Maritime History

Capt Robert Halpin

Born in Wicklow on the 17th February 1836, son of James Halpin, innkeeper of Wicklow Bridge House. (Now known as Bridge Tavern)  He was the youngest of 13 children and first went to sea in 1847 at the age of 11.

This first stage of his life at sea was spent on the North American Trade. He was an apt and clever apprentice and as soon as he was qualified he transferred to a ship called Boomerang, which aptly enough was used on trips to Australia. He saw the way the future was to be and quickly moved to steam ships, one of which was called the Circassian. He became accustomed to dealing with passengers.

In 1858 the Atlantic Steam Navigation Company was set up in Galway, in the belief that as is was the shortest route to America, it would be safer, as many ships were wrecked rounding the coast of Ireland. At the age of 22 he took command of a 1,000 ton screw steamer called Propellor, taking passengers across the Atlantic. On one occasion there was a narrow escape as they ran out of fuel and had to burn almost everything combustible on the ship in order to reach their destination..

Then came disaster, On June 23rd 1859 when in command of a ship called Argo, he was wrecked off Newfoundland, fortunately with no loss of life. However he lost his master’s certificate for 9 months. In this same year the Galway company was looking at chartering the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world.

Robert Halpin, meanwhile had moved on, and we next find him blockade running during the American Civil War, during the years 1863-64. He was trapped for some months in Mobile after running the Union blockade of the port. It is likely that this was a very profitable venture for Halpin.

In June 1865 he was appointed Chief Officer of the Great Eastern. A behemoth of 22,000 tons and 680 ft long, which was under the command Capt. Andersen. This amazing ship had proved to be a financial disaster as a passenger carrier, but had been chartered to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic.

Telegraph cables had been laid first between Dover and Calais in 1850, followed by a cable between Howth and Holyhead in 1852, (which lasted for only 3 days). In 1858 a cable was laid across the Atlantic with success, but the signal faded to nothing after a short time. In 1865, with Halpin as navigator, the Great Eastern started across the Atlantic on 22nd June. On August 1st they had gone 1,660 miles when they lost the cable in 2,000 feet of water. Using drag lines with 5 miles of hawser they made three unsuccessful attempts to recover the cable.

During the course of this work, Halpin made a name for himself by rescuing a crew member who panicked in the rigging. A fall from such a height directly into the machinery on the ship would have meant certain death for both of them. This feat brought him to the forefront of media coverage at the time.

In 1866 the same team successfully laid another cable between June 30th and July 26th. To add to his fame, Halpin then navigated the ship to the exact place where they had lost the old cable the previous year, it was successfully recovered, spliced and completed, to provide two lines of communication between America and Europe via Ireland.

When in Newfoundland, Halpin met John Munn, whose daughter he was later to marry. On his return to Ireland Halpin was given a civic reception in October 1866.

Halpin now became master of the Great Eastern and the team continued to lay telegraph cables, from France to America, and from Bombay to Suez in 1870 just as the Suez canal was due to open. The Great Eastern was a vast ship and had a very large complement of crew, cable layers, guests and officials. It was said of Halpin that “He ran the Great Eastern with the kindly amenities of a social gathering, the order of a factory and the discipline of a barrack”

In 1873 Halpin is back in Newfoundland to marry Jessie Munn, in 1874 he lays a cable to Brazil, at which time the Faraday is launched in Milford Haven. This new ship was purpose built as a cable layer and was shortly to replace the Great Eastern.

In 1876 Halpin buys Tinakilly and builds the house, which still stands. He became a respected elder in the community, and acted as Lord of the Manor. He still busied himself about maritime affairs and was frequently overseas.

In 1887 the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee we find him a Director of the Gas Company, and Chairman of Wicklow Regatta. In 1892 he stood as Loyalist candidate for East Wicklow without success. Finally on January 20th 1894 he died after a battle with gangrene as a result of a cut suffered when trimming his toenails. On Friday 23rd October 1897 a memorial was unveiled to Captain Robert Halpin in Wicklow’s Fitzwilliam Square.