“Martello Towers in Ireland” PART II : Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio

Welcome back to the series of “Martello Towers in Ireland”! Did you miss out on the first feature of the series, which is about the James Joyce Tower and Museum? If so, you can take a look here

The Martello Towers are an intrinsic part of Irish culture, history and heritage.  Due to the fear of Napoleonic invasion, around 50 such towers were set up across the island of Ireland. These monuments, which once had crucial strategic importance for the security of the land, are now sinking in neglect. Some have been refurbished into museums and other spots of attraction, but many have lost its significance in the ravages of time. This series is aimed at exploring these hidden gems of Irish memorabilia. 

A treasure trove hidden inside the Martello Tower

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The North No. 2 Martello Tower which now houses the Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio (Source: Atlas Obscura)

The second feature of the series is going to cover an enchanting Museum- The ‘Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio’, housed in the North No.2 Martello Tower at Howth, Co. Dublin. It is located on the Tower Hill, the site of the original Howth Castle and the former motte castle of the St. Lawrence Estate. This Martello Tower dates back to 1805. One can get to see another Martello Tower on the island of Ireland’s Eye, from this location.  

Ireland proudly houses a wide range of museums which reflects the vivid contour of Irish history. Ranging from archaeology, history, decorative arts to culture, country life, etc., Irish museums will leave any history bug enthralled. However, today’s feature, the Vintage Radio Museum is unique from all other Irish museums. 

But why is it so? What makes this Museum so unique from the rest? Gliding through this feature will answer the questions!

Introducing the founder of the Museum, Mr. Pat Herbert

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Mr. Pat Herbert inside the Museum (Source: Independent.ie)

Irish people love radio and do have a craze about it. But, one ‘radioholic’ took this to a whole new level.  Mr. Pat Herbert, the Curator of the Ye Olde Hurdy- Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio, has a unique and enchanting hobby (rather, an obsession, in his words). He is collecting radios for over 65 years now. In 2003, the Fingal County Council offered the newly refurbished North No. 2 tower to Mr. Herbert for exhibiting “part” of his wonderful collection. Thus from 2003, started the magnificent journey of this Museum. It is undoubtedly a treasure which is preserving the rich history of Radio and Communications through the passion of Mr. Herbert and his wonderful crew. The Museum is not run as a commercial enterprise. It is preserved and maintained purely as “a labour of love”. 

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Mr. Herbert enjoying his work inside the Museum

The incredible story of Mr. Herbert’s lifelong collection has been made into a 10-minute short film by Stuart Duff, “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. The film was nominated for several awards like the Dublin International Short Film and Musical Festival and the Underground Cinema Film Festival. Another short documentary called “To Each Their Own: That Magic Box”, by Emma Nolan, has been the winner of the Best Factual Short Film in the Limerick Film Festival 2014. 

Historical significance of the North No.2 Martello Tower

Apart from housing the ever-expanding collection of the Museum, this Martello Tower has been long associated with the history of radio transmissions in Ireland. As a telegraph cable station, during the 1850s, the tower was an important telecommunications centre and the communications gateway of Ireland to the outside world.

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Martello Tower 1903 (Lee de Forest) and 1905 (Marconi) (Source: Hurdy Gurdy Museum)

Furthermore, in 1903, the first successful demonstration of wireless telegraphy by Lee de Forest, the American radio pioneer, took place at this tower. In 1905, British Post Office sponsored extensive wireless experiments at the tower. A Marconi Company receiving station was also installed. The HM Telegraph Ship ‘Monarch’ used to sail across various locations in the Irish Sea and transmitted back to Howth. In the same year, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his technology by communicating with the ship. He used  a high aerial which was erected in the grounds of this tower. 

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Here is displayed part of the first two cables that linked the UK and Ireland for telephony. (Source: superann RTE.ie)

In 1922, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs took control of the tower. Following that, it was under Telecom Éireann till the 1980s, when it was sold to Dublin City Council. 

A conversation with Mr. Tony Breathnach, a Vintage Radio enthusiast associated with the Museum

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Mr. Tony Breathnach inside the Museum

Mr. Tony Breathnach, another vintage Radio enthusiast, has been working in the Museum for a decade now. He still uses a Morse code key from the 1950s to make communications with transmitters near and far. Recently, in an interview, I had a rich conversation with Mr. Breathnach about the Museum, its history and the exhibits. 

