Valentia Island – Connecting the world since 1860

By Sean Ryan

Valentia Island off the Kerry Coast is known the length and breadth of Ireland for its weather observatory. Valentia Island’s association with meteorology began in 1860, when the County Kerry island was chosen as a location for an observatory station, due to its telegraphic link to London via the trans-Atlantic cable. Its importance for meteorological observations was immediately recognised, being in the path of most of the weather systems from the Atlantic. The Valentia Observatory is one of the oldest monitoring stations in the world.

In the mid-nineteenth century, New York newspaper magnet, Cyrus Field, made four attempts to lay a telegraph cable under the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Valentia, between 1857 and 1866. The success of this project would mean that the Old World, namely Europe, and the New World, namely North America, would be connected for the first time. Before the cable was laid, it took up to 14 days to send a message by ship one way, but afterwards it took a matter of minutes, and in the process made the world a much smaller place. The first connection was made in August 1858 and lasted three weeks. The permanent connection was eventually made after the American Civil War in 1866. 

Valentia Observatory is located one kilometre west of the town of Cahirciveen, on the estuary of the Feartha river. The Observatory carries out surface weather and upper-air meteorological measurements, as well as a wide range of other scientific activities including ozone monitoring, geomagnetics, seismology, solar radiation and environmental monitoring. The Observatory is called Valentia because it was originally located on Valentia Island.

Valentia Island’s association with meteorology began in 1860, when Admiral FitzRoy, who was head of the Meteorological Committee of the (British) Board of Trade, made arrangements for regular communication, by telegraph, of meteorological observations from 15 land stations in Britain and Ireland. Valentia was chosen as one of those stations because it had a telegraphic link to London to service the trans-Atlantic cable.

The importance of Valentia as a location for meteorological observations was recognised immediately, it being situated in the path of most of the weather systems coming from the Atlantic. In 1865, the British Government decided to set up observatories with self recording instruments, at seven locations including Valentia. Six of them were in established scientific institutions, Kew Observatory, Falmouth Polytechnic Institution, Stonyhurst College, Armagh Observatory, the Observatory at Glasgow University, and the Observatory at Aberdeen University. The Observatory at Valentia was set up by the Meteorological Committee. It was funded by them and manned by their own staff.

The Observatory was set up in a house leased from the Knight of Kerry at the Revenue on Valentia Island, in August 1868.

The recording instruments installed were the Adie Photographic Barograph and Thermograph and the Robinson Beckley Anemograph. The station was supplied with the Beckley Rain Recorder in 1869 and with the Campbell-Stokes Sunshine Recorder in 1879. These instruments are now on display in the Observatory museum. The Observatory continued on the Island until March 1892, when it was transferred to its present location.

The main Observatory building was called Westwood House and was built, in 1866, by a Captain Needham, the local agent for Trinity College, Dublin, which had major land holdings in the area. The British Meteorological Office continued to staff and fund the Observatory until December 1936 when the Irish Meteorological Service was set up.

The British Meteorological Office ran the Observatory on an agency basis for the Irish Meteorological Service until the end of September 1937, when staff were trained for the new service. Many of the staff employed by the British Meteorological Office at the Observatory transferred to the Irish Meteorological Service.

Since the setting up of the Irish Meteorological Service, the work programme of the Observatory has greatly expanded and it has always been equipped with the most technologically advanced equipment and instrumentation. The Observatory is well-known and very highly regarded by the scientific community. As well as fulfilling its national and international role within Met Éireann, it is involved in many projects with other scientific bodies both in Ireland and abroad.

The manual weather station at Valentia was officially closed on 1 April, 2012, and was replaced by an Automatic Weather Station at the same location from 2 April, 2012. On the same date, the number of daily radiosonde ascents reduced from 4 to 2.

Recently, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, was at the Met Éireann Observatory to mark its recent accreditation by the World Meteorological Organisation as a Centennial Station. During his visit the President also unveiled a plaque at the observatory to mark its centennial designation by the WMO. 

From Cahersiveen President Higgins then travelled on to Valentia Island itself where he toured the island’s historic Transatlantic Cable Station.    President Higgins visit was in support of the local Transatlantic Cable Foundation’s ongoing bid to have the station and cable – the first communications link between Europe and the Americas which became fully operational in 1866 and revitalised life on the island – recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Project.

Featured image by Larry Lamb via Flickr.