Ireland in 1916 – Communication

At the beginning of the twentieth century paper and ink were the bedrock of personal and commercial communication. Whether written by hand or typed, in envelopes or on the back of cards, vast quantities of mail circulated through the Irish postal system. Passing in and out of a network of post and sorting offices, with the GPO as a central hub, were letters, postcards, parcels, publication post (newspapers and books) and small packets.

Over 5m letters were handled in 1851. By 1914 the amount increased to 20m, with 3.5m postcards and almost 9m parcels, delivered six times a day, including Sunday mornings. An advertisement in 1915 was headlined ‘The Post-Office as Career’, with jobs such as Male and Female Learners, and Boy Messengers – “must be under fourteen and a half years of age”.

More than 21,000 people were employed by the post office throughout Ireland in 1914, the majority working in the collection and delivery of mail. Except a small group of employees whose work was unconcerned with paper and ink. Almost 1000 people worked on the construction and maintenance of telegraph and telephone lines.

From the 1850s attempts to lay a trans-Atlantic cable continued. In an initial success in August 1858, a message was relayed from Valentia Island in Kerry to Newfoundland. Queen Victoria sent congratulations to the US President James Buchanan, a 98 word message which took sixteen hours to complete. Buchanan responded: “It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conqueror on the field of battle.”

Dublin’s first telephone exchange was opened in 1880. Run from a switchboard in Dame Street, it had five subscribers. Eight years later 500 trunk lines were connected between Dublin and Belfast. In 1893 the first submarine cable was laid between Port Patrick, Scotland, and Donaghadee, Co Down. By 1895 the National Telephone Company had networks in Belfast, Cork, Derry, Dublin and Limerick, with 3,300 subscribers. Lines reached Armagh, Portadown and Waterford in 1898.

By 1900 Dublin had 4,562 miles of underground cable. At a meeting of the Pembroke Urban District Roads Committee in 1906, a request to erect telegraph posts on Sandymount Avenue and Gilford Road was agreed, even though the Committee “were of opinion that the telegraph wires should be laid underground”.

By 1912 the Post Office had taken over the private telephone companies, creating a unified state-controlled network across Ireland and Britain under the Postmaster General in London. An underwater cable from the Welsh coast to Howth Head, Dublin, was tested successfully in 1914. In preparation for the Rising, close attention was paid to the telegraph network.

Late in 1915, Martin King, a member of the Irish Citizen Army, worked as a Cable Joiner with the Post Office, and “was familiar with the lay out of all telephone and telegraph cables”. In his statement to the Bureau of Military History, he said: “James Connolly asked me if he wanted to cut communications with England, how would he set about it? He told me to pick up all the information I could about this matter”. On Good Friday morning 1916, King and his foreman Andy Fitzpatrick, “…toured the principal trunk line centres, with a view to the disruption of communications on Easter Sunday”.

While Connolly organised efforts to gain control of telegraph communications during the Rising, he also sought to inform the international press about it. What he called “our wireless station” was located in the Atlantic School of Wireless Telegraphy, across the road from the GPO above a jeweller’s shop.

Fergus O’Kelly, a Volunteer in the Dublin Brigade was in the GPO on Easter Monday: “I was called aside by Joseph Plunkett and instructed to take a few men and take possession of the Wireless School… and do everything possible to get the transmitting plant and receiving apparatus into working order.

“A message was sent over by James Connolly for broadcast transmission. It was not possible to get in direct touch with any station or ship but the message was sent out on the normal commercial wavelength in the hope some ship would receive it and relay it as interesting news. As far as I can remember, the first message announced the proclaiming of the Irish Republic and the talking over of Dublin by the Republican Army.”

Not being aimed at any single ship, the radio transmission was a broadcast, perhaps the first of its kind to carry news of an event. Such broadcast technology would go on to dominate global communications throughout the twentieth century.

• First published in The Irish Independent, Decade of Centenaries magazine, 12 November 2015

Ireland in 1916 – Children

In the years up to 1916 the words adolescent and teenager did not exist. The line separating children and adults was thin and grey, with the word juvenile arriving as definition of a hazy middle ground. The 1911 census provides statistics based on ages up to 15 years old, but then jumps to figures for 20 year olds.

