He would have been a hundred years old this month. His fund of stories was boundless and only when he died in 2004 did the thought arise that a volume of oral history may have been lost with him.
He grew up on Valentia Island off the coast of Co Kerry, where his father worked in the Transatlantic cable station. His memories of those times were of the Great War and the Troubles and the early years of the Free State. He would recall a childhood memory of the station being attacked by rebels who thought to disable the place.
“There were these glass domes filled with acid in the power room and they came in and smashed them. They hadn’t realised it was acid and it splashed over them. The next thing we saw was them running down the beach into the water to try to stop the burning. “Do you know how long the station was out of action for? Forty minutes. They stopped it for just forty minutes. What was the point?”
He shook his head in disbelief at the story – even after eighty-odd years there were episodes he could still not fathom.
His stories of the cable stretched near and far.
“I was in the post office the day the day the telephone came to Cahirciveen. The engineer was fixing it up and a woman from the country came in. She looked at it very suspiciously and the engineer asked her if she would like to try it. He hands her the earpiece and this voice in Killarney says, “Hello”, and in this broad country accent she says into the phone, “How do you know me?”
“There were two brothers who worked for the cable company. One was on Valentia and the other was in Newfoundland; at night when things were quiet, they would communicate with each other”.
Did the brothers really sit and tap Morse signals to each other in the dead of night, or did they just say that they did so? The picture of two Irishmen communicating across the Atlantic in times when it took days or weeks to travel anywhere seemed wonderfully reassuring: the world seemed almost domesticized.
The advent of the telephone was to eventually make the cable redundant, but it took a while. “Do you know how much a telephone call across the Atlantic cost when they began? Fifteen pounds!”
Fifteen pounds was a colossal amount of money; ten weeks pay for a labouring man; thirty weeks of the old age pension; it was beyond the imagination of most people that someone should phone America.
Stories of the cable came to mind this evening. Possibly being Vodafone’s worst pay as you go customer, their generosity is astonishing. They provide free, gratis, and for nothing, 600 webtexts a month – 600 opportunities to send a text anywhere. Typing a text to a friend in Bujumbura, I thought of the days of the cable station; living now, with email, Skype and texting, the two brothers would have had a grand time every night.