Transatlantic Cable Ensemble
Transatlantic Cable Ensemble is part of the Tentative list of Ireland in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The Transatlantic Cable Ensemble comprises both end-points of the first trans-oceanic submarine electric telegraph cable: Valentia Island (Ireland) and Heart’s Content (Canada). The connection became successful in 1866 and improved the speed of communication between the continents significantly. At both sites, the historic cable stations remain.
Map of Transatlantic Cable EnsembleLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
In readiness for its likely addition to Ireland’s T List, we paid a visit to the Transatlantic Cable Station on Valentia Island in June 2022. A simple review of the visit isn’t going to take very long as, in all honesty, there isn’t a great deal to see, and what there is isn’t that exciting! Perhaps of more interest to WHS travelers is its history towards nomination - informed by the visit itself and some pre and post visit investigations up to the site’s addition to the Irish T List in Feb 2023.
At the time we were visiting “blind” regarding what might be proposed. The Canadian element at Heart’s Content Newfoundland hadn’t officially been added to its T List on the UNESCO Web site either, even though the Canadian Government Web site had it listed with a date of 20 Dec 2017 - presumably it/UNESCO were waiting until both ends could be added at the same time. The descriptions there implied that only the 2 cable station “ensembles” (whatever that meant) were to be included using Crits ii and iv. (“The Heart’s Content/Valentia Cable Station ensemble are outstanding monuments representing the remarkable advances in communication technology during the mid to late 19th century” and “The Heart’s Content/Valentia Cable Station ensemble is a well preserved and outstanding example of a telecommunications site”).
This was called into question when we picked up a nice brochure in Valentia for a “Transatlantic Cable Trail”. See this on the Web. Of immediate note was the existence of multiple “trail points” related to the Cable both on the island and in the mainland towns of Caherciveen, Ballinskelligs and Waterville. It also explained the various “false starts” which were made before a fully operational cable was established in its “permanent” locations and a number of the trail points related to these earlier attempts. It, and the expensive looking info boards at every point, were also not coy in playing the “UNESCO card” stating confidently that “Recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is expected” and implying that this referred to the entire trail!
We visited most of the points on Valentia Island but missed out the “mainland” ones. The “Cable Station” (V1) itself is a pleasant “ensemble” of unremarkable buildings (photo) from 1868, set in gardens facing the sea and consists of the Station, plus (privately owned) the Superintendent’s House and a group of workers cottages . When we were there, the Station was “open” in the sense that its main doors were unlocked. Going inside, we found a largely empty main entrance hall containing a series of information boards but with little or nothing in the form of tangible remains from the days of its pomp. The general “pitch” was along the lines that you are at the “Birthplace of Global Communications”…. where the World changed for ever. One board related to the Transmission Room (“behind these doors lay the transmission room”) …except that it also stated “As this remains a working area it remains strictly off limits” (It appears that the building is in part rented out to businesses) !! But, through the window of the doors, we saw NO “treasure trove” of vintage transmission equipment - nothing historic at all! Hearts Content, Newfoundland would seem to have rather more equipment on show - though these could be “museum” displays rather than originals in situ. Valentia already has a separate Museum in a school house (V6 on the trail – but it was closed to us) containing some artifacts and archives but which, otherwise, seems to have no tangible link to the Cable’s history. An information desk at the Cable station was unmanned so we couldn’t ask.
As Els discovered when she visited a couple of months later there was a major change to what is on view at the Cable Station with the news in July that “Now, tourists and locals can visit the Valentia Island cable station and the new interactive visitor experience. The Eighth Wonder recounts the historical developments, considered the 19th century equivalent of putting a person on the moon.” The report described aspects of the display which certainly were NOT present when we visited and, indeed, indicated that the building wasn’t even officially “open” then and that we had just seen “work in progress” towards the full exhibition (as well as saving 7.50 EUR)! But the interactive displays and ability to “send” a Morse message etc now apparently available, still don’t really seem to overcome the lack of authentic in-situ remains in the rooms of the Telegraph station and don’t seem to be enough to alter our initial conclusion that the Telegraph Station was rather “thin” on authentic tangible heritage. Would the exhibition, added to the buildings with their “associative” aspects be enough for a successful Nomination?