Let’s go through the interview to learn more about this wonder!

Shrinwanti: Hello Mr. Breathnach. It is an honour to have a conversation with you about the Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio. It would be an incredible thing to know more about this treasure from you. So, from where has the Museum derived its name? 

Tony: This is an interesting story! It has nothing to do with the musical instrument. Seán Lemass was a government minister who later became Taoiseach (Prime Minister of Ireland) in the middle of the last century.

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(Source: Google Sites)

On an official visit to the Office of the National Radio Service, Radio Eireann (now RTE), he is reported to have referred to the radio service as “The Old Hurdy Gurdy” and hence, the name of the museum.

Shrinwanti: Wow! That sounds amazing! Well, how long did it take to set up the museum in the refurbished Martello Tower? 

Tony: The museum was set up in the tower in 2003. It didn’t take too long to get organised and open to the public. Pat Herbert has a passion for radio and has been an enthusiastic collector since the mid 1950s, when he emigrated to London from Mayo in the west of Ireland.  He married in England and returned to Ireland in about 1970. His house, attic and shed were full of items from his collection and needed a proper home. When the refurbished tower became available, Pat applied to use it as a museum and was given occupancy. He had it up running within a few weeks, such was his enthusiasm. 

Before he emigrated to London, there was no mains electricity in rural Mayo and there was only one battery radio in his native village. When Pat was a child, the neighbours used to gather around that radio to listen to commentaries on big football matches. The magic glow of the dial on the radio and the voices from so far away had him enthralled.  In London, he could afford to start collecting radio paraphernalia and that was the start of it all.

Shrinwanti: Mr. Herbert’s passion for radio is so evident from his ever-expanding collections at the Museum. But, arranging personal collections into a museum is not really a conventional idea! How did Mr. Herbert come up with this unique idea? What was his source of inspiration? 

Tony: Pat was so enthusiastic and needed a suitable place to exhibit his collection. He also wanted to share his enthusiasm with others. As mentioned above, his inspiration was as a child listening to the sole battery wireless in his native village in Mayo in the 1940s and being totally enthralled. He was bitten by the bug and when he could afford it, he started to build up his collection. He has now been collecting for over 65 years.

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Mr. Herbert with the team of The RTS ( Royal Television Society – ROI Centre) during their visit to the Museum. (Source: superann RTE.ie)

Shrinwanti: Over 65 years?! That is indeed a long-stretched passion and enthusiasm on Mr. Herbert’s part. Can you tell me what are the main sources of his collections?

Tony: Pat attended auctions and markets around the country. He would also attend big regular sales and exhibitions in England. He had a network of like-minded friends who would tip him off when interesting items became available for sale. Many people donate items to the museum as well, especially when homes are being cleared out and put up for sale following the death of an owner.

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Mr. Herbert demonstrates a very novel record player in the form of a “bus” . Here it is playing an LP issued by Radio Eireann to celebrate 50 years of RE in 1976. (Source: superann RTE.ie)

Shrinwanti: That sounds interesting! What exhibits will one expect to see upon a visit to the Museum? 

Tony: Pat calls his collection “From the Wireless to the Web”.

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The exquisite view one will get to see upon entering the Museum (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

But that is a misnomer because there are many exhibits from before the coming of radio. There are musical instruments, music boxes, gramophones, an original working Edison phonograph with cylinders, an original working spark wireless transmitter, Morse keys, Morse lamps, early television sets, crystal radio sets and of course lots and lots of radio/wireless sets from the earliest days to the present.

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Some Round EKCOs and others (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

 

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Some early Televisions (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

 

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Collection of gramaphone needle boxes (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

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Posters on the stairs (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

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Some more wonderful exhibits of the Museum (Source: superann RTE.ie)

There is also a working amateur radio station housed within the tower with the call-sign EI0MAR. 

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The amateur radio station EI0MAR (Source: Google Sites/ Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio)

The museum has strong connections with the pioneering days of wireless telegraphy. In 1903 Lee de Forest, an American pioneer and inventor, demonstrated his wireless system to engineers of the British Post Office from the tower with transmissions to Holyhead in North Wales (Ireland was part of the UK then). He had hoped to secure the contract for wireless telegraphy, but failed. The Marconi Company conducted wireless tests two years later from the tower and was awarded the contract. Marconi’s mother was Annie Jameson from the famous Irish whiskey family. She had the social, political and business connections in London to influence the decision to award the contract to her son’s company. 

