In 1858, the 19th century’s equivalent of the Apollo 11 moon landing occurred with the laying of a transatlantic cable between Valentia Island, Co Kerry and Hearts Content in Newfoundland, Canada. Through this cable, Queen Victoria and US president James Buchanan were able to send the first message over 3,000km, shortening communication time between the continents from days to hours.

That particular cable’s functionality was short-lived, and it would be another eight years before improvements in technology would see a cable laid between Europe and North America achieve the dream of near-instant communication.

Because of its historic importance and its place as the forebear to global communications, campaigners have spent the past few years working towards seeing both cable station sites in Valentia Island and Hearts Content being named as UNESCO heritage sites.

These efforts include an annual Valentia lecture and gala dinner with 2019’s event held last month.
Following on from last year’s marking of the 160th anniversary of the first cable laying, this year marked the 200th birthday of Cyrus Field, one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs, who led the project from concept to completion.

Last year we heard that significant progress had been made in getting the cable station in the town of Knightstown that highly prized UNESCO protection, but where are we at now?

According to the chair of the Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation, Leonard Hobbs, he and his fellow campaigners remain quite confident it will come.

Recognising Ireland’s industrial heritage

“We have made significant progress this last year, including the transfer of the historic cable station building from the previous owner to the people of Valentia,” said Hobbs.

“We have received funding from Fáilte Ireland to support the heritage story at the cable station, and our partners at Kerry County Council were awarded €1.27m from the Government’s Rural Regeneration and Development Fund to develop the cable station.”

Looking to the future, the island may once again be bringing technological innovation to the world. Hobbs added that the investment will include working with the local community to establish an innovation hub at the cable station site “with the mission to bring the island back to the cutting edge of the digital world”.

Support has also come from industry with BT Ireland managing director Shay Walsh saying: “We are proud to once again support the Valentia Transatlantic Cable project as it continues its journey towards UNESCO heritage status.

“For BT, the Atlantic cable signified both a major milestone in our company’s 174-year heritage, and in modern communications overall.”

One of the arguments in favour of naming the cable station a UNESCO World Heritage site, according to Hobbs, is that the list of more than 1,000 sites is “unbalanced and unrepresentative in certain themes”.

“One clear area which is under-represented is industrial heritage, and within this theme the most under-represented area is that of telecommunications where only one site is listed in Sweden,” he said.

“As such, we believe that the recognition of Valentia by UNESCO will be significant not only for Kerry, but also for Ireland in recognising our industrial heritage, particularly in the area of communication technology.”

Colm Gorey

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