There are many Irish radio programs today which feature bits of our history, news and musical heritage, but which one was the first? For the answer, we must return to the early days of broadcast communication. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated that rapid variations of electric current could be projected from point-to-point as telegraph waves. Most credit him with inventing wireless communication, but few know that his mother, Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford of the Jameson Irish Whisky family, was the one who encouraged and funded the young inventor’s dreams. As did his wife, the Hon. Beatrice O’Brien, daughter of the 14th Baron Inchiquin, who he married in 1905.
In 1895, Marconi, experimenting at his father’s home at Pontecchio, Italy, succeeded in sending wireless pulses from a transmitter to a receiver a distance of a mile and a half. In 1896, his mother introduced him to Sir William Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office and later that year he was granted the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy. He demonstrated his system successfully in London, on Salisbury Plain and across the Bristol Channel and in July 1897 he formed The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company Ltd. However, until there was data to broadcast, wireless technology was simply the transmission of a signal. Experiments continued and in 1902 he was able to get a wireless signal of the letter “S” from England to Newfoundland. This was the first successful transatlantic wireless telegraph message. However, it was only station-to-station communication. The next step was to get the wireless wave to carry information.
That step came from a system invented in 1836 by Samuel Morse. He transmitted electrical signals over a wire laid between stations with a set of dots and dashes for each letter of the alphabet. In 1844, Morse had sent his first message over telegraph wires from Washington, D.C. to Maryland. Soon, telegraph poles and lines were criss-crossing the country and the first Atlantic Cable had even been laid from Newfoundland to County Kerry in 1858. However, Marconi’s invention could now transmit Morse Code without the use of wires. In 1907, Marconi opened the first transatlantic commercial service between Nova Scotia and County Galway for sending messages station-to-station. This is where Wireless Telegraphy became Radio technology. The term radio for wireless transmission was coined by French physicist Édouard Branly from the verb to radiate. However it was still the distribution of data from a sending station to a receiving station, but why couldn’t it be broadcast to any number of receiving stations. The term broadcast comes from an agricultural term, meaning to scatter seeds widely and radio signals were being scattered widely, they just weren’t yet being sent out as general messages to all who could receive them for, as yet, the only ones who could receive them were the costly receiving stations to which they were directed. The first commercial broadcasts did not come until the 1920s when the public began to invest in crystal sets and radios.
The first broadcast did however, take place years before that. It happened in 1916, in Dublin, during the Easter Rising when wireless signals were still aimed at specific receiving stations. No one had yet tried to send a signal into the atmosphere for a vast audience to receive – in short a true radio broadcast. According to a personal interview with 1916 veteran, Sam O’Reilly, the first thing the Brits did at the start of the Rising was to cut the telephone and telegraph lines linking Dublin with the rest of the world to keep the insurgents from communicating with anyone for support. According to author Mick O’Farrell on the afternoon of Easter Monday, Joseph Plunkett sent seven men from the GPO across O’Connell Street to occupy the Wireless School of Telegraphy. The school was a British training center which had been shut down at the start of WWI and the equipment dismantled. Knowing that communication lines had been cut, Plunkett chose the seven men in an attempt to get the word out by wireless telegraphy. One of the men was Fergus O’Kelly who had served with the Army Signal Corps and he managed to repair a 1.5 Kilowatt ship transmitter that the school used for teaching and training. With him was David Bourke an experienced Marconi operator and Bourke began broadcasting in Morse Code to any who could receive the signal. The message said: Irish Republic declared in Dublin today, Irish troops have captured the city and are in full possession. Enemy cannot move in city. The whole country rising. This optimistic message may have been what the patriots believed at the time and it was broadcast at regular intervals for nearly 20 hours, beginning at 5:30 pm on April 25. In 1964, Marshal McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communication theory, wrote of the incident, The Irish Rebels used a ship’s radio to make, not a point-to-point message, but a diffused broadcast in hope of getting word to any ship that would relay their story to the American press. This is widely accepted as the world’s first radio broadcast. On Wednesday another message was sent which read: British troops have been repulsed with great slaughter in the attempt to take the Irish position. The people are wildly enthusiastic for the new government. Imagine the surprise when one of the ships that received this message was the British warship HMS Adventure anchored at Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin. Sadly, by Friday the broadcasts ceased and the Rising was all over.
Another one of the seven men involved in history’s first radio broadcast was Arthur Shields, the Dublin-born Protestant patriot, stage and screen actor and a younger brother of Barry Fitzgerald. He was later interned in Frongoch with Michael Collins after which he returned to the theater. In 1936 John Ford brought him to America to act in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars with Barbara Stanwyck. He also starred in The Quiet Man, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the Long Voyage Home, Little Nellie Kelly, The Fabulous Dorseys, Drums Along the Mohawk, and National Velvet among many others. He had a long and successful screen career, but you might also say that he was the first actor to get his start in Broadcast Radio — in Dublin in 1916!