Julius Reuter was the first to see the opportunity. With his fellow Prussian William Siemens he promoted the South-Western of Ireland Telegraph Company, a sixty mile line from Cork to Crookhaven, a desolate point on the Atlantic coast. This immediately led the British & Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company, the second largest in the country, and which dominated the Irish market, to commence its own line from Cork by way of Skibbereen to an even more desolate and exposed site on Cape Clear, on Clear Island.
The Magnetic company and Reuter raced to open the Cape Clear and Crookhaven lines; Cape Clear opened in November 1863, Crookhaven in the following month.
Eventually there were to be four coastal telegraph stations that picked up canisters for news or public messages from passing steamers: Crookhaven, worked by Reuter and the South-Western company; Cape Clear, worked by the Magnetic Telegraph Company with a cable from Clear Island to Baltimore on the mainland, and another at Roche’s Point, worked jointly by the London & South of Ireland Direct Telegraph Company and the Universal Private Telegraph Company, from Queenstown, the out-port of Cork—all these three connected by dedicated line with either the Magnetic’s or the London & South of Ireland’s offices in Cork city.
There was a short cable to Cape Clear island from the Irish mainland, Crookhaven was entirely an overhead circuit.
At Crookhaven there was a small steamer, the Marseilles, owned by Reuter, with a crew of three. They met the Cunard liners at sea. Without stopping, the liner tossed overside a large canister with messages and telegrams from America. The canisters were painted a vivid yellow topped with a flag, and Reuter’s men gathered them up with a “butterfly net”. It was dangerous work; the boat’s skipper, Michael Driscoll, fell overboard and drowned in March 1865 whilst trying to salve a container of telegrams.
The Magnetic company’s Cape Clear outpost quickly became a meteorological station and then closed in favour of Crookhaven about 1870.
Roche’s Point also maintained the lighthouse for Cork, the station for pilot boats and a meteorological post. Although the telegraph was taken over by the Post Office it seems to have faded away slowly and anyway was little used for news as Cape Clear and Crookhaven were farther out in the Atlantic.
News exchange before the transatlantic cable
It was a dark night in early December 1863. At the farthest southwest point of Ireland, Mr Reuter’s small steam-tender sheltered in the lee of the Fastnet Rock. Out of the gloom, with a deafening clunking of paddle-wheels, a vast steamer appeared. As it neared the smaller boat, several canisters, each one lit by a phosphorous flare, were dropped overboard into the sea far below. The steamer continued on its way, and the sound of its engines receded back into the darkness. Meanwhile, on the smaller boat, men grabbed long poles with nets attached and began fishing around for the canisters which still bobbed on the waves. As it swung round to return to the nearby little port of Crookhaven, two clerks below deck unscrewed the tops of the canisters and began sorting the messages inside.
At this date, Julius Reuter’s chain for conveying news between the US and Britain was state of the art: