INTRODUCTION TO VANISHING IRELAND 4
In August 1858, one of the most remarkable feats in the history of global engineering was achieved when the Atlantic Cable Company connected a cable linking Valentia Island in County Kerry to Heart’s Content in Newfoundland. The US President James Buchanan, whose father hailed from County Donegal, dispatched an ecstatic message down the cable to Queen Victoria declaring the transatlantic link to be ‘a triumph more glorious and far more useful to mankind than any battle’. It was his great hope that this would ‘prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.’
It took seventeen hours for President Buchanan’s message to get down the wire. But when it arrived, the western world went into throes of jubilant ecstasy. Church bells rang across Ireland, England and America. One hundred canons saluted the New York skies. Streets were bedecked with flags. It was all deeply exciting and revolutionary.
And then, about two weeks later, the cable stopped working and the revolution subsided. It took seven years to fix the cable. Think about that next time your broadband goes down. But fix it they did and the shimmering new 1866 cable from Ireland to the USA could transmit messages at a super-zippy eight words a minute.
The importance of the transatlantic connection between Ireland and North America was phenomenal. Prior to the telegraph, a message took approximately ten days to cross the Atlantic because the only possible carrier was a ship. Now you could send a message from the Old World to the New World within minutes. An entire community evolved around the three transatlantic cable stations that were built in southwest Kerry at this time and these form the basis of a chapter in this book on the people of Ballinskelligs.
In 1902, the transatlantic cable was superseded when the Italian-Irish inventor Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a wireless message across the Atlantic from Connemara to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada. The impact of Marconi’s pioneering visit to Galway is still being felt over a hundred years later, as we discovered when we interviewed the people of Connemara for this book.
Connemara was also the destination for the next gigantic link between Ireland and North America. In June 1919, Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown completed the first ever non-stop transatlantic flight between America and Europe. The utterly fearless duo flew in an open-cockpit Vimy meaning that every time they passed through a band of rain, hail, sleet or snow – which they did frequently - it ‘chewed bits out of our faces’, to quote Brown. When their plane safely crash-landed onto a bog near Clifden, the world once again celebrated as the older generations reeled in amazement. The voyage to America had always taken weeks. Yet this flying machine had done it in sixteen hours.
We’ve come a long way, no doubts. The cable, the radio and the airplane were all stepping stones that made this world of ours so small that even the remote wilds of Ireland’s Atlantic coast could no longer hide from the evolution of the global community. It will be hard, if not impossible, for my two small daughters to imagine that people once lived without mobile phones, remote controls and high-speed broadband. Such changes should be embraced for their immense ability to enhance our lives.
I am particularly excited to think we are moving into an age when it will be completely normal for our elders to communicate with their geographically distant children and grandchildren by email, Facebook, Skype and whatever new forms of communication come our way, as well as ‘old fashioned’ face-to-face encounters. Likewise, as people get a better understanding of how to use technology, the possibilities it affords to the sick, the aged, the lonely and the bored could and should be profoundly uplifting.
And yet I also feel a massive tug for those who cannot adjust to this new world. I think of my late grandfather who, born in 1910, reckoned that the Ireland of his childhood was little different to that which had existed for hundreds of years. Fields were tilled by man, horse and plough. Seeds were scattered by hand. Crops were harvested by sickle and scythe. The community united to help with the harvest. Birds twittered in every hedgerow and church bells rang when the harvest was complete.
For my grandfather, the villain of the piece was hydraulics. They paved the way for the tractor that so rudely shoved the workhorse into the hedge. Likewise, the combine harvester, which could do in an hour what took an entire community could achieve in a day. Or the robotic sprayers who roamed the land, suffocating birds and insects with their poisonous fumes. My grandfather was appalled by such things but he understood that sometimes to achieve what we believe to be progress, other things must take a hit.
Not everyone mourned the passing of the old world. There were plenty who loved the idea of a tractor with the pulling power of a herd of workhorses. No need for daily harnessing and endless hay. No anxieties for the animals in bad weather. Simply hop up in the tractor seat, twist the key and you’re away.
As we advance into the future, we will all of us lament the manner in which we are obliged to leave certain aspects of our past behind in deference to progress. The pace of life continues to accelerate so that we no longer give one another the time of day like we did in decades past. So perhaps we should take a deep breath and relish what we enjoyed in the past.
Life is all about magic moments and trying to make them last as long as possible. We do that best when we are in the company of others. Making eye contact and exchanging banter, sharing crummy jokes and tall stories, gossip, memories, recipes, hardships, adventures, childhoods, melancholy, laughter. We interact because humans thrive on friendship. In decades past, we formed communities because we worked better as a pack.
Our sense of community is under threat. The disconnection between neighbours is palpable. Disappointing as it may be, it is an inevitable consequence of a society that lives within increasingly private comfort zones.
Maybe things will come full circle. I once met an elderly farmer called Dan Mackey at the Harp Inn in Ballitore, County Kildare. ‘You might call me mad’, he said. ‘But, I’m telling you now, the wheel will keep turning and the horse and cart will be back’.
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