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Robert Charles Halpin, Master Mariner, born 16 February 1836 at the Bridge Tavern Wicklow, Ireland – 20 January 1894 and died at Tinakilly, Wicklow. He captained the Brunel-designed leviathan SS Great Eastern which laid transoceanic telegraph cables in the late 19th century. He was, arguably, one of the most important mariners in the 19th century. He helped make the world a global village by connecting empires and continents via submarine telegraph cables - in effect constructing the Victorian age communication network.
He was the son of James and Anne Halpin (née Halbert), the youngest of 13 children. His father, James, was the proprietor of a small tavern (built 1702) and the family were reasonably well off. From an early age Robert showed a fondness for the sea. He received his early education at a private school nearby at Leitrim Place, possibly that of Ellen White, The Murrough, recorded by Slaters Directory, 1846. Halpin appears to have shown little interest in formal education and with his imagination fuelled by tales of faraway lands recounted by mariners in his fathers tavern, he left home at age 10 to become a seafarer.
He joined the crew of the 388 ton barque Henry Tanner, later that same year. Henry Tanner plied the Britain - Australia run and Halpin's first voyage to Australia coincided with the Australian Gold Rush of 1852. Over half the crew jumped ship to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. Unable to muster a crew Henry Tanner was forced to remain in port until the enthusiasm of these same prospectors wore thin and they returned to their posts.
Halpin then joined the ship Boomerang as a third mate. Boomerang worked on the Liverpool to Melbourne to Kio (Ecuador) route, returning with cargo of "guano", bird-droppings used as fertiliser.
Halpin was promoted to second mate of Salem, a wool clipper on the Australia run before he transferred over from sail to steam ships. Halpin believed steam was the future of shipping and became first officer in Khersonese.
At 22 years of age, he was given command of the S.S.Propellor, later joining Circassian both steamships belonging to the Atlantic Royal Company. In 1858 Robert became involved in new sea route that had started from Galway, Ireland to St. Johns Newfoundland, giving a quicker, shorter Atlantic crossing. Emigration from Europe to North America was the new large shipping trade and operated from major ports such as Liverpool, Hamburg and Galway. By 1859 the Galway line was prospering and the popular S.S.Argo was commanded by Robert Halpin, then aged 24. Disaster struck in August 1859 while in thick fog at the Newfoundland fishing banks when Argo struck an iceberg and sank. At subsequent enquiry, Halpin lost his masters ticket. Despite this setback in 1860 the Spanish Government commissioned him to deliver two troop ships, Isla de Cuba and Isla de Puerto Rica, to South America.
At the break out of the American Civil War, Halpin ran the Yankee blockades bringing supplies to the Confederate States and returning with cotton to Europe. In 1864 he was forced to run his ship aground to evade capture but was then detained by the Northern Union forces. The case against him was unproven and he was released after the Battle of Mobile Bay.
It was then Halpin began his association with the steam ship Great Eastern. In his book "The Great Iron Ship", author James Dugan states, "the first and in some ways the most interesting of the ocean liners was the Great Eastern, brainchild of the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel."
The following extract is taken from biographical notes on William Thomson, Lord Kelvin:
"Thomson was actually aboard the Great Eastern, the ship which laid the cable. The first officer and key navigator was another Irishman, Robert Halpin from Wicklow Town. Halpin was soon appointed captain of the ship, and went on to earn further distinction for cable laying, earning the nickname "Mr Cable"."
Launched at the Isle of Dogs, Kent, 31 January 1858, she was 693 feet in length (over 200 metres) 22,500 tons dead weight and had passenger accommodation for over 3000 passengers. Five times larger than any other ship then built, she had six masts named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday etc..., five funnels, 6500 yards of sail, two 58 ft paddle wheels, a 24 ft screw (which remains the biggest ever built) and a coal carrying capacity of 15000 tons.
Great Eastern had a career dogged by misfortune. Great Eastern was made ready for her maiden voyage to the United States. She was designed for the longer Britain to Australia run and proved uneconomical on the shorter Atlantic routes. She left Southampton, 16 June 1860, with 418 crew but only 35 paying passengers including one carrying an English fighting cock and three hens in wicker cages for a chicken fighter in California. On 28 June the ship docked successfully completing her maiden voyage. Never filled to capacity and losing money, the vessel was sold from company to company and in 1867 was chartered by a French syndicate to bring American visitors to the Paris World Exhibition. She attracted only 191 passengers including Jules Verne who later wrote a book about her called "A Floating City".
Before the 1860s there was great interest in Telegraphy and the linking of Europe to North America by telegraphic cable. The first successful cable was laid in August 1858. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom exchanged congratulations briefly with the American President James Buchanan. This first success proved the telegraph could be done underwater but this also didn't last but a week only because a workman applied too much voltage through the cable and "fried"[clarification needed] it.
