Who do you think was Irelands first telecom millionaire?
Was it Larry Quinn (Logica), Sean Bolger (Imagine), Tony Boyle (Sigma Wireless) or Denis O’Brien? I would argue that the first Irish telecom millionaire was long gone before these people were a twinkle in their parents eyes.
An eleven-year-old boy, Robert Halpin, who grew up in the Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town listening to mariners telling tales of the high seas, packed his bags and ran away to sea in 1847.
For seven years he did his apprenticeship on a ship running timber from Canada to England but this came to an end when the ship was wrecked off the coast of Cornwall. Robert survived and for the next fourteen years he sailed around the world to Peru, Australia and America (running guns and supplies to the Confederate States during the Civil War!).
Halpin’s maritime career took an amazing turn when he joined the SS Great Eastern in 1865, as Chief Officer, he did so at a time when she had been chartered to lay submarine telegraph cable between Valentia Island in County Kerry and Heart’s Content near St John’s, Newfoundland, thereby linking the continents of Europe and America. The Great Eastern was an iron sailing steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch.
After his first cable-laying exploits he was promoted to captain of the Great Eastern in 1869. He was nicknamed “Mr Cable” as he pursued a profitable enterprise stretching transoceanic telegraph cables across various parts of the globe.
With a fleet of cable ships, he connected France to Canada, Suez to India, Madras to Malaya and the Dutch East Indies and Australia to New Zealand.
In 1874, he laid a cable to connect Portugal to Madeira, the Cape Verde islands and Brazil. He would lay no less than 41,800 kilometres in an achievement that was seen as one of the most significant factors in advancing global communications.
Halpin returned to his home town of Wicklow as one of the most famous people in the business world. It is reputed that he was given an open cheque by the British Government to build his new mansion, Tinakilly House in gratitude for his contribution to improving world communications and thereby world trade.
Next time you are out for a Sunday drive, pop into Tinakilly House for lunch and see the great man’s house and visit the Obelisk monument in his honour in the centre of Wicklow Town.
Did an Irishman change the course of global telecoms as much as Steve Jobs, I would argue he did, just nobody gave him credit for it!
(Acknowledgements: Jim Reeves, The Life of Captain Robert Halpin, Norman Freeman, The Irish Times)