Robert Halpin – the Wicklow master mariner who connected the world
05 December 2017
In 1847, a young boy, not yet a teenager, stepped aboard a ship anchored off Wicklow town and began an adventure worthy of a Boy’s Own story. Nineteen years later, the young man, now a first officer on the biggest ship in the world, was performing a daring rescue of a fellow crewmember in the middle of one of the most historic expeditions of the century.
By the standards of the time, an 11-year-old boy leaving his family and signing onto a ship was not unheard of. Poverty was usually the driving factor, but not for young Robert Halpin (1836-1894), who was raised in the comfortable surroundings of the Bridge House Inn (now known as the the Bridge Tavern) in Wicklow town.
The Inn was a regular haunt for seafarers and young Robert’s imagination was no doubt immersed with tales of the seafaring life, distant lands and far-flung adventurers. The youngest of 13, he was given a private-school education. He could easily have followed the footsteps of those of his brothers who became surgeons and solicitors, but instead he chose to follow the path of two other brothers who went to sea.
Barely past his 11th birthday, Robert signed on for a seven-year indentured apprenticeship on the brigantine Briton. In doing so, he threw himself into the deep end, as this was no local boat traversing the Irish Sea, but an ocean ship that ran a two-month Atlantic route transporting timber from the wilds of Canada.
In 1850, aged 14, Robert barely escaped with his life when the Briton was shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall. Undeterred, Robert continued his mariner apprenticeship and, by the time he was 15, he had travelled an amazing 26,000 nautical miles.
He would learn his trade on many more ships and travel to many destinations, including Australia during the height of the gold rush. It is testament to his honour and loyalty that, when many of the crew deserted to join the rush, he kept his post. This act impressed the ship’s captain so much that he released Robert from his indentured apprenticeship, enabling the teenager to decide his own future.
Robert’s first command role would be as third mate on the clipper Boomerang, which transported wool from Liverpool to Melbourne via Peru and Cape Horn. During this century, steamships had begun to gradually replace sailing ships and, in 1857, Robert sought employment on them. At the age of 21, he qualified as a ship’s captain and took command of a new steamship, the Circassian.
A year later, he was headhunted by the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company to command their newest and finest ship, the Argo. The Argo’s maiden voyage ran from Galway to Newfoundland and New York without incident, but disaster struck on its return leg. Responding to a distress call, the Argo encountered dense fog and, as was the practice at the time, it sped up (believing they could dispel the fog). The ship struck rocks off Newfoundland and, although no lives were lost and the cargo was mostly saved, the ship was unsalvageable. This was a major blow to Robert’s career and his master’s ticket was suspended for nine months.
Blockade running in the US Civil War
With his career in the doldrums, Robert sought new opportunities across the Atlantic where he could still captain ships. In 1860, he commanded two ships in turn, which carried soldiers to Spanish territories in South America.
In 1861, the American Civil War had begun and Union forces established a blockade of Confederate ports. Upon learning that the Confederate states would richly remunerate those who could supply food and arms to them – and, in turn, export their cotton – Robert became a blockade runner. This he did for three years on multiple ships, making substantial profits in the process.
In 1864, these dangerous antics caught up with him when he was forced to run his ship aground and it was impounded by Union forces. He was put on trial, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence. With the war drawing to a close, and also perhaps sensing that his luck was running out, Robert returned to Europe.
Back in Ireland and Britain, the humiliation of the Argo disaster had faded from public consciousness but, in any case, his fellow seafarers still remembered him as a talented and skilled mariner. Thus he was able to obtain a position as first officer aboard the SS Great Eastern. This ship was five times bigger than any other at the time and had been built by legendary industrialist Isambard Kingdom Brunel. With this appointment, Roberts’s career was now back on track.
Originally built as a cruise ship, the Great Eastern was retrofitted in order to accommodate enormous spools of telegraphic cable. This ship was to be tasked with one of the most important ventures in modern communication, the laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable – thus establishing the first direct communications link between Europe and America.
Gutted of its opulent and luxurious decor, the ship started its 2600-mile voyage, from Valentia, Co Kerry, in July 1865 and began laying the cable in earnest. However, midway through the endeavour, disaster struck when the cable snapped, sinking to the ocean bed. It was un-retrievable.