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Mr. Breathnach operating at the Museum (Source: Mapio)

It is an honour and a privilege to have an amateur wireless station still operating in the museum and still using Morse code as in 1903 and 1905 in the present time. There are also exhibits suitable for young children, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck action telephones for instance. “Oh Boy! A telephone call. I wonder who it could be? 

Shrinwanti: The history of radio transmissions associated with this tower is magnificent. Without visiting the Museum, who would know that the tower which looks like any other typical tower from a distance, is actually a rich treasure of vintage radios and other ancient communications equipment!! Well, what is the most ancient and the most enchanting exhibit in the Museum?

Tony: Indeed! Early mechanical music boxes are probably the most ancient. Edison’s phonograph and the original spark wireless transmitter are probably the most enchanting. Early gramophones too.

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Some early gramophones (Source: superann RTE.ie)

Shrinwanti: Ireland has lots of museums. How is this museum different from them? Or in other words, what is actually the USP of this museum?  

Tony: This museum is unique and quirky like an Aladdin’s cave. It is not a commercial venture. The museum is the result of  one man’s passion and a labour of love. It gives him pleasure to share his collection with others and he gets great satisfaction in seeing others’ enjoyment. Each visitor is made to feel special and welcome. There is no rush. Tea and a chat is the order of the day. The museum is never over-run with visitors. Most visitors are already interested and not just casual visitors although the latter often leave amazed and full of wonder after visiting.

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Mr. Herbert giving guided tours of the Museum to visitors (Source: Fearghus ó conchúir)

Shrinwanti: History reveals that the Tower was offered to Mr. Herbert by the Fingal County Council. So, what kind of offer was that? Was it for lease or was it for sale?  

Tony: It was offered free. However Pat has to pay the usual insurance including public liability and fire.

Shrinwanti: All Irish Martello Towers have a unique architecture. But, while refurbishing this tower and transforming into a museum, was the original architecture modified to give it a touch of modernisation or was the originality preserved? 

Tony: Much of the original architecture has been retained. The building stood derelict for many years before restoration. The tower was not restored with a museum in mind. However, the original roof architecture has been altered. But, the rings which anchor the gun carriage, remain same. Although, the recessed floor on the roof has been filled in to the same height as the ledge running around the perimeter.

Shrinwanti: That has been a rich exploration of the treasure trove. It would be great to talk to you a bit about your personal experience as a vintage radio enthusiast associated with this Museum. So, since when have you been working at the museum? 

Tony: In 2003, the museum opening coincided with the centenary of Lee de Forest’s pioneering wireless experiments at the tower. Pat wanted to mark the centenary. So, to commemorate the event, a special amateur radio station was set up. Pat invited me to help out on the occasion, which was a great success. Little did I realize at the time that Pat lives just across the road from me and we became friends. I set up the permanent amateur station in the Martello and operated it regularly. At that time, I was still working, but would help out at weekends. 

Pat is not IT savvy. So, I set up the original website and also got the internet installed. I have been helping out ever since. I also did a lot of the secretarial and administration work for him in my spare time.

Shrinwanti: Did you always have a passion for radio and communications? 

Tony: Yes, if you read my personal story in the booklet of the Museum, you will see that. My father was born in 1910 and was a radio shortwave listener from his youth. He also built his own radio equipment starting from the late 1920s. I was born in 1950 and Dad was still a shortwave listener. He encouraged me and we would listen together. Dad would write off to the many distant commercial stations we heard giving them signal reports. They would reply with informational booklets and information on their countries.

Dad would show me on the world map where the stations were located. It got me hooked. Every Sunday evening in the 1950s and 1960s we would listen to “Sing Something Simple” on the BBC at teatime. Dad had to emigrate to England for work in the early 1960s and before he left, he made us promise to continue listening to that programme knowing that he too would be listening in London. This made the family feel united from 6pm until 7pm every Sunday evening. Dad helped me build my very first radio receiver around 1966. The kitchen table was our workshop. 

Shrinwanti: So, you have a passion for radio since childhood. That is indeed great! How have you continued with your hobby since then?

