Communications takes many forms. It can be communicating verbally to each other or travelling from one town to another with news and information. Modern communications include wireless telegraphy as in ship to shore or the radio broadcasting of today as voices through the ether communicates with their listeners. ‘Six degrees of separation’ is the idea that on average people and events are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. With this in mind, one can postulate that without the building of the first turnpike road in Ireland in the 1730’s we would not be able to listen to Morning Ireland on RTE, Ian Dempsey on Today FM, the Strawberry Alarm Clock on FM 104 or the breakfast show on 96FM in Cork. That journey from the innovative turnpike to entertaining tones of Ian Dempsey, will take us from the first toll road and creating the connection with rural Ireland, to the first major mass transportation company in Ireland described as the Ryanair of its day, to the greatest Irish whiskey export of all time and onwards to harnessing the radio waves, eventually reaching the multitude of radio studios and bedroom podcasters across Ireland and of course Ian Dempsey.
In the mid-18th century people rarely travelled further than a day’s walk from home. A person of means would have access to a horse and buggy but the roads were bad often subject to flooding and damage as the loads increased. The result was the Turnpike, a tolled road of better quality that often varied in both length and cost but massively improved transportation across the country. The first Irish turnpike road was opened from Dublin to Kilcullen in County Kildare in 1729. They expanded quickly. A major investment in better roads led directly to the success of one entrepreneur who made use of the growing number of these toll roads which initially radiated from Dublin but later connected many of the growing towns in the South East and South of the island.
As the network of turnpikes expanded, far away from Ireland in the Lombardy region of Italy, Carlo Bianconi was born in 1786. According to his biographer, Samuel Smiles,
‘learning took little effect on him’.
Regarded as a ‘dunce’ in school, his parents wanted him to gain experience outside their small enclave and importantly for them, allow their son to avoid the compulsory military service enforced at the time. A family friend, Andrea Faroni, agreed to take the young sixteen year old and a couple of other local lads on an apprenticeship in painting framing and selling. The young Bianconi left behind his parents as well as three brothers and a sister, walking out of Italy into Switzerland and eventually reaching England. This was the original plan but Faroni decided to go one step further to the edge of Europe and travelled across the Irish Sea to Dublin.
After arriving in Dublin in 1802, Faroni and his charges stayed in Temple Bar near the Essex Bridge. They began selling framed prints around Dublin but the young Italian found it difficult without any grasp of the English language. The young Carlo knew however he had a better chance of success by increasing his English and by anglicizing his name to Charles. Like pioneers or explorers Faroni and the four apprentices left the sanctuary of Dublin and headed south to Waterford, where much of the gold they used to guild the picture frames were imported. At one point Charles Bianconi was arrested in Passage when he was caught selling prints of the disgraced Napoleon, who had just been defeated by the British at Waterloo. After a couple of nights in the police cells he was released. The team carried their heavy load of wares from town to town, walking many miles, it was back breaking work. In 1804, his apprenticeship ended with Faroni and the young Bianconi rejected the offer to return home to Italy. While in Waterford he had met with Edmund Rice, the founder of the Christian Brothers, and was the beneficiary of an education which opened his eyes to a multitude of possibilities in now his adopted homeland.
In 1806, Bianconi moved to Carrick-on-Suir. He travelled to Waterford on Tom Morrissey’s boat along the River Suir to obtain the gold for his gilding process. By boat it was a distance of twenty miles and was subject to the vagaries of the tides. By road, it was a distance of only 12 miles but it had to be walked and with a heavy load, the boat, despite its slow speed of travel, was the better option. In 1809, he moved once again to Clonmel and continued to earn a good living selling prints, travelling by foot and the slow boat back to Carrick – on – Suir and Waterford.
It was now that the young Italian struck upon an idea that would revolutionize travel in Ireland. On July 5th 1815 at Hearn’s Hotel in Clonmel, a horse and buggy were readied for the departure of the first Bianconi car that would travel the twelve miles from Clonmel to Cahir. That first trip carried a driver and six passengers. It was not overly popular but the shrewd Bianconi put a slower coach on the route and pointed to how efficient his brightly yellow coloured ‘Bian’ car was. The following year the Clonmel to Waterford and to Carrick-on-Suir routes were added. The new regular passenger service, despite not having any protection against the inclement Irish weather, departed, and arrived on time and travelled even if there were no paying passengers on board. The convenience of the cars and its affordability became popular and the routes continued to expand. Bianconi was able to connect with both the Royal and the Grand Canals that travelled from Dublin to the River Shannon. From one horse and a cart, the Bianconi Cars developed into two, four and six horse transports carrying more and more passengers and cargo. He delivered the mail from outlying areas to central hubs for the Royal Mail and earned a reputation as being punctual and safe, employing his own security guards on dangerous routes or for expensive cargos.
