ragged, barefoot. The cable was brought in from the ship the Great Eastern, until it could be hauled ashore by some hundred local men heaving it over a bridge of twenty-two local boats to the cliff foot. Again there were speeches and rejoicing and prayers. Sir Robert Peel was among those present. The electricians secured the cable in a little instrument room erected on the cliff top and The Great Eastern sailed away, paying out the cable, Figure 4 and Figure 5.



It was a much quieter beginning, the following year, when they tried again, with only a small crowd to watch. But this time the whole cable was successfully laid. The men of Valentia suddenly read: “Ship to Shore. I have much pleasure in speaking to you through the 1865 cable.” So Valentia was linked to Newfoundland by two cables! The successful landing at Hearts Content, Newfoundland, on July 27 established a permanent electrical communications link between Ireland and Canada.


Valentia Community of the time

In those days there was very little work on Valentia Island and there was a lot of poverty. To try and make enough money to survive, islanders walked to the rich farms in counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and north Cork to help with the harvest and seasonal work. Knightstown, at the foot of the island, had the ferry to the mainland and became with the Slate Yard and the Atlantic Cable Station, another world to many of the farming islanders. The islanders on Valentia, at the time, could be stratified into three groups. At the top was the Knight, then the cable station staff and at the bottom the ordinary Irish country people.

Irish Peasants

The ordinary Irish peasantry, Figure 6, were usually very poor and living in wretched hovels of stone and clay. Most were farmer-fishermen, their main food being dry potatoes.


Figure 6 Images of the Irish Peasantry, 19th Century

The poor lived in wretched hovels of stone and clay, their only food dry potatoes and labourers’ wages a shilling (5p) a day. The labourers’ clothes – a frieze coat, breeches, and flannel waistcoat cost a guinea (£1.05). Shoes and stockings were worn only on Sundays; when digging they might wear an old stocking to protect their spade foot.

A reporter from the Telegraph noted on July 25th 1865 “It was a strange crowd to look at – half the men were barefoot, and none of them were decently clad; but all of them, I suppose, could have conversed in two languages.” On Valentia there was always the two languages, the Irish of the ordinary folk and the English of the cable-men and the ‘gentry’. When the Knight made his long speeches on Fenianism or the distribution of his land, he spoke in English, but a number of the listening crowd may not have understood, for some of the elders had only Irish. In spite of the strong English forces at work on the island – the English-speaking management of the slate-mine, the English-speaking cable station and all education was in English, Valentia remained strongly Irish speaking, with its own local cadences until very recently.

Cable Station Staff

The Cable Station staff was well-paid and lived in good houses, whilst the rest of the island remained poor and primitive. The cablemen enjoyed good pay and conditions and sons followed their fathers into the station. Pay up to 1919 was comparable to that of a bank manager, with great job satisfaction, in that the work was skilled and varied, including both transmission and maintenance of the equipment.

The original staff numbered twelve, English and Scots, the superintendent being James Graves, an electrician who had been with the company that made the cable and then had travelled in the Great Eastern during the laying. Some of the Valentia men held important posts in other parts of the cable world. Dan Sullivan, became coast superintendent of all African stations. David Lynch was head electrician when the longest cable in the world was laid.

The cablemen came from all parts of the world. Island boys entered the service, first in the Atlantic Telegraph Company, later in the Western Union, by which the original company was taken over. Some of the Valentia men held important posts in other parts of the cable world. Dan Sullivan went to Delago Bay to become coast superintendent of all African stations. David Lynch was head electrician when the longest cable in the world was laid, from Bamfield in Vancouver to Guam, the Fiji islands, Yap and Doubtless Bay. Island boys learned Morse painlessly as a kind of secret schoolboy language.

Edward Condon, who celebrated his ninetieth birthday in 1974, said: “I think we had as good a life as any man could have wished to have.” The cable houses had their own trim gardens, front and back, there were three grass tennis courts and the cricket pitch was in the middle of the sports field. Cricket matches were played against the other cable stations of Waterville and Ballinskellig. Every man had his own boat, and the yacht club raced regularly in summer on Wednesday and Saturdays. A nine-hole golf course was made on the slopes of the hill from the Fitzgerald monument down to the lighthouse. There were dances, billiards, but not so much card-playing.


