Before the Internet, before television, radio, and the telephone, there was the telegraph, which opened up communications from city to city in  both  America and Europe in the early 1840s.But there was no way to  send messages across the ocean, until at last in 1851 a cable was laid  under the English Channel between England and France.

Over the next few years the number of cables in service steadily  increased, and engineers and entrepreneurs began to cast their eyes at a  bigger prize: the Atlantic Ocean.This was a far more difficult task  than laying the short cables then in service, and to reduce both the  difficulty and the cost it was essential to use the shortest route  between Britain and North America.So County Kerry on Ireland’s west coast entered the picture. The first  Atlantic cable of 1858 ran from Valentia Island to Newfoundland; and  although technical problems limited its life to just a few weeks, the  feasibility had been proved, and in 1866 two permanent cables had been  established on the route.

Once these cables were in place the pace of life, of business, of  diplomacy accelerated. London news was available in the New York morning  papers and simultaneous trading in the London and New York stock  exchanges created opportunities which were as exciting at the time as  e-commerce is today.  Commodity trading and international freight both  benefited from the availability of rapid communications across the  Atlantic, and a tremendous amount of business (and profits) resulted.

Despite rapid technical improvements enabling longer runs, the shorter, faster routes from Ireland to America were preferred for many years, and  subsequent cable companies had stations at Ballinskelligs and at Waterville, all handling a large amount of commercial, and to a lesser  extent, personal messages. The Irish cable telegraph stations performed  this important function for the best part of a hundred years, closing  only in the 1960s when their technology was finally made obsolete by the  new undersea telephone cables.

The Irish Cable Stations played a very important part in establishing communications between the old world and the new, but the prevailing view in Ireland was that these were British enterprises. As a result, when the stations were closed there was little local interest in preserving their history, and most of the contents were sold or discarded.  Fortunately, many of the buildings were saved, and there is now a renewed interest in Ireland’s part in the history of communications.  

The heritage of these important cable stations still remains on the Iveragh Peninsula in South Kerry, surrounded by some of the most magnificent  land and seascapes in all of Ireland. In July 2000 the historical significance of the stations was recognized with an International  Milestone Heritage Site Award from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and ElectronicsEngineers of the USA). The Kerry Cable stations at Valentia,  Ballinskelligs, and Waterville are ow listed as World Heritage Communications Sites.

The visitor to the Waterville area can experience first hand some of this 150-year history. At Waterville itself many of the cable station  buildings from the turn of the 19th century have been preserved, and one  venerable structure, formerly senior staff housing, is now the Old Cable  House B&B and Restaurant.  The proprietors, Margaret and Alan Brown, have a keen interest in cable history, and have a number of artefacts  and documents which the visitor can examine. The remains of the actual undersea cables themselves are visible at a bulkhead on the Waterville sea front.

Just a few miles from Waterville, at Valentia Island, the site of the early Atlantic cable landings is commemorated with a granite marker and  display. A short distance away, the Valentia Heritage Centre has a room devoted to cable history, with many interesting documents, photographs, and instruments used when the cable station at Valentia was working. Some of the early cable station buildings can also be seen in Valentia, although as at Waterville these are now in private hands.

A tour of the historic sites in the area is an easy day’s outing by foot and car. Starting with a walking tour of the cable sites at Waterville,the visitor can then drive by Ballinskelligs on the way to the bridge to Valentia Island. From there, the mainland can be reached by car ferry, and it’s an easy drive to finish the circular route back to Waterville. Alternatively, a base in nerby Cahirciveen allows a variation of the  same tour, perhaps finishing the day with a meal in Waterville.

More information, and detailed driving instructions for a tour of the area, may be found on the educational Atlantic Cable history website. The Old Cable House B&B website includes further historical details on  the cables, as does the website of the Valentia Heritage Centre. The  Ring of Kerry website has much useful general information for visitors to the area.

Atlantic Cable website page on cable history resources in the area

Old Cable House B&B website

Places to stay in Waterville

Valentia Heritage Centre website

IEEE History Network page on the County Kerry cable stations

Ring of Kerry Tourism website