The Story of One Italian Genius and His Irish Mother

Do you ever marvel at the miracle of modern communication? Today, I would like to introduce you to a fascinating man (and his Irish mother) who played a crucial part in the making of that modern miracle.

Now Reading:

The Story of One Italian Genius and His Irish Mother

If you travel to the town of Clifden in the west of County Galway and then travel a little further to the south, you will find yourself in wide open countryside with hardly a tree to be seen, bog all around, the Atlantic ocean on one side and the mountains of Connemara on the other. We travelled to this location last year and proceeded on a short hike. Before long we came across a gate with the single word “Marconi” spelled out in steel at the top of the gate.

We knew we were in the right place! We stopped and took out a bottle of Jameson Whiskey to make a toast. Why? Well, the person we were toasting is the subject of today’s Letter from Ireland.


Guglielmo Marconi was born into an Italian aristocratic family in 1874 with an Italian father and an Irish mother – Annie Jameson. Jameson was the granddaughter of John Jameson – founder of the ubiquitous Jameson Irish whiskey distillery in the 1700s.

Marconi was home-tutored as a child and particularly enjoyed chemistry, mathematics and physics – with a specific interest in electricity and the challenge of transmitting telegraph messages wirelessly. Despite being neither an engineer or scientist, he had a talent for experimentation and by the mid-1890s had conducted a number of successful wireless experiments in Italy.

In the early 1890s, telegraph communication was still tied to physical wires causing several problems when attempting to communicate across oceans. Marconi realised that all of the technology was in place to move telegraph communication to a wireless format, but what was missing was someone with the ability to join the parts together and the tenacity to experiment in different, and often hostile, locations. Finally, whoever put the pieces of the wireless jigsaw together would need the cooperation of governments and large businesses.

Marconi now needed practical sponsorship to bring his experiments and ideas to a wider audience. Annie Jameson travelled with her son to London in 1896 to help gain support for the next phase of his work.  She used her contacts to secure the support of the Chief Electrical Engineer for the General Post Office – William Preece – who sponsored Marconi’s larger and more challenging wireless experiments. By March 1899, Marconi was making successful wireless telegraph transmissions across the English Channel to France. Things moved quite rapidly from that point and the next challenge was to transmit signals wirelessly across the Atlantic Ocean between the USA and Europe.

Located at the extreme west of Europe – the island of Ireland was an ideal transmission point for these signals and had a large part to play in Marconi’s plans (helped no doubt by encouragement from his Irish mother).

Over the next number of years, Marconi built eight radio transmission stations across the island of Ireland, including one in his mother’s home county of County Wexford and another in the wilds of Connemara near Clifden. Marconi visited Ireland frequently supervising the building of these stations. Marconi’s wireless system made the first successful transatlantic transmission in December, 1901 – via the station in Clifden, Connemara – and was celebrated as both a scientific and commercial success.

This transmission station in Clifden went on to employ almost 250 people by the early part of the 20th century, making it one of the main employers in the west of Ireland at the time. However, these buildings were burned to the ground by the IRA in 1922.

As Carina and myself walked the path past the Marconi gate on that beautiful late summer’s day we walked across the concrete foundations of the Marconi’s buildings, all that remains of his remarkable achievement and venture today.

Marconi’s Irish connections continued as he went on to marry an Irish woman by the name of Beatrice O’Brien. By the time he died in 1937 he had cemented an extraordinary legacy in the field of radio communications and business, including winning the Nobel prize for Physics in 1909.

Sitting here in a cottage in County Cork in Ireland this morning, connecting with you across the oceans around the world – I have come to appreciate the part that Marconi had to play in making our connected world what it is today.

So, if you ever wander into that field in Connemara and spot the gate leading to nowhere with the name “Marconi” on top, take a moment to remember a time when the world was a very different place. You might even join us and raise a glass of Jameson Whiskey to toast the tenacity of both this extraordinary man and his Irish mother – one Annie Jameson!

That’s it for this week. Slán for now, Mike.

Plus Member Comments

Only Plus Members can comment - Join Now

If you already have an account sign in here.