Out of a total population of 4.39m, over 1.72m were aged under 15, almost 40% of the population of Ireland in 1911. Yet their position in society did not reflect such strength in numbers. Daily life for many children, especially those aged over 12, mirrored that of adult life dominated by work and making ends meet. For younger children working before and after school was normal.

A national primary school programme, started in 1831, was revised around 1900, with new principles, such as “development from within rather than moulding from without”. By 1901 there were 20,478 teachers in Ireland. Sixty per cent of those were female, earning about 80% of the male wage.

A Blasket Islander remembered his first day of school: “Shyly I sat on the bench. The children were making a power of noise. The mistress went to the cupboard and took out a big tin and put it down before me. Then I saw a sight which put gladness into my heart – sweets in the shape of a man, a pig, a boat, a horse and many another. ‘Be a good boy, now’, said she, ‘and come to school every day’. So there I sat looking at the book while not forgetting to fill my mouth.”

A teacher in Coolbanagher national school, Laois, was examined and her results show the type of skills required to teach in 1903: “…needlework and literacy, hand and eye training, which included stick-laying, paper-folding, scale drawing and string work”.

Children worked before going to school, especially in rural areas where they helped out on farms. Older children also had the responsibility of showing younger ones what to do and keeping an eye on them. In urban areas, children worked after school – cleaning, getting water, fuel for a fire, and maybe a paper round. In cities many children worked on the streets and in markets. Street trading included: “the hawking of newspapers, matches, flowers and other articles, playing singing or performing for profit, shoe-blacking and any other like occupation…”.

An overhaul of the Employment of Children Act in 1915 stipulated that only boys aged fourteen and over could legally trade on the streets (over 16 for girls), and they had to have a licence in the form of a badge. They could lose it if caught trading during school hours, and if obstructing the footpath.

When not at school or working, children played in the fields or in the streets. Most made their own toys, from sticks, wood, paper, matchsticks. A length of rope was ample for group skipping, which is probably where James Joyce picked up the following street rhyme and put it in Ulysses: Give a thing and take it back/God’ll ask you where is that/You’ll say you don’t know/God’ll send you down below.

Where children were really up against was in their health and welfare. Twenty percent of the 72,475 deaths recorded in 1911 were children under five. Causes of death included “convulsions, bronchitis, scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough”. In 1914, one baby out of every eleven born died within a year.

In England it was one in ten, and one in nine in Scotland. Children also went hungry, as reported by the Ladies’ School Dinner Committee, which provided for hundreds of children, “…some paying a halfpenny, most received it for free”. It consisted of “a pint of Irish stew, or pea soup and bread”. And the sight of children begging prompted a newspaper letter which said “…boys and girls of school going age who, with a persistence worthy of a better cause, solicit alms from all and sundry…”.

The Children’s Act of 1908, also known as the Children’s Charter, legislated on the prevention of cruelty and the protection of infant life. In its 1914 report, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children recorded complaints concerning over 4000 children.

While Ireland had no school medical inspection programme, there was one for dental inspection, which included 49 clinics, of which 13 were in Dublin: “The need for dental inspection is shown by the fact that while only 4% of children aged 7 have decayed teeth, 75% of children aged 13, who have not previously been inspected, have decayed teeth.”

And that didn’t stop some children helping themselves to sweets and chocolates during the Rising, as newspapers reported that Woolworths, Noblett’s Toffee House and the Maison Philippe’s chocolate shop had their stocks removed free of charge. “Whoever did it”, wrote author James Stephens, “must have tasted sweetstuffs they have never toothed before and will never taste again in life. And until they die, the insurrection of 1916 will have a sweet savour for them”.

• First published in The Irish Independent, Decade of Centenaries, 10 December 2015


The swans of Naas
don’t know their place.
Waddling the white lines
Oblivious to road signs.

A car moves like a sloth,
Waiting for the lift-off.
White wings widen and rise,
but only to display their size.

A neck is bitten, retaliation is swift
The procession comes adrift.
Children screech, drivers glower
Stuck behind idling horsepower.

Clouds open and lighten their load
Engines stop and block the road.
A barking dog shifts to a howl
and gallops at the unwary fowl.

A host of honking cracks the air
At any moment a war could flare.
But the swans of Naas return to water,
Ending a momentary lapse of order.

© Fergus Cassidy

Great lengths

What role did Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony play in the design of the first Compact Discs?

