Ireland’s National Maritime Museum is housed, aptly enough, in the old Mariners Church of Dún Laoghaire, Dublin Bay. Built in 1837, the church has remained in place despite a town that has changed rapidly around it. The church now has pride of place amid architecture old and new; its neighbours include the modernist Dun Laoghaire Lexicon, the historic Royal Marine Hotel, and the impressive Victorian harbour.
Included in the museum’s collection are many items relating to one Captain Robert Halpin, a Wicklow-born mariner who proved himself as master aboard the SS Great Eastern.
The SS Great Eastern was no ordinary ship. Launched in 1858, the Great Eastern was designed and built by famed engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who had a vision of a massive steam ship that would comfortably convey 4,000 passengers from England to Australia with no need to refuel.
Sadly, the ship proved too large for contemporary docks and was thus constrained in its practical use. The project was beset by difficulties from the outset, and was marked by tragedy; an early trial run saw an accidental explosion that killed six men on board. That last event was said to hasten the death of Brunel, who died of stroke just 10 days later in September 1859. Nonetheless, the ship is now considered a prototype for modern ocean liners.
After several years of low use for passenger travel, the Great Eastern was sold for a new purpose as a cable vessel. It was used for laying undersea cables until 1874. This vital work allowed for telegraph messages, telegrams, to be transmitted across countries. In 1866 the first successful transatlantic cable was laid from the Great Eastern, marking a pivotal moment in the history of communications.
Captain Robert Halpin was the captain of the Great Eastern at this point. Halpin, from a reasonably affluent middle-class background, had left his home in County Wicklow at the age of 11 to become a seafarer. He’d proven himself as an able captain of various steamships. Just one setback had marked his career; in 1859 (coincidentally the same year as the Great Eastern explosion and Brunel’s death), Halpin captained the ill-fated Argo, which ran aground on its maiden voyage. Halpin was deemed responsible in the enquiry, and his master’s ticket suspended for nine months. Halpin’s career endured this event; he went on to take part in transporting supplies to Confederate states during the American Civil War.
Halpin joined the crew of the Great Eastern in 1865 as chief officer and was involved with the initially unsuccessful attempt to lay a transatlantic cable. The cable broke, but it paved the way for a successful outing in 1866. Halpin led the effort to lay a successful cable on that occasion, which received a great deal of public attention. He was also feted for the daring rescue of a crew member who’d panicked in the ship’s rigging. Halpin quickly became a well-known hero of the cable effort, and was soon appointed captain of the Great Eastern.
The images in this story relate mainly to items associated with Halpin's work aboard the Great Eastern. The photographs were taken in 2007 when the church underwent major renovation.
Thank you to the National Maritime Museum of Ireland for kindly sharing these images with us.