Sunday 18 March 2018

Ground control to Radio America

Against all odds, Fergus O'Kelly managed to transmit the world's first radio news broadcast during the Easter Rising

Remembered: Paula O'Kelly with a photo of her father-in-law, Fergus O'Kelly.
Remembered: Paula O'Kelly with a photo of her father-in-law, Fergus O'Kelly.

Celine Naughton

The chaos and carnage of central Dublin at the height of the 1916 Rising might seem like a world away from the 'Mad Men' glamour of American advertising in the 1960s, but no less an authority than media guru Marshall McLuhan provides an unlikely link between the two.

Often credited with predicting the worldwide web decades before it happened, McLuhan was famous for his industry-defining expressions, such as 'the medium is the message' and 'the global village.' Less well known, however, is a passage in his 1964 book 'Understanding Media', in which he pinpointed the world's first radio news broadcast to Dublin during the Easter Rising.

McLuhan wrote: "The Irish rebels used a ship's radio to make, not a point-to-point message, but a diffused broadcast in hope of getting word to any ship that would relay their story to the American press. This is widely accepted as the world's first radio broadcast."

It was a feat of monumental proportions. Less than 15 years after Marconi sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic via link stations in Wexford and Galway, wireless communication was in its infancy. The telegraphy school in Reis's Chambers at the corner of Abbey Street and O'Connell Street had been shut down and sealed by British authorities at the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, and the equipment dismantled.

Yet under orders from Joseph Mary Plunkett, 20-year-old engineering student Fergus O'Kelly overcame these hurdles to let the world know that Ireland had declared itself a republic. Having set up an aerial on the roof, with gunfire raging all around, he and his team began to relay the message in Morse code on Tuesday morning, as instructed by James Connolly: "Irish Republic declared in Dublin today. Irish troops have captured city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising."

"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," Fergus recalled in his military witness statement in 1950.

They continued to send this and other messages at regular intervals until the next day, when the building came under such heavy sniper and machine-gun fire that they had to abandon the transmission and make their way to the GPO. While the rebels had no way of knowing if their message had been received, it was picked up by a transatlantic ship, which is said to have relayed it to America, where newspapers reported details of the revolt before the official British version of events got out.

Paula O'Kelly is enormously proud of her late father-in-law's achievements.

"I was surprised he survived the Rising, because he had to make so many trips over and back between Abbey Street and the GPO," she says. "He and the six men on his team, including Abbey actor Arthur Shields, who went on to become a Hollywood star, had to run zig-zag across O'Connell Street to escape the firing, which came at them from all directions."

Paula, who sadly lost her husband Michael, Fergus's only son, 25 years ago, has been researching the family history for over 20 years. After the Rising, Fergus was sent to Stafford Jail, where he celebrated his 21st birthday on June 1.

"His mother sent him a white shirt for the occasion, and most likely enclosed some food as well," says Paula. "It wasn't the most auspicious way to mark a special birthday, but no doubt was very well received."

Days later he was brought to Frongoch camp in Wales and at the end of July was transferred to Wormwood Scrubs and released. He walked from the boat in Dun Laoghaire to the family home in Stillorgan, a changed man.

"At first the family barely recognised this emaciated, bearded figure looking in the window but they were overjoyed to have him home."

But he didn't stay in Stillorgan for long. Due to his internment, Fergus had missed his final college exams and was determined to succeed at the repeats. A suburban house packed with 13 children (he was the second eldest) and two parents was not exactly an atmosphere conducive to study, so he took off to the Dublin mountains and camped, with only his books for company.

Graduating later that year with a Bachelor of Science, he completed a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering and then went on to work in the Shannon electrification scheme.

This year Paula and her family were invited to the official commemoration ceremony in O'Connell Street on Easter Sunday. "I'll never forget it," she says. "Though it wasn't planned, we ended up sitting right outside the GPO, facing the Central Bar, the very building where Fergus had set up the radio transmission, which made it particularly moving."

Interestingly enough, while her father-in-law earned a place in the history books for his role in the Easter Rising, Paula's grandfather, John Middleton, was a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was based in Tipperary and retired in 1903 after 30 years service.

"Technically, that meant he would have been on the other side of the fence, so it would have been fascinating to hear his own personal views on the rebellion," she says. "Unfortunately, it was not to be as my grandfather died in 1922, so we can only but speculate."

Irish Independent

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