What about the other locations along the “trail”? There are some attractive spots with cliff and sea views but unfortunately a lot of them only have “value” in the sense that “something” once happened there, e,g a cable was brought ashore, although nothing visible now remains! Nevertheless, even after the Irish government’s “T List Technical evaluation” (published in Nov 2022), the possibility of using them remained open. It states (PDF page 20) “There would be value in the proposed OUV containing all the associated elements, possibly including the Slate Yard and ‘First Message Building (1857–1860), the Telegraph Field and Relay Station (1865–1868) and White Strand landing point, Ballycarbery (1857)”. As we now know, the T List includes only the Cable Station ensemble plus “a second component part comprises the remains of the First Message Building’ in the Slate Yard, Knightstown” although this hasn’t been given its own separate “location”. We had a look into the “Slate Yard” (V4 on the trail) 800m from the Cable station, but could see nothing of note - not surprising perhaps given this description of it; “(the) Integrity of the First Message Building is limited to the standing masonry ruin of the building in its industrial context of the Slate Yard”. Quite why it was selected over e.g the Telegraph Field and Relay Station at the other end of the island isn’t clear – perhaps some of these issues will only finally be decided when a nomination is prepared? To avoid yet another photo of the Telegraph Station I have provided one of the memorial at the Telegraph Field (V11 on the Trail. Note the Skelligs in background!) on the basis that it "may" yet be included!
Whilst the actual site might not have a lot on view, WHS enthusiasts might well find the early story of its progress even to reach the T List, of interest, both in its own right and as a wider example of what sites do/have to do nowadays to achieve “success”. The “idea” of gaining inscription goes back at least to 2013 and has been “masterminded” by an organization titled the “Valentia Transatlantic Cable Foundation Board”. It has a Web site showing the history of the “World Heritage Application Project” here as of Feb 2023 -
From these and other pages the following struck me as noteworthy
a. The length of the project to date - and the “Eighth Wonder” Visitor Experience News report envisaged yet another 5 years, So - 2013 to 2027 (and counting)?
b. The cost - “The foundation’s goal is to secure the required support and funding (estimated to be approximately €4.5m) by raising the profile of the project at national and international level while engaging with state funding opportunities and private donors”. An early contact was the US Irish community via the American Irish Historical Society. Others have included Intel. And all this was before the Irish Government started feeding in cash. (The “8th Wonder” exhibit cost another €200,000)
c. The early involvement of “Heritage professionals”. In particular the 2 studies carried out by Prof Alex Gillespie from New Zealand (former rapporteur at the 2006 WHC in Vilnius - so, a reasonably “big player” on WH matters!). This nomination isn’t going to fail from not having enough “inside support”!!
d. The continuous glad-handing of the “great and good” to build contacts and support and maintain momentum; Ms Bukova of UNESCO, the President of the Irish Republic……All sorts of annual events and lectures to maintain enthusiasm and visibility. Inclusion within several relevant strategies such as Ireland’s “7 year Culture, Language and Heritage plan”.
The reports (and a presentation) produced by Prof Alexander Gillespie are also available on the Web and, whilst quite lengthy, provide interesting information -
a. “The Trans-Atlantic Cable as World Heritage Part I: Authenticity, Integrity and Associated Considerations for the Ensemble of Sites at Valentia Island, County Kerry, Ireland”. Professor Alexander Gillespie, Ph.D. 6/12/2014
b. “The Trans-Atlantic Cable as World Heritage Part II: Outstanding Universal Value” Professor Alexander Gillespie, Ph.D 13/7/2016.
c. Presentation by Prof Alexander Gillespie at the 150th Anniversary Celebrations in Valentia July 2016
Within them I noted -
a. The excessively bullish initial assessment of the site’s WHS feasibility. Nb the suggestion that it could aspire to all 6 Cultural criteria! (only ever achieved by 3 WHS - including Venice!). Surely Prof Gillespie was overselling?
b. The suggestion that Ireland needs to look beyond Archaeological and Celtic Christian sites for future WHS
c. The lack of any mention of the need/justification for also inscribing (and working with) the Newfoundland end. It isn’t clear when this emerged. It had become a Provincial Heritage site as early as 1974 but wasn’t even mentioned by Prof Gillespie!
d. The initial proposal for 4 local sites plus (possibly??) 2 others. This issue is still live.
e. The importance of the Tourist dollar in generating enthusiasm for the whole enterprise! This has been carried forward with significant involvement of Failte Ireland (Ireland’s National Tourism Development Authority) and the availability of money from wider projects such as the “Wild Atlantic Way” (itself an undoubted "Tourism success story" for Ireland and one which I suspect the "Cable trail" hopes to piggy-back upon!)
