Business Technology

Sunday 20 October 2019

Plugged in: the birth of the Irish internet

30 years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, Kim Bielenberg talks to the pioneers who put Ireland online

Wired: Colm Grealy at Ireland On-Line in 1998. Photo by Joey Cleary
Wired: Colm Grealy at Ireland On-Line in 1998. Photo by Joey Cleary
Internet dream: Barry Flanagan in the early days of Ireland On-Line
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

One afternoon in the mid-1990s, Barry Flanagan and Colm Grealy seemed unsure if their brave plan to put Ireland on the internet was going to work out when they stopped off for a break at McDonald's in Dún Laoghaire.

Barry had set up Ireland's first mainstream internet service provider in the back room of his home in Galway in 1992. He was the sole employee of Ireland On-Line at the start. He knew all his customers personally, and he reckons he was the only person in Ireland trying to eke out a full-time living from the internet.

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Before Ireland On-Line, there was also IEunet, an internet service run by staff at Trinity College, but that was mainly targeted at the computer industry.

In 1994, Flanagan hooked up with Colm Grealy, a Dublin primary school teacher who worked with children with special needs. Colm was fascinated by computers and also had a flair for selling.

Internet dream: Barry Flanagan in the early days of Ireland On-Line
Internet dream: Barry Flanagan in the early days of Ireland On-Line

But the pair were in a dejected mood when they stopped off at McDonald's on that afternoon early in 1995. They were uncertain about how this new-fangled online venture would turn out. But then, all of a sudden, something happened that convinced them that they were making an impact.

Three girls arrived and sat near them in a booth, and one of them made an enthusiastic announcement to her friends: "I got the internet today! It's Ireland On-Line."

"When we heard those girls talking about our company, that was it," says Barry.

"Once people talk about you on the street, you know you are in the mainstream."

As the first Irish Internet Service Providers to reach a mass market, Colm and Barry were making the best use of an invention that was first conceived 30 years ago this month.

On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for a system for "information management" to his boss.

Berners-Lee was an English scientist working at the European research organisation CERN. With little fanfare, he presented his plan for the computer system that became known as the World Wide Web.

'A portal into the world'

"Vague, but exciting," were the words of comment written by his boss Mike Sendall on the proposal. The internet already existed by 1989 as a system linking computers, but Berners-Lee helped to develop accessible internet browsing on an open platform, with a system of addresses and links. He also created the first ever website.

Barry Flanagan says he first saw the potential of computers communicating with each other in the late 1980s when he was working for his uncle, a well-known sculptor who shared his name.

"We travelled around quite a bit at the time, and I found it very convenient to use modem banking, where you would communicate with the bank on the computer. I found it was very convenient because you could do your banking when you were away."

Barry says he then realised what the potential could be if computers could communicate with each other. "It meant that the computer was not just a computer. It was a portal into the world - and that idea stuck in my imagination."

When he was living in Galway, Barry was frustrated that there was no service available for going online. "I wanted it to exist and I thought to myself - nobody else is doing it, so frig it, I'll do it," he tells Review.

One takes for granted how communications have been revolutionised since Tim Berners-Lee came up with the World Wide Web. At that time, hardly anyone had a mobile phone, handwritten letters were still popular, and documents were sent by fax at considerable cost.

Colm Grealy says he first saw the potential of the internet in operation in 1993 on a visit to Swansea University, when he met a group of students with disabilities.

"They were connecting with students in Atlanta. They told me that it was the only medium they could communicate with, where the people at the other end knew nothing about their disabilities. It struck me as very powerful." After he teamed up with Barry Flanagan in Ireland On-Line, Colm Grealy continued to work as a school teacher for six months. After school each day, he would change into a suit in the bathroom, and head off to promote Ireland On-Line to different businesses.

"I would meet two or three IT managers a day, and introduce this new thing called the internet, " says Colm.

One of the earliest clients of Ireland On-Line was Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, which sold books on the internet long before Jeff Bezos started Amazon. Colm and Barry had an effective routine for convincing groups of business executives that the internet was indispensable.

During a demonstration, Colm would send an email to the White House using the address president@whitehouse.gov. "I knew that if I sent an email to the president, I would get an automated response. So, during my demonstration I typed a message and sent it off.

"People were amazed when they saw an email coming back from the White House. Email and the internet was something they had to have."

By the mid-1990s, the general public began to read in the press about the internet as the "Information Super Highway".

A 1994 article in the Irish Independent by Tony Connelly, now RTÉ's Europe editor, painted a futuristic picture of internet "teleworking'' - commuting was expected to decline as people worked at home.

As a young reporter in the mid-1990s, I recall being invited to see the Ireland On-Line's internet working in a shop off Grafton Street. At that time there were so few sites that there was an actual map of the World Wide Web. Most of the Irish sites, based in universities, said little other than announce that they were there. One website had a list of jokes that were corny enough to be in a Christmas cracker.

Mysterious netherworld

Before broadband came along, users relied on the notoriously slow dial-up, with its disconcerting whirring sound, to connect on cream-coloured PCs that seemed to generate the noise of a taxiing jumbo jet.

It was not long before there were scare stories about the mysterious netherworld of internet chatrooms.

James Plenderleith of Everyman Computers warned in a newspaper report at the time that "the dark side of the human psyche comes out on the electronic noticeboard".

People adopted fake personas when they went into internet chatrooms, we were warned, and it could be risky. Males could pretend to be females, portraying themselves as "loose women".

After their moment of truth in McDonald's, and the launch of Windows 95, Barry Flanagan and Colm Grealy saw their sales quickly shoot up to 30,000, and at its peak, Ireland On-line had 200,000 subscribers.

The pair sold the business for just £2.5m in 1997 - a small amount for a company that introduced the country to the online world. Both of them still work in technology: Colm runs a digital advertising company Adforce, while Barry has his own internet business.

The invention of the World Wide Web 30 years ago helped to make the Irish digital revolution possible.

Niall Murphy, who runs the website ­internethistory.ie, says: "It lifted the feeling of the internet from something of interest to just to a few hundred people to something used by the billions we see today."

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