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