in Writing

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