Marconi, Rathlin Island and a new way with words

Bernie McGill’s new novel The Watch House is inspired by Rathlin’s role in the early days of wireless telegraphy

Bernie McGill: The technology that Marconi pioneered at the turn of the twentieth century is the same technology that is used in text messaging today

Bernie McGill: The technology that Marconi pioneered at the turn of the twentieth century is the same technology that is used in text messaging today

 

The Watch House is set on Rathlin Island, off the north Antrim coast, on the site of the historical wireless experiments by Marconi’s engineers in the last days of the nineteenth century.

My first encounter with Rathlin was in September 2002 when I went there as a participant in a writing festival organised by Ballycastle Writers’ Group. It was a glorious weekend. The sun shone down as we sat around tables in the Manor House and in island homes, at picnic benches and on dry stone walls on the shoreline writing. There and then my love affair with the island began.

Marconi’s links with Rathlin, and indeed with Ireland, are well documented. His mother was Annie Jameson, of the wealthy Anglo-Irish whisky distillery family. Annie met Giuseppe Marconi, a widower 17 years her senior, while she was studying music in Bologna but her family disapproved of her choice. Annie and Giuseppe conducted a correspondence in secret and when Annie came of age in 1864, she fled to Boulogne where the pair were married. Giuseppe already had a son and the couple’s first child, Alfonso, was born a year later.

It was through Annie’s influential connections that Marconi’s new company was initially financed

Nine years after that Guglielmo Marconi, pioneer of wireless telegraphy, was born. By the time the young Guglielmo was at the stage of setting up his company, relations between the Jameson and Marconi families were resolved. Indeed, it was through Annie’s influential connections that Marconi’s new company was initially financed.

In the summer of 1898 Lloyds of London commissioned the Wireless Telegraph and Signalling Company to report on the passage of ships and their cargoes (many of which were insured by Lloyds underwriters) through the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. The vessels passed close to Rathlin on their return journey across the Atlantic to dock in Belfast, the Mersey or the Clyde. Although they could be seen from the lighthouse on the island, the difficulty was in conveying the message to the coast guard station on the mainland at Torr Head. In conditions of poor visibility, the semaphore flags could not be seen from Torr, and carrier pigeons were often prey to the hawks that inhabited the island. Marconi’s interest in the Rathlin experiments was in proving the commercial worth of the new technology.

The Rathlin experiments were headed by George Kemp, Marconi’s first assistant, and an ex-naval instructor. The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds photographic copies of Kemp’s original diaries as well as his original hand-traced maps and a couple of years ago I was given permission to view the collection. Kemp arrived in Ballycastle in June 1898 and made his first trip over to Rathlin where he recruited the lighthouse keeper and his sons to act as wireless operators. In July he was called away to Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) where Marconi had been engaged by the Daily Express to report on the yacht races. On his return to Ballycastle, Kemp was accompanied by a young Irish engineer and graduate of Trinity College Dublin called Edwin Glanville, who had been in Marconi’s employ for about 18 months. Glanville was stationed on Rathlin on July 30th and in the first weeks of August, Kemp reports receiving signals from him at a number of sites on the mainland. On August 21st, Kemp received word that Glanville was missing. Tragically, the young engineer’s body was found at the foot of a steep cliff the following day. His remains were transported to Dublin where he was buried on August 26th.

Marconi returned to Dublin for Glanville’s funeral from the Isle of Wight where he had had an appointment with no other than Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales had fallen down a set of stairs at the Rothschilds’ in Paris and injured his leg and was recuperating on the royal yacht. The queen, in residence at Osborne House, wished for regular medical reports on her son, and Marconi, who had a penchant for publicity, was ready to oblige. He set up a station at a cottage in the grounds of Osborne House and the guests at the house and on the yacht – which was following the Cowes Regatta – were hugely entertained by this novel means of communication.

The Queen hopes the prince has had a good night and hopes to be on board a little before five

Transcripts exist of those early messages between the residing monarch and the future King Edward VII. “The Queen hopes the prince has had a good night and hopes to be on board a little before five.” And messages have survived from other members of the royal family, cabinet ministers etc. who joined in with less serious matters, issuing invitations to tea, aperitifs, dinner.

My interest in writing The Watch House was in exploring the phenomenon that radio was in the late nineteenth century: the extraordinary idea that your words could travel beyond you, specifically in the context of a community that knew all too well what it was to be cut off from the rest of the world. In my head, Marconi’s engineers must have looked, to some of the older island dwellers at least, like conjurers engaged in some brand of devilish magic.

The idea of creating a character, an island woman who would train as a wireless operator, began to take shape

But I was also interested in the idea that some of the islanders would have been fascinated by the experiments, by the potential of this extraordinary technology. I knew that women had worked as operators since the early days of telegraphy in the 1840s, and I’d been reading about women code breakers in the second World War. The idea of creating a character, an island woman who would train as a wireless operator, began to take shape and Nuala Byrne stepped up.

Both Kemp and Marconi appear fleetingly in The Watch House. All the other characters are completely fictional. What I have tried to stay true to is the island itself. For a number of years, the Ordnance Survey map of Rathlin and Ballycastle has hung above my writing desk.

Each time a character has moved to make a journey, on foot, by boat, by cart I have plotted their progress across the map

I have recited the litany of the island’s place names like a poem or a prayer: Sloaknacalliagh, the chasm of the old women; Kilvoruan, the church of Saint Ruan; Crocknascreidlin, the hill of the screaming; Lagavistevoir, the hollow of the great defeat. Every name tells a story of its own. Each time a character has moved to make a journey, on foot, by boat, by cart I have plotted their progress across the map as they navigated those dark histories.

The technology that Marconi pioneered at the turn of the twentieth century is the same technology that is used in text messaging today. What would the islanders of 1898 have made of the idea that words and images could be shared in real time, across continents, and using devices that could be held in the palm of a hand?

I think first of all about the people there and the abiding impact that that early visit from strangers must have made

The trials on Rathlin have ramifications in today’s world of fast messaging and information sharing, of the debate around privacy and the potential loss of it, of the natural suspicion that inevitably accompanies advances in technology. But when I think about the historical wireless experiments on Rathlin, I think first of all about the people there and the abiding impact that that early visit from strangers must have made on all their lives.
 

The Watch House by Bernie McGill is published today by Tinder Press, at £14.99 and reviewed on August 12th in The Irish Times

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