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The Derrew man who became a Bell Pioneer

County View

County View
John Healy

What started out as one man’s quest to trace the steps of a distinguished ancestor was eventually to become a highly readable, richly illustrated book spanning half a century and two continents.
‘Making the Right Connection’, by Michael Larkin, is the story of the journey of his granduncle, Thomas Larkin, from his roots in Ballyheane, across the Atlantic, to play a leading role in the telecommunications industry, and back home to spend his final days in the place where he was born.
At its core, this book is a tribute to a man whose life story, remarkable as it was, would have been lost in the mists of history. And he is fortunate in having a biographer who strikes a fine balance between family memoir and a story of more general appeal. As such, it is a labour of love, and there is the sense of a family debt discharged. But it is much more than that, and Michael Larkin sweeps a broad canvass, for the book is also part social history, part Irish connection to the great city of Pittsburgh, part personal odyssey and, not least, part chronicle of the development of the invention which changed the world.
And Thomas Larkin’s story is also that of thousands of his countrymen, forced emigrants from the land of their birth, resourceful in making a better life for themselves, yet always sharing the dream of eventual return to the green fields and rugged hills of home.
Thomas Larkin had left Derrew, Ballyheane, at the age of 16 in search of fame and fortune. After a few years in Liverpool, the lure of better times across the Atlantic saw him set sail for Philadelphia, where his initial experience indicated that times might not be as good as they had promised to be. But it was his move to Pittsburgh that opened the door to a career which brought him to the cutting edge of the telecommunication industry, then in its infancy, but which was about to transform the pace and effectiveness of telephonic advance.
It was here that the young Irishman made the acquaintance of Alexander Bell, the Scottish- born inventor of the telephone, whose Bell Telephone Company was then embarking on the roll-out of sevices across the vast American midwest. Joining the company as a linesman, Thomas Larkin became a central figure in the company’s operations, winning the trust and respect of colleagues and management alike, and earning promotion within the organisation to mark him out as one of the original ‘Pioneers’ of the Bell company.
Michael Larkin goes to great lengths to colour in the background of his ancestor’s life in America. Here we read of Thomas’s many contacts with the famed Rooney family of Pittsburgh (owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers), and his sense of Mayo pride at crossing paths with the athlete Martin Sheridan of Bohola, and with Gene Tunney of Kiltimagh, Gentleman Jim Corbett (of Ballinrobe extraction) and Johnny Kilbane of Achill, all of whom were making national headlines on the boxing scene. And intriguingly, the book includes a picture of the author standing by the street sign which reads ‘Larkin’s Way’, in downtown Pittsburgh.
But perhaps most touching of all are the stories of Thomas Larkin’s return home for good in 1931, to settle down once more on the old holding whose memory he had kept close to his heart. Ironically, given the career path he had chosen, Thomas Larkin had lost contact with home and siblings for many years. But all of that was made good, however, by the warmth of the homecoming and the esteem in which he was held across the locality when, for the 20 years to his death, the acclaimed Bell Pioneer became Thomas Larkin of Derrew once again.