Sunday 16 June 2019

Why the GPO was key in 1916

Fergus Cassidy on how Irish people kept in touch across counties, and across oceans

A procession up Broadway in New York to celebrate the laying of 1,016 miles of transatlantic telegraph cable between the US and Ireland in September 1858. The cable ruptured a month later. Photo: Getty Images
A procession up Broadway in New York to celebrate the laying of 1,016 miles of transatlantic telegraph cable between the US and Ireland in September 1858. The cable ruptured a month later. Photo: Getty Images
These village lads outside Inishmaan post office, off the coast of Galway, in the early 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th 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 and small packets.

More than five million 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 141/2 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. Separately, there was another group of 1,000 who worked on the contruction 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 16 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 took over the private telephone companies, creating a unified state-controlled network across Ireland and Britain. An underwater cable from the Welsh coast to Howth Head, Dublin, was tested successfully in 1914.

In preparation for the Rising, control over those links was crucial. Late in 1915, Martin King, a member of the Irish Citizen Army, was working 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, across the road from the GPO above a jeweller's shop. Fergus O'Kelly, 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 taking over of Dublin by the Republican Army."

Not being aimed at any single ship, the radio transmission was 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 20th century.

Irish Independent

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