Marconi in Connemara
This article was published in a local newspaper in Connemara which has since ceased publication. It draws on material extracted from a book by Connemara local historian Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill ‘Beyond the Twelve Bens, a History of Clifden and District 1860-1923’, (www.connemaragirlpublications.com). It supplements photographs and articles on this topic that have appeared in the 2008, 2009 and 2011 newsletters. Following the item on the Titanic, above, note the paragraph below devoted to Jack Phillips.
In July of 1905, Marconi chose the Derrygimla bog in Connemara as the site for the largest Marconi station. Located three miles south of Clifden in County Galway, the 300 acre site on the Atlantic coast offered a direct signal across the ocean to Glace Bay, Newfoundland, Canada using the horizontal directional aerial which Marconi had just patented. The existing station in Poldhu, Cornwall, England was unsuitable for this aerial.
On 17 October 1907, the inaugural message was sent at 11.30 am from Lord Avebury to the New York Times. It was the first regular public radiotelegraphy for news and commercial purposes between Europe & North America. Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Limited offered cheaper and faster wireless communication between Europe and America than what had been available via cable services.
Derrygimla provided a natural supply of fuel, the peat bog, which was used to power the complex of commercial operations and staff buildings. A light railway line called the ‘Marconi Express’ transported the peat that was harvested and connected the station to the main road to ferry people, goods and equipment. On the main building there were eight wooden masts with aerials which were replaced in 1918 by four steel masts.
The station employed 150 permanent staff and about 200 casual staff. Among the permanent staff were l0 engineers, 25 operators and a number of maintenance men, along with 70 local men employed on the turf. The 200 casual staff was employed from February to September cutting and saving the turf and men walked for miles from all parts of Connemara to take up this work. Large quantities of turf were needed for the boilers.
The majority of the permanent staff were from outside Connemara, some lived in accommodation provided on the station, others rented accommodation in the locality. These were all skilled men and they were very highly paid. The wages paid to the local employees were also high and this was a great boost to the local economy, and saved many a man from emigration.
Derrygimla’s most famous employee was the young operator Jack Phillips. After working at Derrygimla for three years, Jack requested a transfer and was assigned as Senior Wireless Officer to the SS Titanic on her maiden voyage. Jack has gone down in history as being the man who sent out the SOS distress signal that saved 750 lives. Sadly, he was among the 1,500 lost.
The Radio Officers who had been stationed at Derrygimla were held in the highest regard, according to Colman Shaughnessy of the Radio Officers Association. “The volume of messages exceeded by far the volume of any posting.”
In 1913, a receiving station was built in Letterfrack, 12 miles north of Clifden. The Derrygimla operation continued to transmit messages. The Letterfrack station was not economical and was closed down in 1916.
On 15 June 1919, the first transatlantic flight ended on the bog near the Marconi station. Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitton Brown crash landed the Vickers Vimy plane there and were greeted by the Marconi staff. A message to the New York Times sent from the Marconi Station confirmed their safe arrival across the Atlantic.
During the Civil War in 1922, Irish Rebels destroyed the Marconi station and it was never rebuilt. Traffic passed to the Caernarvon station in Wales.