Strange as it may seem, the first thing I do after I plonk a new CD into the player is check the total time. If the display reads anything near the 60 minute mark, I’m happy. When the music kicks in, the smile mightn’t last too long.

The amount of music on CD is a throw back to when I had a sizeable collection of records made out of plastic. We preferred to call it vinyl. It’s hard to remember any record which lasted longer than 45 mins. Anything over that and it was double album territory. Or the odd triple with the gatefold sleeve.

It turns out that LPs were not as long-playing as they could have been. Any new release clocking in at 35mins could have gone on for another 25, though in some cases even the 35mins couldn’t pass quick enough.

A new record from a favoured band was always anticipated with optimism. Especially if the last album was good or the NME or Melody Maker gave it the thumbs up. But handing over hard-earned cash for a miserly half-an-hour was a rip-off. If we went to the cinema and the lion roared after 30 mins, it wouldn’t have been alone.

I’m still obsessed with time and the amount of it I’m getting on new and expensive CDs. The clock has gone up slightly from the vinyl days but the occasional one displays 45 mins and I seethe.

CDs can hold exactly 74 minutes of music or whatever you’re having yourself. If artists are being a little shy on the music, then it’s no wonder people are a little shy in paying for CDs. Full price is not the full story.

And the tale of how CDs came to hold exactly 74 minutes isn’t either, revealing in its own way the machinations and black arts the music and entertainment industry has never been able to shake off. Prepared to use the revered name of Ludwig Van Beethoven to achieve its nefarious ends.

Let me take you back to 1980 and the misty dawn of the digital revolution. Two entertainment giants – Philips and Sony – have agreed to pool their resources to develop a new way of distributing music.

Philips is riding high on the soaring success of the compact cassette and Sony is deliriously dovetailing with the Walkman. Why wouldn’t that same graft continue to bear fruit?

The engineers from both camps met at two-monthly meetings alternating between Eindhoven and Tokyo. The minutes of the first meeting reveal both companies’ starting positions. The physical size of the planned CD was critical from the off.

Philips wanted a 11.5cm disc, based on the size of its compact cassette. This size could hold an hour of music. Sony’s initial proposal was for a smaller, 10cm disc. A lot of the arguments between the two companies centred on the technology and what standard was to be agreed. Dealing with lasers at this level was problematic but solvable.

By the time of the fifth engineers meeting in Eindhoven during May 1980, agreement had finally been reached on the size. Both companies put aside their preferred option and settled on a 12cm disc. This would provide for a playing time of 74mins. So what changed their minds?

According to the research section of Philip’s website: “The playing time was determined posthumously by Beethoven”.

Sony vice-president, Norio Ohga, decided he wanted the composer’s Ninth Symphony to fit on a CD. It was his wife’s favourite piece of music.

The Berlin Philharmonic version of the Ninth, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, kicked in at 66 minutes. Philips assured Sony that their disc could accommodate the extra six minutes.

Then, according to Philips, a check was made to find out the length of other recordings of the Ninth and lo and behold one was found which was 74 minutes long. “This therefore became the playing time of a CD. A diameter of 12cm was required for this playing time”.

Last week I spoke to one of the engineers who was intimately involved in developing the CD.

Dr Kees Schouhamer Immink is now an adjunct professor at the Institute of Experimental Mathematics in Essen, Germany. He is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore and an Academician of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

He has little time for the Beethoven bunkum. “At that time Philips owned Polygram, one of the world’s largest distributors of music. Polygram had set up a large experimental CD disc plant in Hanover, Germany, which could produce huge amounts of CDs having, of course, a diameter of 11.5cm. Sony did not yet have such a facility.

“If Sony had agreed on the 11.5cm disc, Philips would have had a significant competitive edge in the market. Sony was aware of that, did not like it, and something had to be done.

“The long-playing time of Beethoven’s Ninth imposed by Ohga was used to push Philips to accept 12cm, so that Philips’ Polygram would lose its edge on disc fabrication.

“It was all about the money and competition in the market, and not about Ohga’s great passion for music.”

Somehow, I always knew that particular score.

