Captain Robert Halpin is an Irish maritime legend. He was born in Wicklow town on 17th February 1836, the youngest of 13 children. At 11 years old he went to sea. His first trips were on sailing ships, but Halpin saw that the future lay in steam.
In 1858 Halpin took command of a 1,000 ton passenger steamship called Propellor, travelling from Ireland to America. Galway was their home-port, because at that time the most dangerous part of the trip to the USA was around the south of Ireland – south west winds blew ships regularly onto Cork and Kerry coast lines. But there were other dangers – on one trip they ran out of fuel, and had to burn most of the furniture.
Now came a set-back for the young man’s career. In June 1859. while in command of a ship Argo, he ran aground off Newfoundland. There was no loss of life, but Halpin lost his master’s certificate for 9 months. Unable to work legally he became a blockade runner during the American Civil War, carrying cargo for the Confederates in the South.
In June 1865 he was appointed chief officer of the Great Eastern, the world’s largest ship. She had been unsuccessful as a passenger ship, but was altered to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, from Ireland to the United States.
Halpin spent many years as a highly respected commander of the Great Eastern, he was also a popular host to the vast number of guests and spectators that the ship carried.
When Halpin retired from the sea he bought Tinakilly House in Wicklow, became involved in politics, and finally died in January 1894. Having survived many years of peril on the high seas, he sadly died as a result of gangrene contracted while cutting his toenails.