Seán Creedon looks at the history of telecommunications in Ireland and talks to two former workers who are helping to preserve the memories.

Alexander Graham Bell, who was born in Edinburgh on March 3, 1847, is credited with inventing the telephone one hundred and forty five years ago.

While experimenting in his laboratory in Boston with a multi-frequency telegraph system, Bell discovered that speech could be transmitted in this manner. The first telephone conversation consisted of the words, ‘‘Mr Watson, come here I want you.’’ The call was made as Bell had just spilled acid on his clothing.

Bell was granted a patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876 – a few hours before rival inventor Elisha Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office that announced he was working on a similar invention.
When Bell showed his invention to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 the US President said, “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”

In Ireland, the first telephone exchange was opened in Dame Street, Dublin in 1880, four years after Bell got his patent for the telephone. The exchange was operated by the United Telecom Company and had just five customers.
Initially the exchange was operated by a young boy, but with so few calls to handle, he succumbed to temptation and was in the habit of going out to the courtyard to play marbles. He was quickly dismissed and was replaced by the first female operator, Miss Agnes Duggan, who proved to be much more reliable.

By November 1882, the numbers of subscribers to the Dublin Exchange had increased to 271 and a telephone directory was produced that year.

The first automatic telephone exchange in Dublin was opened in Ship Street on July 24, 1927. An automatic exchange was opened in Dun Laoghaire just after the outbreak of World War II, but the war put paid to hopes of an immediate extension of the automatic system.

Earlier the first public telephone box was installed at College Green in Dublin on May 1, 1925. Much later Telecom introduced Call Cards which quickly became collectors’ items. The cards were very useful for parents to give to their children so that they could ring home without looking for change to make a call.

In later years the proliferation of mobile phones meant there was less use for public phone boxes, some of which are now used to house defibrillators around the country.

In rural Ireland very few people had telephones. In villages the only telephones were in the post office, the parish priest’s house, doctor, vet and maybe the odd pub and hardware shop. It took a long time before people in sparsely populated rural areas were connected.

Back in the fifties and sixties it was expensive to get a phone and applicants often had to wait a long time to be connected. New customers often had to pay for the erection of telegraph poles from a main road to their house which could be at the end of a long boreen.

The ‘10’ operator service was labour intensive and huge numbers of telephone operators were employed by the Department of Posts and Telegraph all over the country.

Author Alice Taylor worked in Killarney telephone exchange and the late Ronnie Drew was what was known as an M.N.T., Male Night Telephonist in Dublin before he made his name with The Dubliners.
Subscriber Trunk Dialling (S.T.D.) was introduced in the fifties, but was only available to customers connected to automatic exchanges.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own