Charles Bianconi became an important member of the Clonmel community earning himself Irish (British ruled Ireland) citizenship. He married the daughter of a well-known Dublin stockbroker, Eliza Hayes in 1827, who was twenty years his junior. He would move into a palatial house known as Longfield and the couple would have three children. The first born daughter died relatively young as did his son. His son had married the granddaughter of the Great Emancipator Daniel O’Connell, whom Bianconi was a great supporter of. Charles Bianconi became Mayor of Clonmel and continued to expand his flourishing business. His cars were affordable for the working/farmer classes and opened up Ireland for exploration and business development. From Dublin his cars departed from the Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street and as they journeyed, Bianconi Inns opened along routes providing rest periods, overnight stays and changing facilities for fresh horses. Even when the railways arrived in Ireland, the first section opening in 1837 and they expanded rapidly, he adapted. The rail lines made some of his routes redundant but he adjusted connecting new towns to the railway stations hubs, his web was radiating across much of Ireland.
He provided employment for over one hundred and sixty drivers on his one hundred cars, known as ‘Finn McCool’s’ and ‘Massey Dawson’s’. His drivers were regarded as very civil, well turned out, wearing similar hat wear to identify their position. Bianconi required punctuality, truthfulness, honesty and most importantly sobriety. In many cases, drivers who proved themselves ‘Bianconi men’ could pass on their position to a family member upon retirement. When a driver became too ill to work or died, Bianconi insured that the family were looked after financially and educationally. Workers were only required to work six days, a novel approach in the mid 1800’s. He was the largest employer in Clonmel especially when he opened his own factory to build and repair his fleet of vehicles. Along his routes, there were changing stations for the horses each employing grooms and blacksmiths. The so called ‘Bianconi Inns’ developed in over one hundred and fifty stops each one providing direct employment and indirect employment through supplies. He put many smaller coach companies out of business or bought them out, these were usually operator by owners of Inns or Taverns. One commentator wrote about a rival company, McCarthy’s in Kanturk,
‘his cars in shape and size resemble Bianconi’s, but here the comparison ends. McCarthy’s horses are poor starved hacks, whereas those of Bianconi are fine, well fed and strong’.
When Bianconi began, his timing was perfect as there was an abundance of good horses available that had been readied to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, but with the defeat of Napoleon, there was over supply and he was able to purchase horses relatively cheaply. At the height of his business in 1857, Bianconi had 1,300 horses travelling 3,800miles on 23 routes. The local farmers and economies boomed as he purchased 4,000 tons of hays and 30,000 barrels of oats per year. He was as generous to his horses as his men. Despite his demand leading to price increases, he purchased the best of horses and they were well treated. He once wrote,
‘Experience teaches me that I can work a horse eight miles per day, six days in the week, much better than I can six miles for seven days; and by not working on Sundays, I effect a saving of 12 per cent.’
This from a speech delivered by Bianconi at the Cork meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on August 19th, 1843.
With the continued improvements of the turnpikes, the arrival of the canals and the railways, the time spent traveling greatly reduced for the Irish passengers. For example, in 1757 a traveller from Dublin to Kilkenny would be on the road for almost two days with an overnight stay at Athy on the outward journey and in Kilcullen on the inward return journey. By 1825 that journey time had been reduced to eleven hours and with the arrival of the railway by 1860, it took only 3 hours and twenty minutes. Similarly Dublin to Cork in 1793 was advertised as taking over two days, in 1820 that was reduced to just over one day and to 6 hours and 50 minutes when the first train ran on that route.
By 1866, the transport entrepreneur had decided to retire and with his son and heir having predeased him, he rewarded the hard work of those who ran his business by selling off his routes and Inns to the workers of the Bianconi company for reasonable and affordable amounts.
