Ireland, Telecommunications and International Politics by Donard de Cogan

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 1993), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 1

The electric telegraph was invented  in 1837 and proved to be an  instant success. It provided new possibilities  for the rapid transmission of  news and business information.  International communications  required the use of insulated electrical  conductors and the first techniques  for coating copper wires with  a suitable material were patented by  Siemens Brothers in Prussia. Henry  Bewley of Dublin provided an alternative  method of insulation which laid  the foundations for British domination  of the submarine cable industry.The new cables from Britain to  Europe were first used for commercial  purposes with very little government  intervention. The promoters  saw enormous financial benefits in  being able to communicate with   Summer 1993  America and by the mid 1850s there  were moves to establish a transatlantic  telegraph link. This was new  technology fraught with potential  problems. Chief amongst these was  the uncertainty that electricity could  travel that distance or be sustained  under the terrific pressure of deep  ocean. The shortest route was therefore  essential and, as the Kerry coast  was one of the westernmost parts of  Europe, it was natural to start from  there to Newfoundland, the equivalent  easternmost part of north  America. Attempts to lay cables in  1857 and 1858 were unsuccessful,  leading to a severe loss of confidence  amongst the financial backers: with  the additional interruption of the  American Civil War, it was not until  1866 that permanent communica-  1866-1922  tions were established from Valentia.  Commercial success soon led to  competition and by the turn of the  century there were links to  Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Britain,  France and Germany. Ballinskelligs  station was opened in 1874 but was  soon absorbed by the Anglo  American Telegraph Co., who also  owned the Valentia station. The  Commercial Cable Co., which operated  the Waterville station, was a wholly  American company, founded by  James Gordon-Bennett and John W.  Mackay, an emigrant from Dublin  who became a Nevada silver magnate  and one of the richest men in  America. It opened for business in  1885. As a result of a financial deal,  Ballinskelligs and Valentia came  under the control of the Western  Union Telegraph Co. in 1911.

Two views of the landing of cable atWhite Strand Ballycarbery Point on the mainland near Valentia Island - 1857. (FROM THE COOKE COLLECTION OF DRAWINGS INTHE ARCHIVES OF THE INSTITUTION OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS, LONDON)

Two views of the landing of cable at
White Strand Ballycarbery Point on
the mainland near Valentia Island –

The telegraph  and imperial rivalries  The British Treasury had subsidised  some of the early attempts to  get lines of communication to India  and Canada and when these failed  there was an effective moratorium on  further funding. Thus, in contrast to  other European countries, the expansion  of the cable network in the 1870s  was totally financed by private enterprise  and within a very favourable  financial environment. It was a successful technology: when the UK  inland telegraph service came under  Post Office control after nationalisation  in 1871, the large release of capital  was thereafter available for investment  in new international ventures.  The telegraph played its part in  imperial rivalries. There was shock  when BismarckIreland, Telecommunications and International Politics by Donard de Cogan 2precipitated the  Franco-Prussian war by means of an  altered telegram, but at least this  reduced Anglo-French rivalries for  several years. There were scares  over Russian expansionist policies in  1878. A further scare in 1885 led to  the establishment of the Colonial  Defence Committee which recommended  an All Red Route for the  transmission of official government  traffic. It also recommended that the  cable network only land on Imperial  soil or territory controlled by trusted  friends (e.g. Portugal, Britain’s oldest  ally); that the network should be  duplicated in case of damage; that it  should be operated by trusted staff  only; and that censorship apply in  times of crisis.  The basis for these recommendations  was reinforced by several  events in the late 1890s. There was  much cable-cutting during the  Spanish-American war and for a time  it appeared that British lines of communication  might be disrupted. The  recommendations were used to good  effect as tensions developed during  the scramble for Africa. Both France  and Germany had to communicate  with their new possessions via  British cables and on several occasions  (such as the Fashoda incident:  an Anglo-French military confrontation  on the upper Nile in 1898) the  inspection and ‘delay’ of messages  were used to British diplomatic  advantage.

On 5 December 1913, the War  Office drew up ‘Regulations for cen-sorship of submarine cable communications  throughout the British  Empire’ which aimed to deny naval  or military intelligence to the enemy;  to prevent the spread of false reports  likely to affect the morale of the civil  population; to collect and distribute  enemy information to government  departments; to deny the use of  British cables to any person or firm,  British, allied or neutral for commercial  transactions with the enemy; and  to interfere as little as possible with  legitimate British and neutral trade.  The Post Office was responsible for  issuing, at the request of the War  Office, the necessary notification to  the International Telegraph Office;  the issue of notification to the public;  the establishment of temporary censorship  at the Central Telegraph  Office pending the establishment of British telegraph routes to India.  censorship by military officers; maintaininga  watch at the various cable  repeater stations (whether belonging  to the Post Office or the cable companies)  with a view to guarding against  any telegrams being sent or received  at these places; providing assistants  to the Chief Censor and the Deputy  Chief Censor at the Central Telegraph  Office; and generally taking all steps  necessary to ensure that telegrams to  and from places abroad passing over  continental cables should be submitted  to the censors.