Tony: My first job was a trainee telephone technician but I continued on the hobby of Shortwave Listening. In the 1970s CB radio was a big craze and that is when I became interested in the transmitting end of radio. I followed on from this by getting my amateur radio licence in 1980. You can say, I am an experimenter at heart. Building my own radio projects from scratch is a passion for me. I have continued the tradition of my Dad.

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Mr. Breathnach’s EI QRP display at the IRTS AGM in Athlone, 2019 (Source: Twitter/ Tony Breathnach)

Now, I maintain a YouTube channel demonstrating my radio project building and experiments. Also, I write technical and radio related articles for various magazines from time to time. Amateur radio has been a lifelong hobby. It has given me great happiness and satisfaction. There is no doubt that it is a real tonic during this terrible COVID-19 crisis. It keeps me occupied and busy. 

Shrinwanti: What is your fondest memory while working in the museum? 

Tony: Every year we participate in International Marconi Day (IMD). We celebrate it on the weekend closest to Guglielmo Marconi’s birthday. Many consider him to be the Father of Wireless. On IMD, amateur radio enthusiasts set up special event stations around the world from locations with historical connections to Marconi and take part in this special event. Other radio amateurs try to make contact with as many of these special event stations as possible, including EI0MAR in the museum. 

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Celebration of International Marconi Day at the Museum

It is a wonderful feeling and a privilege to be operating Morse code from the same location as where Lee de Forest and the Marconi Company did exactly the same thing at the beginning of the last century.

Shrinwanti: This museum is in itself ‘a history’. On top of that, it is preserving an ancient legacy- the famous Martello towers. It is indeed a ‘double gem’. Do you think more of such towers shall be preserved to hold on to their precious history? 

Tony: I do indeed. An occupying imperial power built them to prevent the French attacking from the sea during Napoleonic times, following the unsuccessful 1798 Rebellion against English rule in Ireland. The French actually landed in the west of Ireland that year but after some initial successes, surrendered to a much larger English force. The English realized Ireland’s vulnerability. Thus, the English built the network of Martello towers defenses in the early years of the nineteenth century. Sadly, in my view, the French didn’t come.

The towers are a legacy of those times and a reminder of our history. More of them needs preservation for future generations. I already told you that one of my proudest and most emotional moments was raising the Irish tricolor on the roof of the tower and seeing it flutter in the breeze.

Shrinwanti: It is indeed a matter of pride that enthusiasts like you and Mr. Herbert are putting all possible efforts to keep the legacy and history of Radio & Communications alive. One last question- During the current pandemic, many museums across the world have started virtual tours. When will we get to see the same for this Museum? To conclude, I would like to thank you for sharing with me the rich history, legacy and the inspiration behind the Museum. 

Tony: No virtual tours have been started, although there are several YouTube clips which could be classed as virtual tours. 

Also, I will keep my passion alive as long as I am able or until I become a Silent Key. Silent Key refers to a Morse code radio operator who has passed away and whose Morse Key (tapper) now remains silent. Thank you. 

Want to explore the kaleidoscopic array of retro broadcast relics? This Museum is a ‘MUST VISIT’

The North No. 2 Martello Tower which has been the “Ancestral home of Irish Communications since 1852” and today’s Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio, is a must visit for all the radio and communications enthusiasts. The warm welcome and the unique exhibits of the Museum will surely amaze the visitors. Also, the view from the roof of this tower, overlooking the Howth Harbour is equally enchanting. Apart from that, getting to see how the amateur radio station EI0MAR works is like ‘icing on the cake’. 

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The wonderful views of Howth Harbour and Ireland’s Eye from the roof of the Tower (Source: superann RTE.ie)

A day spent in this wonderful location will be an all-encompassing venture. One will get to have a roller-coaster ride of the Irish communication history, the warm welcome by the Museum crew and the scenic beauty of the Irish coastline, all under one roof! Then, what are you waiting for? Plan a visit to this wonderful treasure as early as possible! 

 

Till then, Happy Reading!

 

Cover image source: Restless Prairie Girl

About the author

Shrinwanti Mistri

Shrinwanti Mistri is currently pursuing MSc in International Relations at The School of Politics and IR, University College Dublin. Her professional domain includes Policy Research and Advocacy. However, she has always had a passion for writing, and is grabbing this opportunity to reach out to the world through her write-ups.

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