World Heritage status would recognise the importance of Valentia's contribution to modern communication

According World Heritage status would reflect the importance of this south-west corner of the country as the place where globalisation began, writes Alexander Gillespie

There is a revolution occurring in the world of tourism. This industry which provides jobs and prosperity to many is not the same that it once was.

Today, of the 1.3bn tourists in the world, China is the dominant provider. They are closely followed by citizens from other parts of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Many of these people, although polite about traditional tourist attractions that reflect the history of a country, seek to engage with heritage that says something more about them, something that they can engage or identify with.

For a country like Ireland, this means it is necessary to complement the existing streams of heritage involving Christianity, Celtic and Neolithic sites, with sites of a more cosmopolitan view. Expectations are also changing.

The modern tourist is quick to check facts, assertions and the value of the places they are considering to visit.

In this area, the only thing that influences more than online reviews is international designations whereby the global community has, independently, said that a particular area is special.

The exemplar of this process is the World Heritage Convention. There are over 1,000 sites that are recognised as World Heritage in which an area is recognised as being of outstanding universal value, or a treasure of the entire world.

Ireland only possesses two of these treasures. Comparable countries like England, Spain or Italy, possess between 30 to 40 World Heritage sites — each.

The ridiculous nature of this situation is compounded by the fact that Ireland is overflowing with heritage, but consistently fails to recognise its own potential.

This failure means that not only is much of Ireland’s own rich history kept invisible, but also, that the changing currents of international tourism, are not captured for the economic good of the country in general or the local communities in particular.

The heritage that Ireland can exploit in this area is that related to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution, which began some 200 years ago, was when humanity managed to finally transcend the subsistence basis that had kept human civilisations in check for thousands of years.

Ireland was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, with a near seamless transition in technology, science and capital, flowing directly from England.

Other countries that have sought to exploit industrial sites and obtain World Heritage designations have reaped excellent rewards. The best of these sites, which are testimony to events that changed human history, now see in excess of one million visitors per year.

For communities that were until recently sinking into economic depression with little hope for the future, they have found that tourism has saved them and given the future generations the means by which to succeed.

Telecommunications was a subset of the Industrial Revolution. This was the one stream of the revolution that was not associated with the negative impacts of pollution or squalid working conditions, that many people associate with this period.

It was also the only stream that has a clear lineage from the first telegraphs in the first third of the 19th century, to the mobile phones we all carry in our pockets today, in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Ireland was, and remains, at the forefront of the telecommunications revolution. The epicentre where this work began, and globalisation was born, was on the remote corner of south-west Ireland, on Valentia island.

 Staff pictured outside, and at work, at Valentia Island cable station, Co Kerry, in September 1953. This year marks 150th anniversary of the opening of the station, which global transformed telecommunications and formed a hub of expertise and knowledge in the region. Pictures: Irish Examiner Archive/Ref 231G
Staff pictured outside, and at work, at Valentia Island cable station, Co Kerry, in September 1953. This year marks 150th anniversary of the opening of the station, which global transformed telecommunications and formed a hub of expertise and knowledge in the region. Pictures: Irish Examiner Archive/Ref 231G

Anyone who has ever connected to the internet, made a phonecall, or sent a telegraph, has benefited from the achievements of what was achieved at Valentia 150 years ago.

It was from this land that a thin copper cable was stretched all the way across the Atlantic in 1857.

Over the following eight years, by a repeated and heartbreaking process of trial and error, the entrepreneurs perfected what many people thought was impossible.

Success was achieved with a perfect mix of English technology, American capital, and Irish science.

Their success meant that near-instantaneous communications no longer stopped at the sea. After the success of the transatlantic cable, communication went beyond national, and even regional, limits.

Communication now became truly international, and the world changed. Stock markets, the media, the military, diplomacy and the habits of personal consumers were all revolutionised, as information moved seamlessly between Europe and America.

The celebrations of the period at the success of the transatlantic cable were monumental. In their own time, this monumental achievement of technology was recognised as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’.

This scientific, technological and financial wonder was complimented by strong social considerations, through which the workers in these remote locations were well housed, well paid and formed into the first communities of what is today Silicon Valley, 150 years before Silicon Valley even existed.

The global significance of the telecommunications ensemble of Valentia is unprecedented.

Whereas most World Heritage sites are only valued for one or two criteria, Valentia has the possibility of being recognised as an international treasure on up to four or five grounds.

If nominated as potential World Heritage, it can be argued before the international community that the achievements at Valentia were a reflection of human genius.

It was a technology that was copied and replicated all over the Earth.

It was done in the strikingly beautiful and unique landscape that was intimately connected with the achievement.

It is a lost type of civilisation, with the workers, and their industry, long departed. It is where globalisation began.

Most countries can only dream of being in possession of such rich and valuable history.

To be able to claim that Ireland owns the site where globalisation began is worth much more than the potential economic benefits of tourism.

Alexander Gillespie is professor of law at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and a Unesco rapporteur


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