During his tenure as the head of the company, he wanted to ensure that his livestock received the best of treatment and decided to ask for a nephew in Italy to be despatched to Ireland to become the senior veterinarian, looking after both the horses and the other vets in his employ. Giuseppe Marconi arrived in Ireland and was based in both Clonmel and Waterford. Giuseppe was born in the village of Porretta in the shadow of the Apennine Hills on July 5th 1823. He had inherited some of his father’s wealth but was himself a hard worker and generated considerable wealth. He married Giulia De Renoli in January 1855 and their son Luigi was born the following October. Just a couple of years later Giulia died, leaving Giuseppe a single father and a widower. In 1860, he was in London where he invested in a café selling penny ices and a music hall near Charing Cross with former neighbours from Italy, the Gatti brothers. His journey then to Ireland was short when summoned by Bianconi. He would travel to and from the Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street on a Bianconi coach to Clonmel. He would make the return journey through Waterford to New Ross, Enniscorthy and onwards towards Arklow and Bray before reaching Dublin.
Meanwhile Andrew Jameson, son of whiskey magnate John Jameson, departed from the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin and set up his own whiskey still on the River Urrin, a tributary of the Slaney, at Fairfield outside Enniscorthy in 1818. The area is still known as The Stil. Andrew and his second wife Margaret Millar acquired nearby Daphne Castle in 1823 from the Pounden family. Andrew and Margaret had five daughters, all born at Daphne − Elizabeth, Helen, Janet, Isabella, and the youngest Annie was born in 1839. Annie’s family also bought an elegant house in Dublin known as Montrose House. Montrose House, perhaps more familiar to you all now as a backdrop to many RTE News reports. Montrose House is today part of the RTE complex in Donnybrook.
According to Maria Marconi, Annie Jameson, her grandmother was.
‘a lovely girl, charming and vivacious. The whole family had a passion for music. It was their favourite occupation and they used to play different instruments together in the evenings. Annie played the piano and she also had a beautiful soprano voice. To her family’s disapproval (it was quite out of the question for a young girl of good family to become an opera singer in those days), she was offered an engagement to sing at the Covent Garden Opera House in London. She was forbidden to accept but after much discussion and argument she was allowed to go to Italy to study singing with a famous teacher of the time. The Jameson company had contacts with a Bologna banker named De Regoli and Annie went to stay with his family. De Regoli’s daughter had died while giving birth to a son, Luigi, and their widowed son-in-law Giuseppe Marconi spent much of his time with them. He was charming and lively with a good sense of humour and he and Annie soon fell in love.
When Annie returned home to Ireland, she asked permission to marry Giuseppe. Her family was just as shocked at Annie’s choice of husband as they had been at the thought of her singing at Covent Garden and they refused consent to the marriage. Annie was ordered to forget him and, apparently obedient, she remained at home and led a social life going to parties and meeting suitable young men approved by her family. However, she continued to correspond secretly with Giuseppe. When she came of age she ran away from home and crossed the stormy water of the channel to France while Giuseppe drove his carriage across the Alps. They met in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, a romantic town by the sand dunes and were married there on April 16th 1864. ‘
It is perhaps a more honest explanation as to the joining of Signor Marconi and Annie Jameson, that they had met while Marconi was still in Ireland. Secretly carrying on their liaison when Marconi continued on his travels. According to a report in the Weekly Irish Times newspaper on July 1st 1901, it stated,
‘After some time, he sent to Italy for his nephew to act as veterinary superintendent of his stables and this man from his daring riding, his knowledge of horses and his attractive appearance, soon was golden opinions for himself in County Tipperary. His first stay in Ireland was not however of long duration, for having fallen deeply in love with a young Irish lady, whom he had met in the hunting field. He married her without the consent of her parents and it was thought better both by her people and by Mr. Bianconi, that the youthful couple should begin their married life in Italy,’
They settled at Villa Griffone, outside Bologna. Annie was reconciled with her Jameson family after the birth of her first child Alfonso in 1865 but it would be the birth of her second son nine years later that would lead to another communication revolution. Guglielmo Marconi was born on April 25th 1874. For four years, from the age of two, Guglielmo and Alfonso were brought up by Annie in the English town of Bedford. As children, the family would often make summer visits home to Daphne Castle. Annie ensured that Guglielmo spoke excellent English but he laboured in school. Guglielmo Marconi was as much Irish as he was Italian and without that Irish connection and the finances it generated, he would not be seen today as The Father of Radio.
In 1894 Marconi began experiments at his home in Bologna but despite his best efforts to get the Italian authorities to embrace the importance of his wireless telegraphy, He needed a commercial backer and it was one of his mother’s cousins Henry Jameson Davis who stepped in and began to publicise Marconi’s Wireless Telegraphy system. Annie’s fathers’ distillery at Fairfield in Enniscorthy was put out of business in 1840 by a temperance crusade led by Father Theobald Mathew, who had actually been a friend of Bianconi. Jameson rented his property to a local businessman Abraham Davis who would marry Annie’s older sister Helen in 1850. Their second son was Henry Jameson Davis was born in 1854.
