Sunday, December 24, 2017

Marconi Station at Clifden Connemara and the IRA


I feel like Marconi get entirely too much credit for the birth of radio. Nonetheless I keep coming back to  particular parts of his story. Clifden like many others bears further examination.

After Marconi transmitted wireless messages from his station at Poldhu in Cornwall to Newfoundland on December 12th, 1901, he won a grant of $80,000 from the Canadian Government to build a station at Glace Bay in Nova Scotia.  So he moved his operation west... to Clifden in County Galway, Ireland, in the region of Connemara, located on the Owenglin River where it flows into Clifden Bay. It moved him over 300 miles closer to Canada. More here.

In 1907, the Daily Mail newspaper published a very graphic description of the station operations here. It's well worth reading. You can imagine the writer wearing protective goggles and standing there in the smoke with cotton in his ears bewildered at the machinery and the flashes of light expecting Marconi to do everything short of resurrecting the dead. I quote here at length because the language is truly amazing. James Joyce could hardly have done better.

"An entire room is given up to strange sheets of steel, which are hung from roof to floor, like washing on a line, until only narrow alleys are left. Queer brown earthenware jars, like old-fashioned receptacles, and all manner of outlandish electrical apparatus now confront the visitor. The plates are for acting as a reservoir to store electrical energy. The jars are transformers. The engineer gave a few directions to his assistant, who, seated before an ordinary Morse telegraph instrument in the operating room, placed a telephone headpiece to his ears, and began to fumble with the key, hastily bidding me to stuff cotton wool in my ears and don a pair of blue-glass spectacles. The engineer beckoned me to the connection room on the floor above, which is equipped with a medley of strange electrical contrivances.  The use of the cotton-wool and smoked glasses became at once startlingly apparent. From the 'interrupter' instrument corresponding exactly in duration to the assistant's touch of the key below, came three blinding flashes of blue-white flame, followed by a short flash, and then three more short flashes. The two side-mouths of the instrument likewise spout eye-blinding flame of the same colour and intensity. Simultaneously, the discharger, a few feet across the room, emitted similar blinding flames, and there came a wearing, tearing boom like the deep bass of some gigantic organ, but immeasurably cruder and louder. The duration of each note again corresponded exactly with the assistant's dot or dash on the instrument below. This was the electrical discharger, which sends oscillating electrical currents from the building into the aerial wires outside. These at once begin to set up vibrations of the ether, which in loops and waves travel with inconceivable rapidity across the sea."
The motivation here on the part of Canada was to break the submarine cable operators monopoly on transatlantic messaging. Marconi's commercial wireless service busted that monopoly. His first regular trans-Atlantic wireless service was established on October 17th, 1907 between Clifden, Ireland and Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.  (An additional Marconi receiving station in Letterfrack, Ireland operated briefly from 1913 until 1917.)

Due to destruction caused by the Irish Civil War in 1922, traffic formerly carried at Clifden was permanently replaced via Marconi's new station at Ongar in Essex.  The first serious problems became in July.  On the night of Tuesday 25th, several buildings were set on fire and shots were fired. The receiving house was practically destroyed. There was also damage done to the condenser house. The staff were sent home. This wasn't an isolated incident; 14 homes had been burned in Clifden in 1921.

The station was never bought back into normal operation. The IRA irregulars held Clifden until August 15th, 1922 when they were forced out by the Irish Free State regular army. The last marconigram sent from Clifden, dated August 17, 1922. It announced the recapture of Clifden. The Clifden station then became a garrison for government troops. On November 29th the IRA took back the station only to be driven out again on December 9th. The contents of Clifden were sold for scrap to a Sheffield-based scrap merchant, Thos. W. Ward in 1925.

There's more info about this in the book Marconi: The Man Who Networked The World by Marc Raboy and also Richard Pine's book 2RN And The Origins Of Irish Radio.