The Cable Station

The original cable station was a wooden hut designed by Mr Watlock of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with six rooms, and here the staff lived and worked. The instrument room had a solid table of Valentia slate, providing a firm base for the batteries, galvanometers and magnets in the equipment. The first messages were received in the dark. A mirror was fixed to a coil hung between two magnets and as the current passed through the coil from the cable, the mirror swung right or left according to the polarity of the signal. A beam of light focussed on the mirror reflected along a calibrated scale, spelling out the letters. This system was very hard on the eyes of the operator, but even so, the alphabet could be read twice in a minute.

The station quickly outgrew the original wooden hut, and was transferred to Knightstown, where a fine office and houses for the staff were constructed, Figure 10. There was a billiard room, a library and reading room, with such papers as The Times. A bungalow was added as bachelor quarters and, at the end of World War 1, when there were about 200 hundred men working in the station, another terrace of houses built, west of the original blocks. An engine and battery room was placed behind the office block, and electricity was supplied to the homes as well as to the cable station itself. A windmill on a timber tower pumped water to the station and the houses; it was later replaced by an electric pump. Piped water, electricity, baths – the cable station men had these entire long before anyone else on the island.

The station itself was a relay one—the messages coming to it by this overland ‘magnetic telegraph’ as it was first called, and then being copied and fed into the submarine cable. At the start of operations, it cost £1 a word to cable to America with a minimum charge of £20. By 1883, it was 2 shillings a word, 1 shilling in 1888 and 6p by 1911. During World War 1 the station became an armed camp, guarded and barricaded by troops, and the cablemen were issued with identity passes. Censors checked messages for concealed meanings sent by spies. But in 1916, with the help of a man in the station, a coded message did go to America with the news of the Easter Rising. When the final struggle for Irish Independence came, the cablemen tended to be pro-British. On several occasions, the Irish forces were able to do some damage to the cable station equipment, but the Company had already temporarily re-routed most of the transmissions. No attempt was made to cut the actual cable. During the Emergency (World War 2) Irish troops were on guard.

The working of the station spanned the whole development of undersea cable operation, from the mirror and lamp to the technological development which made such relay stations unnecessary – and around 1950, Valentia was involved in the experiments with undersea repeaters.


During its heyday, the Valentia cable station was one of the show pieces of Ireland. The closing of the station left a great gap in island life and employment opportunities. A combination of advancing technology and United States anti-monopoly laws brought about the closure of the Transatlantic cable station in Valentia in 1966.

The other Irish cable stations, which were opened on the mainland, are in Ballinskellig and Waterville.


Ballinskellig Cable Station (1874 – 1922)

At Ballinskelligs, the company, Direct United States Telegraph, a British one, was granted a license in 1873. The German company Siemen Bros, manufactured and laid the cable with their ship, Faraday. The station was linked to Valentia by a land and sea line and Western Union leased the line until 1920, when it was bought by the British Post Office. The European end was diverted to a Mousehole, Cornwall in 1923 and the Ballinskellig station closed. The buildings then became government property, and in the 1930’s and 40’s were used as a summer college for Irish students. They later fell into disrepair and all have been demolished.


Waterville Cable Station (1884 – 1962)

The first message from Waterville to St. Johns, passed along the transatlantic cable on Christmas Eve, 1884. During its hay-day, the station operated 6 cables to America, 4 to Britain and 2 to France. The Commercial Cable Company broke the monopoly on transatlantic communication previously held by Atlantic Telegraph Company (later Western Union) and employed over 300 people at its busiest period. Cable was diverted to Britain briefly during the Civil war and Waterville became a relay station. Landing licenses were renewed by the Irish Government, and a military guard was placed on the station during World War II. The operations ceased in 1962.



On July 13th, 1866 the Great Eastern steamed westward from Valentia, laying a telegraph cable. The successful landing at Newfoundland, Canada on July 27 established a permanent electrical communications link between Ireland and Canada. Later, additional cables were laid from Valentia and new stations opened at Ballinskelligs (1874) and Waterville (1884), making County Kerry a major focal point for global communications.

The aim of this article was to present an alternative portrayal of the laying of the Transatlantic Cable and from an Irish perspective depicting society of the time. Primarily focusing on the Irish community and how the establishment of the Cable Stations altered the dynamics and culture. The Cable Stations are a unique feature in the communities of Valentia, Waterville and Ballinskelligs and were an essential part of the communications network linking countries across the Atlantic Ocean. The laying of the cable was transformational.





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