Thursday 18 July 2019

Ballybunion still making waves across the Atlantic

Pioneer: Guglielmo Marconi with one of the earliest radios
Pioneer: Guglielmo Marconi with one of the earliest radios

Kathy Donaghy

'Hello Canada, hello Canada." These were the first spoken words transmitted across the Atlantic from the Marconi Radio Station in Ballybunion 100 years ago. The Kerry seaside town is pulling out all the stops to commemorate the event in the coming days.

As a young boy, Guglielmo Marconi built a laboratory in the attic of his home in Pontecchio in Italy, where he first experimented with sound waves. Many years later, on March 19, 1919, the fruits of years of his labour came together when the first spoken words were transmitted across the Atlantic by his engineers at the radio station he owned in Ballybunion, to Nova Scotia in Canada.

Danny Houlihan, a Ballybunion-based historian, who has researched the background to the transmission, says Marconi had many links with this county. His mother was Irish whiskey heiress Annie Jameson and his first wife was Clare woman, Beatrice O'Brien.

In May 1897, Marconi sent the first radio communication over the sea from the Welsh mainland to an offshore island and it was then that he turned his attention to sending a signal across the Atlantic. According to Houlihan, Ballybunion with its wide open beaches looking straight across the expanse of the Atlantic, was the perfect place.

Houlihan explains that Marconi, a wealthy man, bought a radio station that had been built in the Kerry town and used by the British navy to monitor submarine activity in the Second World War. That station - which must have looked other-worldly in a small Irish town in the early 1900s - consisted of one 500ft mast surrounded by six smaller 300ft masts on a massive 72-acre site.

Marconi installed personnel and equipment at the station, and on March 19, 1919, Irish steeplejack Michael Daly climbed the mast, installed the aerial, and one of Marconi's engineers, WT Ditcham, made the historic transmission to Nova Scotia, uttering the words: "Hello Canada, hello Canada."

Padraig Hanrahan, who is one of the organisers of the commemoration, which will take place on Monday and Tuesday, says Ballybunion's links with Marconi should be celebrated. "This was a massive feat of engineering 100 years ago. There's great stories about how all the equipment was first taken to Ballybunion. When the equipment got to Listowel, it had to be put on monorail to Ballybunion, but it was too big for the train, so they had to get a steam generator to bring it. It took three weeks to bring it from Listowel to Ballybunion, which are nine miles apart," says Hanrahan.

No strangers to famous visitors, Ballybunion will welcome Marconi's family to town for the celebrations and Hanrahan explains that his daughter, Princess Elettra Marconi Giovanelli, and her son, Prince Guglielmo Giovanelli Marconi, are jetting in to join locals to mark the event.

The Italian princess and her son will be present when a plaque with the details of the transmission is unveiled at a bandstand between the Ladies Beach and the Men's Beach in the town on Tuesday.

According to Declan Horan, an engineer and chairman of Kerry Amateur Radio Group, celebrating the event is fitting as Marconi is the father of modern communications. "I'm really looking forward to meeting the Marconis. It's once-in-a-lifetime stuff," he says.

Horan isn't the only one waiting patiently for the royal visitors. Killarney man Michael O'Connor, who is 105 years old and used to work for the Marconi company in Ballybunion as a radio officer, is also looking forward to meeting them.

Speaking from his home in a Palazzo near the Spanish Steps in the Italian capital, Marconi's grandson, Prince Guglielmo, told Review that Ballybunion plays an important role in his grandfather's work. The Prince, whose grandmother, Maria Cristina Bezzi-Scali, became Marconi's second wife, was raised in Rome by his grandmother and his mother Elettra. When he was very young, he was sent to a Christian Brothers School in Rome and cherishes his Irish heritage, passed on from his great-grandmother, Annie Jameson.

"Annie Jameson understood the genius of her son. She gave him pocket money for his equipment. My own grandmother told me all about their adventures and their travels on the yacht Elettra, which was a navigating laboratory," says Prince Guglielmo.

He and his mother have travelled extensively in Ireland, but this is their first trip to Ballybunion.

And he believes that places like Ballybunion, which are linked with important contributions to mankind, should always be remembered. "One of the most common things my grandfather used to say was that his experiments were done for the benefit of humankind," he says.

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