When the ship returned to port, it was deemed a failure to the public. To the ship’s crew, however (including Robert), it was a valuable fact-finding journey in which many lessons were learnt, which proved to them that laying this cable was possible. Robert and the other ships officers were thus able to persuade the expedition backers to fund a new attempt and the Great Eastern set out again from Valentia in 1866, determined to complete its mission.
Laying the trans-Atlantic cable
On 27 July 1866, they did exactly that as they reached Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, and physically connected these continents for the first time. To put it into a historical context, the significance of laying this cable has been described as the equivalent of the moon landing in our time. This literally laid the groundwork for modern communications.
But the crew of the Great Eastern were not satisfied; they had unfinished business to attend to and, on 9 August, the ship set out again. The crew was determined to find the end of the broken cable lost the previous year, two and half miles beneath the surface – the very definition of a needle in a haystack.
Robert Halpin was up to the challenge, however, and demonstrated his excellent navigation skills by stopping the ship at the exact mid-Atlantic co-ordinates where the cable had been lost the previous year. For days, this massive ship moved slowly around, fishing for the lost cable with a grappling hook. It took two weeks to find it and another 26 hours to get it on-board the ship, splice and connect it to the fresh cable in the hold – thus establishing a second trans-Atlantic cable.
This was the stuff that heroes are made of and Robert was fast becoming that to both his crew and the world at large. One night, a crewman aloft on the rigging got into trouble high above the decking. Robert climbed up until he reached the stricken sailor. Over a period of several hours, they made the slow descent from this great height.
Unknown to Robert, live reports of this rescue were being telegraphed from the ship through the newly laid cable and to newspapers around the world. On arrival into port, Robert discovered he had become the world’s first ‘cable news celebrity’.
Promoted to captain of the Great Eastern in 1869 and earning the nickname ‘Mr Cable’, Robert would continue to make history as he and his crew successfully laid several more trans-oceanic telegraph cables around the world. France was linked to Newfoundland, India to Aden and to the Suez. After that, Robert was put in charge of a fleet of cable ships that linked up Madras to Penang to Singapore and Batavia, Australia was connected to New Zealand and the Dutch East Indies and finally Portugal to Madeira, Cape Verde and Brazil in 1874.
In total, he would lay an extraordinary 41,800km (the circumference of the world is 40,075km), linking up the world like no other at the time and making his endeavours one of the greatest feats and advancements in global communication. He was feted throughout the world; the Brazilian Emperor made him Knight of the Order of the Rose, France awarded him the Legion d’Honneur and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Although ‘married to the sea’, Robert fell in love while in Newfoundland in 1866. There he met Jessie (Teresa) Munn and they married in 1873. The couple would have three daughters and, after the birth of their first in 1874, Robert decided to retire (or divorce) from the sea and live off his accumulated wealth.
In 1876, the family moved back to Roberts’s home town of Wicklow and built Tinakilly House, a mansion overlooking Wicklow bay. This house took four years to build and cost £40,000. It had space in the cellar for 2,000 bottles of wine and the stairs and landing were built to resemble the bridge of the Great Eastern.
It was here that he settled down into semi-retirement. A foray into national politics failed, but locally he became deputy lieutenant of the county and chair of Wicklow Harbour Board. For a man who stared death in the face so many times and lived, the circumstances of his demise were an anti-climax; he died in 1897 from a gangrenous toe aged just 57. At his funeral, the whole town mourned with flags being flown at half-mast, the local boats paying tribute and the largest cortege ever seen in the town.
The people of Wicklow town honoured his memory by erecting an obelisk in his honour the same year. Other organisations like the Merchant Seamen’s Guild honoured him by presenting Halpin memorial medals to the best swimmers at their orphanage.
In more recent times, the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire opened an exhibition containing many family donated artefacts. The ‘Halpin Room’ has been opened in Wicklow Gaol Museum and a Halpin Walking Trail is marked throughout the town. In addition, An Post commemorated Robert with a stamp in 2003.
It could be argued that the greatest posthumous honour created in his memory is that the National Maritime College of Ireland opened the HALPIN Centre for Research & Innovation in 2012. This centre is the primary naval research and innovation centre for the Irish state and leads ground-breaking research in the fields of maritime operations and mechatronics.