British telegraph routes to India.

British telegraph routes to India.

At first sight one might perceive  the possibility of legal problems  since the Irish cable stations were  operated by private companies. The  Valentia station was owned by the  Anglo American Telegraph Co.  BalIinskelIigs was the Irish terminus  of the Direct United States Telegraph  Co., a British company which had  been established to provide competition  and to force down tariff rates.  When it proved too successful it was  bought out and absorbed by Anglo.  At the other end the lines which fed  traffic from Canada to the financial  heartland of the United States were  operated by the Western Union  Telegraph Co .. There was much concern  when Waterville was opened in  1885 as its owner, the Commercial  Cable Co., was wholly American owned and had a direct line from  Waterville to France which avoided  transit through Britain. The apparent  extent of British control seemed to  decrease even more when operational  control of Valentia and  BallinskelIigs passed to Western  Union in 1911. However, the private  operations valued the license to land  cables on Imperial soil and were prepared  to comply with whatever conditions  the government laid down.

The Irish cable stations at war 
The first world war brought chaos  to the Irish cable stations. The volume  of government traffic increased  dramatically. Censors were installed  and were mainly retired army officers  with very little experience of cable  communications and technicalities.  Although at a later stage some civilians  such as retired colonial governors  were employed, it was felt that a  military background and an ability to  make decisions on personal initiative  was more important than any technical  knowledge. Messages were frequently  delayed for two weeks or  more.  The initial draconian reaction was  followed by a process of rationalisation.  In October 1914 censors were  transferred from Valentia and  BalIinskelIigs to the Western Union  Offices in London. It was then the  duty of Post Office staff at the stations  to ensure that all messages  were sent via the censors prior to  transmission. A censor was maintained  at Waterville to deal with the  company’s traffic between France  and America.  The use of codes in ordinary  telegrams was prohibited at the start  of the war and this caused a dramatic  reduction in the volume of commercial  traffic. Banks, financiers and even  small companies had always used  their own codes. They inhibited the  possibility of commercial espionage  and they allowed messages to be  compressed, thus saving costs. Over  a period of time, the rules were  relaxed to allow specific code books  to be used and decoding clerks were  employed in the censorship offices. It  would seem that commercial concerns  were prepared to tolerate delay  rather than sacrifice the confidentiality  of their telegrams.  The war changed the way of life for  the cable station staff and their families.  Each station was now surrounded  by barbed wire and kept under  military guard. Admission was by  pass only and at Valentia the guarded  area included many of the staff houses.  Even children on their way from  school had to show their passes.  Following the removal of censors to  London, there was a large Post Office  technical staff at the stations. This  was later increased for security reasons  so that towards the end of the  war there were eleven at Valentia,  three at Ballinskelligs and six at  Waterville. Nevertheless in spite of  their official title and function, the  rest of the station staff at Valentia  always referred to them as ‘censors’  and although there were fairly cordial  relations, both groups maintained  their distance.  The other way in which the war  impinged on staff at the cable stations  was the sheer volume of work  that had to be handled. A large volume  of traffic required a large staff;  indeed towards the end of the war  there were 200 people working at the  Valentia station. Staff had to work  long hours. Twelve hour shifts (6am-  6pm and 6pm-6am) were the norm.  There was much relief amongst the  Valentia staff when in 1917 the fastest  cable (in terms of words per minute)  went out of service. As the other  three were being worked to full  capacity, the load per operator was  forcibly reduced.

The 1916 Easter Rising 
The news of the 1916 Easter Rising  was first publicised abroad in  America and was largely due to the  efforts of certain staff at the Valentia  station. Precise details have until  recently been classified (document  DEFEI 350 in the Public Record Office  at Kew, London).  During the early stages of the war,  the general spirit of the staff at the  Irish cable stations (of which the  great bulk were Irish at Valentia and  Ballinskelligs and about half at  Waterville) were sympathetic to the  Allied cause. However some months  before the 1916 Easter Rising, it was  revealed that a large number of operators  at Valentia were Sinn Fein supporters,  among them members of the  Ring family who formed an important  element in the life of the station and  included a number who were senior  supervising officers.