Marconi, who had been encouraged to learn English by his Irish born mother travelled to England in 1896 to demonstrate his invention to the British post office. Jameson Davis became the first Managing Director of the newly incorporated Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897 generating almost £100,000 in capital to obtain the patent rights for the Marconi system worldwide. Some of the other investors were James Fitzgerald Bannatyne from Limerick. He would serve as Deputy Lord Mayor of Limerick and was involved in the milling business until his company was bought by the Goodbody Milling Company. Henry Obre, a Cork Merchant who lived at Fort Villa, Queenstown (died 1906), Thomas Wiles, SW Ellerby, Frank Wilson, Cyril Bennet, Robert Patterson, and Goodbody’s who were all involved in the Milling and granary business.
Some of Marconi’s most exciting progressions in wireless technology happened in Ireland. His first experiments linked Rathlin Island with Ballycastle in 1898. In that same year, the first use of the new medium in sports journalism took place in Dun Laoghaire when reports on the local annual regatta were sent by Marconi from the Flying Huntress steam paddle tugboat in Dublin Bay to a receiving station in the harbourmasters house on the quayside and then telephoned to the Daily Express Office who immediately published the race updates. In 1916 it was a 1.5 kilowatt Marconi transmitter that was used to broadcast communiques to the listening world making Ireland the first nation in the world to be declared by radio. In 1923 Marconi operated the first licensed radio station in Ireland 2BP in August 1923 and it was a Marconi transmitter that was used by 2RN to get on the air in January 1926. 2RN would morph into Radio Eireann and then on to today’s Radio Telifis Eireann (RTE). It would be also the Marconi Company whose television transmission equipment that would outlast John Logie Baird’s experimental equipment when the BBC launched a television service.
Marconi also married an Irish woman, Lady Beatrice O’Brien, the daughter of the Lord of Inchiquin whose home was Dromoland Castle in County Clare. She was the great niece of the Irish Nationalist William Smith O’Brien. She married Marconi on March 16th 1905 but separated in 1918 and divorced in 1924. The Belfast Newsletter reported,
‘He asked her to become his wife, ' but her mother objected, saying so many weddings turned out badly that she refused to let her" daughter marry if the bond was indissoluble, as it was for Roman Catholics. This difficulty was only overcome by Senator Marconi entering into an agreement, not only with the Hon. Beatrice O’Brien but also with her mother, whereby it was expressly stated that cither party could sue for divorce, at any time he or she thought fit.’
The success of radio is global with thousands of stations broadcasting news, sports, opinions and entertainment. Ireland fell in love with radio and in the seventies and eighties a revolution took place which broke RTE’s monopoly. The proliferation of pirate radio drove the campaign to create a new broadcasting landscape in Ireland. These stations came on air using Marconi technology and equipment. One of those illegal broadcasters was Ian Dempsey on Alternative Radio Dublin who found himself going legit when he joined the State broadcaster’s second channel RTE Radio 2. When the clamour for independent radio and television reached a crescendo, a demand created by the choice offered by pirate radio, independent commercial radio became a reality. Following the ill-fated Century Radio, the national franchise was won by Radio Ireland which was rebranded as Today FM. One of the major rating winners on Today FM is Ian Dempsey.
The lineage of Marconi’s efforts in Ireland from the first turnpike built, has eventually led to Ian Dempsey at Today FM, the independent national commercial radio station which is based at Marconi House on Digges Lane. If the turnpikes had not been built, the roads would not have been as good or as extensive enough for Charles Bianconi’s transport company to thrive and grow. It connected communities. If it could not grow there would have been no need for hundreds of horses and therefore not require the arrival of Giuseppe Marconi to Ireland to tend to Bianconi’s stables. If Marconi had not visited Ireland, he may have never met and married Annie Jameson. While radio was an inevitability, Marconi, the second son of Giuseppe and Annie, and the key influencer in both its spread and success, would not have been born if his parents had not met. Without Marconi, radio would not be the success in Ireland today that it is and Ian Dempsey might be driving a Luas tram rather than broadcasting to a nation.
 Royal Canal Construction began 1790 and completed 1817
 Grand Canal construction began 1756 and completed in 1804
 The Bian’s by Ivor Herring
 Bianconi’s Cars by Thomas P O’Neill
 ‘Marconi My Beloved’ by Maria C. Marconi
 A widower