Valentia Island’s Buried Treasure

Professor Al Gillespie in the Slate Yard – the site of Valentia Island’s “buried treasure.” Photo: Stephanie Buffum Field
Professor Al Gillespie in the Slate Yard – the site of Valentia Island’s “buried treasure.” Photo: Stephanie Buffum Field

By Colin Lacey, Contributor
October / November 2013

Buried treasure on a remote Irish island, the descendants of a 13th-century Knight and a 19th century American entrepreneur – and the birth of the modern communications industry.

It’s not the plot of some barely-believable potboiler, but the real-life back story behind a bid to have the small island of Valentia – off the coast of south west Ireland – recognized formally as one of the wonders of the industrial world.

Valentia is the point at which, in 1866, Europe and the North American continent were linked for the first time via a permanent, fully-functioning telecommunications cable. The underwater wire stretched almost 2,000 miles (3,200k) from Valentia to the delightfully-named Heart’s Content in Newfoundland.

Attempts in 1857 and 1858 to create a communications bridge between Europe and the North American continent had proved costly failures. But the successful laying of the 1866 cable ushered in a world of near-instant communication.

It meant that a message that would have taken ten days to cross the Atlantic by boat, could be received in London or Paris within hours of being transmitted from New York.

The new cable successfully laid by the Great Eastern – the largest ship in the world in 1866 – wasn’t cheap to use, but it was fast, it was reliable and, most importantly, it worked.

Suddenly the world was a smaller, more connected place. Suddenly the instant communication we now consider one of the hallmarks of the modern world was a reality. The old world of Europe and the new world of North America were, effectively, plugged in.

Field’s Atlantic Telegraph Company ultimately opened the way for the development of other networks that further connected the world. Eighteen years later, for example, John William Mackay’s Commercial Cable Company successfully laid a cable from Canso in Nova Scotia to Waterville, also in County Kerry – just 25 miles from where the 1866 cable came ashore.

But it was Field’s Valentia project that established beyond doubt that submarine cable was an achievable goal.

“The world changed in Valentia,” says Professor Al Gillespie, an expert in international heritage sites. “It became a world of telecommunications.”

According to Gillespie, a New Zealand academic and rapporteur for the World Heritage Convention, Valentia’s role in the birth of modern communications marks the island as worthy of recognition as a UNESCO heritage site – alongside world-famous historical landmarks like the Cornwall and Devon Mining Landscape in the U.K., and Canada’s Rideau Canal.

He says Valentia Island is sitting on “buried treasure” – a site of potentially worldwide historical importance.

History and heritage on this scale, as officially designated by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – guarantees international interest and respect. But it’s a status that’s more than academic. World Heritage Status automatically hoists a location onto the radar of international tourism. And in Ireland, where tourism is one of the country’s most important industries, that’s potentially a very big deal indeed.

It’s one of the reasons why, last June, Valentia Island hosted its first ever Trans Atlantic Communications and Light Gathering, an event designed to celebrate and highlight the island’s historic contribution to the development of modern communications. Ireland’s Minister for Arts and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan, was joined at the official Gathering event by Canadian Ambassador to Ireland Loyola Hearn and U.S. Chargé d’affaires John Hennessy Niland, amongst others. Their presence provided a sense that Valentia’s bid to acquire world heritage status has, notionally at least, a political and governmental thumbs-up.

But the event was marked by a remarkable meeting that was significant in a way far beyond mundane politics or the nitty gritty of acquiring UNESCO recognition. That weekend on Valentia, history did what it isn’t supposed to do – it repeated itself.

In the 1850s and ’60s, Massachusetts-born businessman Cyrus Field had led the attempts to bridge the communications gap between Europe and north America.

It was essentially his vision and ambition that had driven the entire transatlantic cable development.

He didn’t work alone, of course. And as the project progressed on Valentia, it caught the interest of Sir Maurice Fitzgerald, the Knight of Kerry – a local landowner and holder of a hereditary knighthood with its origins in the 13th century. The Knight became an early and enthusiastic backer of the cable project and became firm friends with Field.

Fast forward to June 2013. At the Transatlantic Communications and Light Gathering, the Knight of Kerry’s great-great grandson, Sir Adrian Fitzgerald, and Cyrus Field IV, the great-great grandson of the original Cyrus Field, did what their famous ancestors had done a century and a half previously – they meet on Valentia and become firm friends.

“It was a remarkable occasion,” said Cyrus Field IV, a lawyer who lives on Shaw Island, off the coast of Washington state.

“I feel privileged that I was invited to this event on Valentia to walk in the footsteps of Cyrus and celebrate his achievements.

“But to have the opportunity to meet and get to know the man whose life, like my own, is linked through history to the cable and Valentia Island, was a special, unforgettable experience.

“When we met and shook hands – two men whose ancestors were really central to the cable’s success on Valentia – it was an unforgettable experience that will remain forever with both of us,” he said.

Field said the role of Valentia in the development of modern communications is indisputable, and a story that should be recognized worldwide.

“This is my first visit to Ireland and to Valentia Island. My incredible experience here tells me that the island and the story of the transatlantic cable is worth telling around the world. It’s a heritage worth recognizing and acknowledging,” he said.

Meanwhile, at around the time that Cyrus Field IV and the current Knight of Kerry were meeting, Professor Al Gillespie was having what he called his “Indiana Jones day”. It involved a hunt through some of Valentia Island’s beautiful spots in search of buried treasure.

And in a development that could be significant in any future bid by the island for UNESCO’s heritage status, he says he found what he was looking for. The treasure – the site at which the first transatlantic cable message was received on Valentia in 1866 – is now buried beneath a site known locally as the Slate Yard. If the island’s bid for heritage status is developed and receives the imprimatur of UNESCO, the site could be transformed into a world-recognized location that would move it far beyond the status of the Slate Yard.

“Valentia is sitting on buried treasure,” Gillespie said. “The treasure is in the Slate Yard. It’s time Valentia, and Ireland, realize the potentially huge resource they have  on their doorstep.

“Most countries would give their eye teeth for a site like this.”

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