Old Irish Telephone Box
Old Irish Telephone Box

Anniversary of Alexander Bell’s Death Remembered by Mayo Author

While the 100th anniversary of Alexander Bell's death on August 2nd might not strike a chord with everyone, for one County Mayo author, the remembrance of the famous telephone inventor is a personal one.

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In 2019, Michael Larkin wrote about Bell and his successful invention in “Making the Right Connections.”

The cover of Michael Larkin's book, “Making the Right Connections” makes for an interesting read on the 100th anniversary of Alexander Bell's death. Photo courtesy of Michael Larkin.

The book traces the story of his granduncle Thomas Larkin, born in rural County Mayo in 1874 and who later became one of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

A replica of the Titanic is set against some of County Mayo's rugged scenery, with bronze sculptures depicting emigrants departing from Ireland in the hope of securing a better future in the New World of America. Photo courtesy of Michael Larkin.

It is also a story about the power of connectivity and how both men did their part to advance that connectivity for people across the United States and ultimately, the world.

Of course, it was Bell who made it all happen through his genius invention, which he patented in 1876.

Alexander Graham Bell in his later years. The 100th anniversary of Alexander Bell's death is on August 2nd, 2022. Photo: By Moffett Studio – Library and Archives Canada / C-017335, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1559

But as Larkin points out, it came close to not becoming a reality when Bell, desperately trying to convince the American public of the merits of his invention, seriously contemplated selling his patent rights to the Western Union Telegraph Company, which at the time held a monopoly over telegraph and telegram services in America.

“Luckily, for Bell, (and unluckily for the Western Union), the telephone gradually became the new, first-choice method of communication amongst the American people,” Larkin says.

Bell’s Invention in Ireland

In 1880, the first telephone exchange was opened in an exchange on Dame Street in Dublin.

It was operated by the United Telecom Company. In its first year of operation, it had five customers.

Several years later, the number of subscribers had jumped to 271, prompting the creation of the first telephone directory in Ireland.

Early telephone boxes being erected in Dublin in 1932. Photo: National Library of Ireland on The Commons.

The first public telephone box was erected on College Green, Dublin, on May 1, 1925.

Of course, the telephone did not make its appearance in County Mayo homes or those in any other part of rural Ireland for a long time after that.

Most people relied on the local post office phone to make an urgent call to a relative in America or elsewhere.

Making a phone call to America, however, was a complicated process.

two men on a ladder at the side of a house anniversary of Alexander Bell's death
A house being readied for electricity in rural Ireland, part of the country's Rural Electrification Scheme. Photo: ESB Archives.

Typically, village telephone exchanges were connected to the main telephone exchange somewhere else in Ireland and then on to the exchange in the other country.

The telephone was a long way from becoming a reality for most ordinary Irish people, especially given that electricity did not come into many homes until the 1950s through the Rural Electrification Programme, and even after that, it was expensive to get a phone installed.

New customers often had to pay to have the telegraph poles erected from the main road to their homes, which in many cases was a good distance away.

Thomas Larkin’s Journey in America

When Thomas Larkin arrived in America in the early 1900s, he did not use the telephone to contact family members back in Mayo.

More than likely, he wrote letters home to his parents, like so many other immigrants before him.

a man standing outside a house anniversary of Alexander Bell's death
County Mayo author Michael Larkin is pictured in Pittsburgh where his granduncle spent most of his life. Photo courtesy of G. McLaughlin/F.Pitt.

Bad news was often relayed to relatives in Ireland by means of a telegram, as Michael Larkin explains in his book.

As life unfolded for the Mayo man, who was initially hired as a lineman and eventually became a senior manager for the Bell Telephone Company (now known as AT&T), the other connections he was able to make through sheer hard work and determination were just as important as Bell’s invention.

a typed letter anniversary of Alexander Bell's death
A letter from the New Vision Pioneers honors Thomas Larkin's service to the Telephone Pioneers of America. Photo courtesy of Michael Larkin.

While Bell is indeed credited with inventing the telephone, Larkin reminds us in his book that the network would not have expanded throughout the United States were it not for the work that his granduncle and other telephone pioneers put into it.

Their job was to make sure that enough linemen, telephone operators, installers, fixers, and others were employed to make the dream a reality.

It’s clear that Thomas Larkin was dedicated to his job but more importantly, to the belief that Bell’s invention could truly change the lives of so many people.

And for that dedication, he was eventually conferred with Life Membership of the Telephone Pioneers of America, an accolade that Larkin says is like receiving an honorary degree today.

So great was Thomas Larkin’s devotion to connectivity that he also met with Bell on a few occasions.

“Surprisingly, their conversation did not focus on the marvel of the telephone,” writes Larkin, “it focused instead on the similarities between Ireland’s western coastline, the ruggedness of the Scottish Highlands, and Bell’s adopted homeland of Nova Scotia!”

The Importance of Connectivity in a Hurried World

As Larkin reflected on his granduncle’s achievements, he also remembered the times when Thomas Larkin lost his own connection to family in Ireland.

The senior Larkin eventually retired in Ireland during the 1930s but found it a very different place to the fast-growing United States with all of its emerging technology and opportunities.

two men holding a wooden harp anniversary of Alexander Bell's death
Michael E. Lamb, Controller of the City of Pittsburgh accepts a Mayo handcrafted wooden harp from Michael Larkin signifying the “strings of connectivity” between Ireland and Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Michael Larkin.

Today, Bell’s invention is taken for granted as we turn to our cell phones for the latest news and the chance to quickly communicate with family members across the world in the form of a text message or video chat.

Larkin reminds us that the deep human connection with family and community is still as important as it was for the early Irish immigrants and that it is something that will surely stand the test of time.

You can purchase Larkin’s book, “Making the Right Connections,” (hardback) published by Bookhub Publishing. Copies of the book are available from Castle Bookshop in Castlebar and other outlets or also online at www.mayobooks.ie

colette

Colette is a County Sligo native who created Ireland on a Budget to provide her readers with money-saving tips on how to get to Ireland and then save even more when they're there. She's a professional copywriter who lives in the New York area with her husband and two children.

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