© Fergus Cassidy

• First published in The Sunday Tribune 23 October 2005

Making the Point

The first Irish anti-nuclear festival was held at Carnsore Point, Wexford, on 18 and 19 August 1978


I came across a child of God
He was walking along the road*

He might have indeed been a child of God and he was walking along Merrion Square. Wearing a suit. Two-piece. Probably eight years old, two sizes too big and yet to see the inside of a dry cleaners. “Bummer man, it’s the job, got to wear it.” Yeah sure. Hope he doesn’t sit near us.

We got the gear. Hair everywhere. Eskimo jumpers, drain pipe denims (or dungarees – cool), tie-dye t-shirts with Rory or Philo on the front. Clogs or Adidas basketball boots. And, of course, the black duffle.

And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me

Five busloads of us at four quid a head. “How’s it going head?” asks The Suit, who sat beside us. “Ok man”, we mumble. There are some cool women who now think he’s with us. He opens up a large bag, whips off the suit and throws on denims that have more rips than the shower curtain in Psycho.

He’s more relaxed now and announces: “I’m gonna get wasted this weekend man.” But what about the nuclear power station thing? “Ah fuck that man. Rock n’ roll. I’m gonna get outta me box.” The old bus driver (40) shoves on an eight-track cartridge of Big Tom, pumps out plumes of black diesel smoke and we’re out of it.

I'm going on down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
And try and get my soul free

First stop, Rathnew County Wicklow. The driver says 20 minutes and not a minute more. Into the pub. The locals look bewildered. We’re asked our ages. Some fool says he’s 20. “Sorry over 21s only,” barks the owner. The ones with the moustaches and beards survive the cull. The Suit produces ID and he’s ok. Smithwicks is your only man.

One of the locals asks where we’re heading to. We tell him of our plans to stop a nuclear power station being built. He smiles, points out the window and tells us that first we better stop the bus from leaving.

Six people don’t make it. The guitars are out and we get stuck into Rory Gallagher. ‘Going to my home town, don’t care even if I have to walk’. They will.

We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We arrive at Carnsore Point just in time to catch the last song from The Atrix. Treasure on the Wasteland.

Saturday morning and we’re on walkabout. The sun is shining and the place is beautiful. Some Germans are skinny dipping. We’d love to join them but hey we’re Irish.

Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who l am
But life is for learning

Ireland’s First Anti-Nuclear Power Show is well organised. There’s a huge marquee and three or four smaller ones. We wander in and out of seminars with titles like: Centering the Self; The Hands of Healing; Energy from Within; Life Forces for a New Age. We haven’t a breeze what they’re talking about but it sounds cool.

Some people in a seminar are passing an orange to each other using only their chins. Far out. Nearby some women are rolling across each other on the ground. The Suit appears from nowhere. He’s stoned and says he wants to join in. He’s winking at us. We’re outta there.

We’re hungry and stumble across the true meaning of manna from heaven. A marquee with loaves of bread from floor (well grass) to roof. Some sort of collective are providing the best sandwiches we’ve ever eaten (vegetarian of course). Fifteen pence for one the width of your arm. Tea is 10p.

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning

Drink is the next priority. Nothing on site so we start to walk the two miles to the nearest pub. On the way we cadge a lift from a dude (older man) in a battered green Hiace van. He drives like a maniac and talks like a manic. “I’m on the organising committee. Driving everywhere man. Picked up Christy Moore this morning. Going to collect Billy Roche’s band.” Cool. He drops us at the pub. Thanks. “It’s cool man.” He gives us a V sign. Hiace Man.

We can’t get in to the pub. No one can get in to the pub. The owner has put a counter across the entrance. Inside there are six packs as far as the eye can see. Stacked floor to ceiling. There’s just enough room for himself to reach behind.

We decide to carry a few back to the site in case we miss any action. Naa. If we drink them now we’ll be carrying them back anyway. Stagger back. Hiace Man and the Billy Roche band nearly mow us down.

The numbers have seriously swelled by now. 10,000? Speakers are on the main stage. John Carroll from the ITGWU (not cool). Professor Robert Blackith from Trinity College (really cool, long hair, long goatee beard). Petra Kelly from the soon to be German Greens (extremely cool). The group names are the best. The Tagoat Mummers. The what?

And the politicians. The Socialist Workers’ Collective Solidarity Action Campaign, the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), the British and Irish Communist Organisation, the Workers’ Solidarity something. The Trotskyist thingymejig. The Left yokey. They all need members just to carry their banners.