All this is an example of the costly, lengthy and political process which seems to be “necessary” nowadays to develop a WHS proposal - perhaps in inverse proportion to its genuine OUV? IMO, this site isn’t “worth” all that effort and expenditure. It is undoubtedly an interesting spot with nice scenery, having “associative” (but very little “tangible”) value recording a significant historic event and fully justifies its museum and trail as a “local” sight. Anyone already visiting the far SW will enjoy following it round the island. But it doesn’t deserve to be raised to the pinnacle of “World Class” tangible heritage and it is clear that the impetus for doing so relates primarily to tourism laced with “National Pride” - unfortunately it is far from alone in that.
The inclusion of the Transatlantic Cable Ensemble: Valentia-Heart’s Content in Ireland’s updated Tentative List brings a bit more spice for WH travellers to this corner of Ireland, County Kerry. It gives you something to do while waiting for a boat to Skellig Michael. I have been there twice, both for that reason. Valentia Island lies a 2.5h drive from Cork Airport on roads where you always have to be on guard – they are busy and narrow, and there always is some goat fair going on at Killarney or Killorglin; I hated the drive both times.
During my first visit in 2019, there still was very little information about which spots on Valentia the TWHS would cover. The cable station was the best bet, but it wasn’t accessible then as it was in private use and I had to make do with a couple of small memorials across the street. One is a slab of stone displaying the text of a telegram sent via the cable during WWI, another is a black-and-white pole (symbolizing a cable?), and the third is a commemorative stone bollard (its partner stands 3,071 km away at the other end of the ocean).
In June 2022, I visited Newfoundland as part of my East Canada road trip. It would have been an excellent chance to see the other end of the cable: Heart’s Content, a possible 11th WHS in the East Canada “cluster”, and the 4th WHS in Newfoundland. But it takes quite a detour from St John’s (1.5h) or Mistaken Point (3h) so I decided against it as driving across Newfoundland already takes up so much time. And I knew that I had that future tick already in my pocket because of the location in Ireland…
My second visit to Valentia Island was in August 2022, this time right before my successful attempt for Skellig Michael. That proved to be good timing, as on July 21 a permanent exhibition on the first successful telegraph connection between Europe and North America opened at the cable station. Valentia’s community had acquired and renovated the building, which is a big step towards a more tangible interpretation of this possible WHS.
I arrived almost at the closing hour (5 pm) but was warmly welcomed. There were other visitors present too. A 7,50 EUR entry fee is charged. The visit includes a good introductory video about the cable’s history. There’s really only one exhibition room, although they also have made good use of the walls of the entrance hall. I enjoyed the replicas of paintings now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, reporting the Laying of the Cable. The main exhibition contains a lot of information panels, alternating with original pieces of cable and machinery on loan from the museum in Heart’s Content. Still, it is a disappointment that nothing of the former use of this cable station building can be seen.
It is tempting to reward the efforts of the early engineers (and the recent conservationists) with an easy WH listing, especially as monuments representing Developing Technologies including Telegraph, telephone, radio and television systems are considered a gap. Personally, however, I have a problem with the lack of tangible remains. It’s different from a cultural landscape like Grand Pré, where you’ll also find yourself staring out over the sea, of which at least can be said that it is associated with a cultural group that has memories there (and that would defend it if it came to harm). From what we know now, the Transatlantic Cable nomination will lean heavily on the preserved cable stations on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite all good efforts in the past decade, the Irish one still has very limited original remains of its use when you compare it to a similar site such as Grimeton. The former staff housing next door for example is still in private use. What happened there surely was outstanding as a technological effort, but does this translate to its tangible remains?
Read more from Els Slots here.
2023 Added to Tentative List
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