The successful laying 150 years ago of the undersea cable connecting the old world of Europe with the new world of America is being celebrated this week on Valentia Island.
By Anne Lucey, Irish Examiner
Before 1866, it took two weeks to send a message to America — afterwards, it was instantaneous.
From her home on the Isle of Wight, Queen Victoria sent a message of congratulations to the President of the United States, the world’s press gathered, and for the next 100 years, south Kerry was a world hub of engineering, technical, and telegraphic skills.
The Transatlantic Telegraphic Festival celebrating Kerry and Europe’s connection with the tiny fishing village of Heart’s Content in Newfoundland kicks off today with fireworks over Foilhommerum Bay, where the Great Eastern, then the world’s largest ship, left on her groundbreaking cable-laying enterprise across 1,686 nautical miles. The cable was brought ashore in Newfoundland on July 27.
Not until 1966 was the Valentia cable outmoded by satellites.
Descendants and relatives of the original cable station team are assembling and the five-day festival is being launched by Adrian Fitzgerald, the 24th Knight of Kerry and London politician, whose family have long been associated with Valentia and with South Kerry.
In terms of global fame these days, Valentia island is on the world map for the oldest dinosaur prints in the world, that of a 400 million-year-old tetrapod recognised by a Swiss geology student in 1997.
But it is Valentia’s role in ushering in the age of modern communications technology that is the basis for an application for Unesco world heritage status, the festival will hear. A highly skilled workforce trained in telegraphy, engineering and science assembled in south Kerry to serve three cable stations at Waterville, Valentia, and Ballinskeligs Bay. A training college was established in Cahersiveen and for several generations, south Kerry was the centre of the world.
Alas, the closure of the railway, lack of industry and good roads in recent decades has seen massive population drop on both Valentia and south Kerry. A number of academic papers will be formally launched over the next few days and there is an exhibition of rare prints and paintings — the photographs of the time — which were commissioned to record the historic event.
Academics are to give talks and local historian Michael Lyne, associated with reviving the slate quarry which roofed the Houses of Parliament in London, will speak about the quarry as well as the railway line to Renard Point, the arrival of huge ships to collect emigrants and the island’s scientists and weather station.
Meanwhile, tonnes of cable lie on the sea bed in south Kerry. There had been several attempts to lay the cable from the late 1850s and thousands of miles of snapped and blown copper (the voltage was too high in one case) and brass coated cable lie on the ocean bed.
These are joined now by thousands of tonnes of the disused cable from the three stations at Valentia, Waterville and Ballinskelligs that still lie on the ocean floor.
Twenty years ago, a Norwegian rig arrived to harvest it, but it was an expensive operation and the business was not viable because of the cost of recovery, said local man Joe C Keating, one of those involved.
“The cable is still there, tonnes and tonnes of it,” Mr Keating said.
- The full programme for the unique festival is available on www.telegraphcablefestival.ie