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Mayo-USA connections, old and new

County View

John Healy

WITH the recent completion of the transatlantic fibre optic cable from New York to Killala, the wheel has come full circle on an unique link between Mayo and the US in the area of connectivity.
It was in 1899 that Thomas Larkin from Ballyheane arrived in Philadelphia from Liverpool, to which he had originally emigrated. His first introduction to his new homeland was less than auspicious - employment in Pennsylvania was more difficult to find than he had envisaged. As he later admitted: “If I had the fare to immediately return to England, I would have done so.”
But a new fangled invention, still in its infancy, was about to change his life forever. Just 20 years before his arrival, Alexander Graham Bell had invented the telephone. Initially scoffed at and dismissed as a fanciful notion that would never go any further, Bell’s company was seeking out young, energetic, visionary men to join the fledgeling organisation and roll out the new service to a sceptical public.
Thomas Larkin grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He joined the Bell Telephone Company in Pittsburgh, and committed himself to the mission of introducing the telephone service to a dubious and reluctant public. Even The Boston Globe had ridiculed the claims being made for the new invention.
“Well informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires, and even if it were, it would be of no practical use,” it predicted gravely.
Events, of course, proved otherwise. Within a decade of Thomas Larkin joining the company, telephone usage had taken off, and soon hundreds of men were being employed on extending the phone network across the vast prairies and to every town and every village across the continent. Larkin was to spend nearly half a century in residence in Pittsburgh, where he became a generous benefactor to parish and community, and where to this day a Larkin Street is a permanent memorial to his dedication to work and adopted city.
Little wonder, then, that such a warm welcome awaited Michael Larkin, grand-nephew of Thomas Larkin, when he recently visited the headquarters in Denver of the Telephone Pioneers of America. This was the organisation set up by the telephone company workers in the early days to foster mutual friendship and fellowship in shared solidarity with each other. And it was this organisation which conferred life membership on Thomas Larkin in recognition of the pivotal role he had played in expanding the telephone network across the mid and southern states. It is a measure of just how close knit that original group was that the holder of membership number one was none other than Alexander Graham Bell himself.
Initially confined to those who had a minimum of 21 years service with the telephone companies, the Telephone Pioneers of America is now one of the largest voluntary networks in the world. Its 600,000 members are affiliated to 82 local chapters across the US and Canada, and give generously of their time and resources to charitable and voluntary programmes in their neighbourhoods.
The landing of the new transatlantic cable in Killala has sparked renewed interest in Mayo on the part of the Telephone Pioneers, not least because the county is the birthplace of Thomas Larkin, still revered as one of the founding fathers of the organisation. Just as he was at the cutting edge of new communications technology in his day, his native county is now central in the provision of the most modern form of connectivity in today’s world