The Suit is shouting at them all the time. “Where’s the fuckin’ music man. Rock n’ roll!!!” He gets the most cheers.

We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

The music starts just as the torrential rain does. Ah the duffle. Everyone crams into the big marquee and Clannad are on. The diddley-eye music is cool. Maire Ni Bhraonain is cool.

Jim Page (no not Jimmy) gives us ‘Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Russian Roulette’. He’s American and we want to be him. Were you in Woodstock Jim? Were you in ‘Nam? What is the real meaning of Easy Rider Jim? We break into our Midnight Cowboy routine. “C’mon, c’mon I’m just walkin’ here.” And then it’s “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? I don’t see anyone else here?” Jim is impressed. We’re impressed.

With all the rain the site has turned into the National Ploughing Championships. They’re jumping and rolling around making mud slides. We’ve seen a movie like this. Ten years after? We go for sandwiches. There are none. We see The Suit with soup. “The Harrys have grub man.” The wha’? He points to a huge American bus (the ones you see in the movies bringing kids to school). In the midst of the chaos the Hare Krishnas are playing music and smiling. Not talking just smiling. We get soup and they tell us they love us. We love them too.

Some fucker has stolen the tent poles! Peace and love my arse. We prop it up as best we can. We use the latest issue of Hibernia to soak up the water. It must have been a bumper issue. Thank you John Mulcahy. The gale force wind howls. What a day. We were blown away.

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

Everyone is in a state of shock after the storm. The place is in bits. Litter and muck everywhere. Volunteers are asked to help with rubbish. We get plastic bags and wander around. Bodies everywhere. More seminars.

An announcement is made reminding us that the last mass in the local church is at 12.30. We look at each other. What? The local clergy have noticed that no long-hairs have appeared at the earlier masses. Another reminder. Then a suggestion that some of us should go to make things cool with the locals. The long-hairs will parlez with the natives. It wouldn’t be a good idea to bring our peace pipes though.

And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

Word spreads that the locals are not happy with the “carry-on” at the site, which has a Marian shrine on it. They’re worried about our ‘health’ after the storm and want to come down to help us out. We’re not having it. They’re our parents. They decide to come anyway and march onto the site in their Sunday best singing hymns. We’re having our own march, carrying stones down to the sea to build a cairn.

They aren’t too impressed with the skinny dipping and the praying breaks into a fever pitch. But they’re the ones who will be living next to the power station and they’re really worried about it. For a while it looks like we scare them more than a nuclear power station.

There is so much traffic coming in that the area is becoming gridlocked. Volunteers are requested for traffic duty, and we’re definitely having a bit of that. We approach Hiace Man and we tear off across the fields. Tony and I are dropped at the pub and told that the roads are now one-way only. Far out. We’re standing in the road pointing and the cars are following our directions. Cool. A man from Galway puts together a four-skinner. Now we’re telling the gardai it’s a one-way system. “Right so, son. Good man.” All right!

There’s a roar of motorcycle engines and they stop beside us. “What’s your problem?”, says Kawasaki 750.

Be cool man, it’s a one way system. You have to go that way, we scream across the noise. “You’ll be sorry pal, if you keep that cool shit up. We’ll go whatever way we like.” That’s cool too, we say. And off they roar to be met by the locals. Lambs to the slaughter. Look what happened to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda man.

Hiace Man appears and tells us to stay there till the end. Everyone is leaving and we decide to skip the bus and stay the night. Anyway the pub is open again and we’re getting free pints. We say goodbye to everyone and thank them for coming. They thank us for having them. And then it gets very blurry.

We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Monday morning. The festival has hit all the newspapers. Radio and television. We’re famous. There’s a huge picture of The Suit in The Sunday Press. His Higher Executive Officer will be impressed.

Only a handful of people left on the site now. There are mountains of rubbish bags strewn about. Someone says we should do it again next year. Maybe there’ll be no need for it next year.

“Don’t be stupid man,” shouts Hiace Man still in the driver’s seat. “They’re not going to give up. This country is going down the tubes. The politicians are all on the fiddle man. Big business is paying them. And the church is the same. They say one thing, but do the opposite. They’re all on the fiddle. We’ll be back here next year ‘cos people are never gonna find out what’s really going on. If they ever did there’d be a revolution.”


© Fergus Cassidy

* Lyrics from Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

• First published in The Sunday Tribune August 1998