Waves of Dal Radio

By Sam MacDonald on Fri 24th Mar 2017

Sam MacDonald

Here in the ancient Kingdom Dal Riada, two Italian family names ring clear today – Morelli (ice-cream makers) and Marconi (telecommunication innovators). There’s only so much I can tell you about the former because it’s essentially a matter of taste. However, research into the latter family opens a treasure trove of information that suggests genealogy is a consistent indicator of destiny for greatness.

Guglielmo Marconi, Vanity Fair

Between 29 August and 2 September, 1898, Guglielmo Marconi and his assistant George Kemp sent a successful radio transmission from Ballycastle on Ireland’s north coast to Rathlin Island. Apart from the grandeur of this scientific accomplishment, the location chosen to complete the experiment was obscure from a historical standpoint; an Italian working for an English company (Lloyd’s Insurance of London) erecting masts in churches and lighthouses in a remote region and sending messages to an even more remote island. It was a far cry from the Isle of Wight where Marconi entertained Royalty with experiments of a similar nature.

Once you scratch beneath the surface, however, Guglielmo Marconi’s station on the Sea of Moyle seems more plausible, if still obscure. For here between the north-east coast of Ireland and Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre opposite was one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping channels connecting America with Europe.

Marconi’s lineage is nowhere near as finely-tuned as the radio service he invented. Rather it is a noisy jumble which combines wealth, travel, whisky and whiskey, ships, violence, and even cannibalism.

Morconi was the great-grandson of John Jameson, founder of Jameson Whiskey, a Scot who moved to Dublin with the intention of carrying to Ireland his family tradition of whisky-making, along with his family’s eminence of wealth and respectability. He became a Scot in Dublin distilling spirit, a full 150 years after his great-grandfather Robert Haig began to do so in Scotland. His was a family lineage synonymous with whisk(e)y’s history.

Haig family tree, including Great grandson John Jameson

At the same time that Marconi, the son of Annie Jameson and Italian aristocrat Giuseppe Marconi, was sending syntonic telegraphy across the Sea of Moyle, Jamesons’ distillery in Dublin was producing 4.8 million litres a year (a substantial operation for the time).

The family’s transition from whiskey to wireless was due no less to their inheritance and ability to gain third-level education, as to an entrepreneurial family spirit that was already producing two of the world’s most successful whisk(e)y brands. The result was a “magician who found a means of transmitting signals from shore to shore and ship to ship”. Rudyard Kipling described him as “a man who met with triumph and disaster and treated those two imposters just the same”.

Disaster, indeed, was never far from a family who never feared drama. Marconi’s maternal grandfather James S. Jameson was infamously involved in an African expedition which allegedly involved cannibalism. This was not the heroic, if controversial, 1970s tale of students trapped after an air disaster in the snowbound Andes, making a difficult decision to sustain life by consuming the flesh of their dead comrades. Instead, James was merely curious about the existence of cannibals among tribal people in Africa.

So, it is alleged, he bought an 11-year-old girl for the price of six handkerchiefs, in order to watch her being murdered and eaten for the sake of illustrating the incident in a series of sketches.

His grandson had no such appetite for violence and, in fact, is credited with saving hundreds of lives on the Titanic. After the famous ship’s demise, it was said that “those who have been saved, have been saved through one man… Marconi… and his marvellous invention.”

Ballycastle plaque commemorating Marconi's achievement

The Jamesons are a monumental family in popular history. Their family crest reads, “Sine Metu Ad Littora Tendit” (Without Fear He Defends the Coast). While the coast may indeed be home for this family, it was the sea that offered salvation. From whisky to whiskey to wireless, horizontal migration across the Sea of Moyle allowed the family’s vertical elevation.

The history of Dal Riada illustrates its natural ability to make fine spirit. Yet imagining the first discernible noises transmitted across our sea by telegraphy 119 years ago, suggests there is more to this Kingdom’s waterways than just alcohol; but surely whiskey helped the radio waves along the way.

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