Pioneered by Cyrus Field, mainland Europe had been connected by telegraphy as had Europe to Britain and Britain to Ireland. A company was formed that converted Great Eastern into a cable layer and Halpin was given the post of First Engineer. Their task was to lay a submarine transatlantic telegraph cable from Valentia Island, County Kerry to Heart's Content, Newfoundland. The cable, 2600 miles long was stored in the ship's tanks and weighed 6000 tons.
1,862 miles from Valentia, the cable broke and Great Eastern returned to Europe. Rumour has it that the price of shares on the stock exchange hit rock bottom and that Halpin purchased many in hope (or expectancy) of making a killing. In 1866 with Robert at the helm the ship returned to the exact spot, recovered and repaired the broken cable. In July that year, Great Eastern arrived at Heart's Content, Newfoundland and completed the connection between the continents which has never been interrupted since.
Later, as captain, Halpin laid an estimated 26,000 miles (41,800 km) of cable (more than enough to circle the globe). The cable routes included the French Transatlantic Cable from Brest to St. Pierre-Miquelon in 1866 (under the patronage of Julius Reuters), the 1869 Bombay-Aden-Suez cable, and the Australia-New Zealand-East Indies, Madras-Singapore-Penang, and Madeira-Brazil.
For Halpin's services, Brazilian Emperor Pedro II made him Knight of the Order of the Rose. He was also awarded the Legion d'Honeur, elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His circle included Lord Kelvin, who had been aboard Great Eastern as chief engineer overseeing the cable laying, Admiral Sherard Osborn, who proposed him for Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society, the American hydrographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and Edmund Dickens, nephew of Charles Dickens amongst other notables of the day.
On returning to Wicklow c.1875 after a brief residence near London, Halpin became chairman of the Wicklow Gas Company, Wicklow Harbour Master and Secretary of Wicklow Harbour Commissioners. He built a family home at Tinakilly, now a hotel, two miles north of Wicklow. He was Secretary of the Wicklow Harbour Commissioners in 1880 when the East Breakwater was built - arguably the most important built structure in the small maritime port's history. He ran for political office as a Unionist in July 1892, losing to Sweetman who was the Anti-Parnell Home Rule candidate. Halpin managed to defeat the outgoing Parnellite Home Rule candidate, Corbett.
On 20 January 1894, Robert Halpin died at age 58 of gangrene resulting from a minor cut after trimming his toe nails and accidentally cutting into the skin. A granite obelisk, erected in 1897, in the centre of Wicklow town commemorates his life and career. The land for the obelisk was donated by Lord Fitzwilliam and since called Fizwilliam Square.
He was married to Jessica Munn of Heart's Content, Newfoundland. They had three daughters, Ethel, Belle and Edith. The last daughter, Belle, died in 1952. The family is buried at the Wicklow Parish Church with a Celtic Cross headstone marking the grave. Many artifacts from his life were donated by his daughters to the Maritime Institute of Ireland. There is a display in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dún Laoghaire.
The name Tinakilly is derived from the townland of Tinakilly on which the house is built. It comes from the Gaelic; ti=house: na=of the: coille=wood. It is probable that a farmhouse of the same name was on the site or close by. Some of the trees in the garden appear to predate the house which took ten years to build and was completed in 1883.
Halpin is reputed to have been given an open cheque by the British Government to build his new mansion in gratitude for his contribution to improving world communications and thereby world trade. He recruited the then very fashionable Irish architect James Franklin Fuller to design the house. The timber, which is so evident and gives such character, was selected in London by Halpin. The doors on the ground floor are of Burmese mahogany with many panels of different woods, the best of which are in "birds eye" maple. The architraves, window shutters, and stairs are in American pitch pine. Fireplaces were imported from Italy with the exception of the drawing room where a fine Georgian one, probably from an old house in Dublin, graces the room. The cellar, with space for 2,000 bottles of wine, is built of brick while the rest of the construction is in stone and mortar. The original working drawings can be seen hanging in the anteroom to the Brunel Dining Room.
In total, it cost £40,000 to build Tinakilly (about £4 million Sterling in today's value). The great hall with its fine gallery is the main feature. All ceilings are heavily corniced and are 14 ft high on the ground floor.
In 1870 the land extended to 400 acres and life in the great house was on a grand scale. Two Head Gardeners were employed, one for inside the walled garden to grow fruit and vegetables and the other to supervise the seven acres of pleasure gardens. A duty for one of the maids each week was to wash and scrub the granite steps in the garden. In the summer, 20 boys from the village of Rathnew were employed to hoe the extensive rose garden. There are fine stands of beech eucalyptus and evergreen oak while two giant sequoias are at either end of the old tennis court. The site chosen for the house was on elevated ground two miles north of Wicklow Town, overlooking Broadlough Bird Sanctuary and the Irish Sea. There was however no source of fresh water. A stream about a half mile away and 150 ft lower was found and a leather ram pump was built to feed three 1,000 gallon tanks on the roof. In later years even the local council water was unsatisfactory and a 300 ft well was sunk to guarantee a sure supply.
Jimmy Cleary and Andrew O'Brien, Wicklow Harbour - A History (Wicklow, 2001). Jim Rees, the life of captain Robert Halpin (Arklow,1992)