Valentia Cable Station under military guard (1918).

Valentia Cable Station under military guard (1918).

Some days before the Rising operator  Eugene Ring sent an irregular  message to Heart’s Content,  Newfoundland. It was detected by the  Post Office checker and reported to  the superintendent. The message did  not arouse suspicions as it merely  asked the operator at the other end if  he wished to buy a bicycle. (It is obvious  that this was a trial message  intended to test how tight the security  system really was. The fact that it  was detected confirmed to them that  it would be impossible to use the  Valentia Cable Station under military guard (1918).  cable directly for the transmission of  their more important message.)    Shortly before the Rising, Tim Ring,  Eugene’s brother, using an assumed  name, sent a message to an address  in New York from Valentia Post  Office. Popular reports say it was dispatched  on the instructions of Austin  Stack from Fermoy Post Office. The  message – Tom successfully operated  on today – was passed as an ordinary  private message by the censors in  London.  With the publication of the news in  New York, it proved impossible for  the authorities to hush the matter up  and America, not yet in the war, was  able to focus full attention on the  Irish question. The New York address  of the recipient of this telegram ‘was  subsequently discovered to be the  offices of the Irish Extremist  Movement’. It had been sent to the  housekeeper in the home of John  Devoy.

Valentia Island Staff 1916. Tim Ring is on the extreme left, middle row, standing.

Valentia Island Staff 1916. Tim Ring is on the extreme left, middle row, standing.

The Ring brothers were arrested on  15 August 1916 and held under the  Defence of the Realm Act. Since  Eugene Ring had contravened company  regulations (on the transmission  of private messages), he was dismissed,  but Western Union were  unwilling to dismiss Tim who had not  broken any company rules. The military  wanted all cable staff with republican  sympathies to be replaced by  Valentia Island Staff 1916. Tim Ring is on the extreme left, middle row, standing.  operators in the service of the government.  Western Union would only  acquiesce to these demands if the  Post Office or Army Signals Corps  were able to make up the loss in manpower.  As neither could provide the  necessary staff of experienced operators,  things remained as they were.  There was some concession to pressure  from the authorities. Some Irish  operators were transferred to the  Western Union cable station at  Sennen near Penzance. This caused a  flurry of official activity. Security was  strengthened and three additional  Post Office operators were drafted in  as scrutineers. Company records  indicate that Tim Ring was released  from prison on 1 May 1917 and  applied to be reinstated. He was  appointed to the Accounts  Department in the London office  where he remained until 1 January  1920.

The aftermath  
Despite the end of the first world  war, the volume of traffic remained  very high as the Allies argued  amongst themselves over the provisions  of the Treaty of Versailles.  However, the Irish stations were living  on borrowed time. Technical  developments meant that telex on  cables (automatic transmission from  a keyboard rather than a manually  keyed version of Morse code)  became feasible and after about 1924  there were no more than about twenty  staff at Valentia. Redundant operators  dispersed throughout the world,  many finding employment in the  cable networks which were rapidly  expanding elsewhere.  Messages were no longer censored  before transmission but this did not  mean an end to telegraph interception.  Under the conditions of the  landing licenses, the cable companies  were required to hand over copies of  each day’s traffic to the Post Office.  This implies that all Irish international  cablegrams were subject to scrutiny.  The Irish component of total traffic  through Valentia and Waterville  was so small that it was ‘easier’ to  queue it in at the terminus in London.  Thus any message arriving at these  stations from within the State was  first re-routed to London where it  joined the bulk of west-bound traffic.  Despite some embarrassing questions  concerning British scrutiny of  American traffic at a US  Congressional hearing in the 1930s,  this remained the practice for the  cable companies until the mid-1960s,  when disclosure by Chapman  Pincher led to the D-Notice scandal  which rocked the government of  Harold Wilson.

The Irish stations were of vital  strategic significance during this period.  The British government, conscious  of the mistake of not having its  own cable, managed to buy the  Ballinskelligs operation from  Anglo/Western Union in 1919, but following  the disruption of the Civil War  in 1922, they had the cable diverted  to Penzance and the station was  closed. Valentia and Waterville  remained in operation as repeater  stations until the mid-1960s when  advances in telephone cables rendered  the network of telegraph  cables obsolete.  Donard de Cogan is a senior lecturer  in electronics in the School of  Information Systems at the University  of East Ang/ia at Norwich.  Further reading:  D. Hendrick, The Invisible Weapon  (Oxford 1992).


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