Digital Skibbereen!

The Digital Week programme has appeared all over town...
The Digital Week programme has appeared all over town…

Who has ever heard of Percy Ludgate? And who would have thought that a man born in 1883 in a little West Cork town was a computer pioneer?

Early ‘computing’ – Percy Ludgate (top left); a conjectural diagram of his invention; the Schicard calculator (known as Napier’s Bones), arguably the first mechanical calculator and created in 1623; the very first Apple computer (above)

In Skibbereen, now, everyone knows about him – because he has given his name to a new initiative which has swept the town. And – breaking news – National Digital Week has just taken over this modest community, doubling its population for a few days and bringing innovation and promise of much needed life and work opportunities.

Skibb busy street

21st century Skibbereen

Skibbereen has become one of the first towns in Ireland outside Dublin to create for itself a ‘Digital Hub’: a centre where businesses will have access to high-speed fibre broadband – something which is long overdue in rural Ireland. We all remember the promises rolled out in the Celtic Tiger years that every last corner of the island would be given access to state-of-the-art phone and internet connection so that businesses could operate competitively from small communities, thus ensuring their economic survival… Well, two decades later, this ‘last corner’ here in Cappaghglass is still waiting: our broadband is always slow and ‘down’ as often as it is ‘up’, and a mobile phone signal is non-existent – politicians take note, please! And this is not uncommon in all the remoter fringes of this land.

Everything that can be digital

All the more reason to applaud the initiatives now happening in Skibbereen. It’s only twenty minutes up the road from Cappaghglass, so perhaps there is hope that once real high-speed connectivity reaches that town some of its potency may dribble down the lines to us…

Finola and

Finola was particularly impressed that there was a day dedicated to female leaders in digital media – women who are ‘making the impossible possible’... Here Finola is mentored by Denise Brown, an Account Manager at Google

Skibbereen’s initiative is being led by local businessmen and women who want their own families – and the whole younger generation now growing up in rural Ireland – to have the opportunity of a viable working future without having to migrate to the cities or abroad – which is currently the norm. And they have no doubts that the future is digital; it is possible to run any sort of business nowadays online, and to compete in national and international markets from anywhere in the world, provided that the place is digitally ‘connected’.

Robert and Giacomo

Robert at a one-to-one clinic with Google’s Giacomo Gnecchi-Ruscone

Ireland has a long-running association with the digital world, probably for the very same reason that it’s now important for communities in rural Ireland to embrace it: we are a very small country with a tiny population trying to survive and make our mark in the huge world economy. Giants like Apple and Google have long had a big presence in the Irish Republic – partly because they get good tax deals but also because Ireland’s working community has made itself good at being digital.

google dublin

Google has a huge presence in Ireland: the Dublin office

Skibbereen’s John Field comes from a family which has made its mark on the town: the local central supermarket – still always called ‘Fields’ – thrives because it focusses on local producers and also provides a very good friendly shopping experience. John believes that West Cork producers are central to the new ‘Irish food culture’. Now he is a prime mover in the digital initiative and has donated a premises – that used to be the town’s bakery (one of the oldest in Ireland) – as the first Digital Hub to be fitted out. By chance (or not!) this premises is just around the corner from where computer pioneer Percy Ludgate was born.


A digital image of Field’s old bakery converted to the new Hub

Percy Ludgate was convinced of the importance of mathematical computing devices, and came up with his own design for an ‘analytical machine’ in 1909. He was well respected and lectured universities and learned societies in the early part of the twentieth century. He knew the work of Englishman Charles Babbage (1791-1871) who had built programmable calculating machines using a system of punched cards. Ludgate took a different approach: his design had all the elements of a modern computer – data storage, programmable data input, a printer, and an ‘operating system’. In theory, Ludgate’s automated engine would multiply two 20-digit numbers in under 10 seconds, and take two minutes to determine the logarithm of a number. It would also solve algebraic equations and geometric problems. It was to be powered by an electric motor, and the device would be ‘portable’ – a cube measuring about two feet on each side. Sadly, Ludgate did not live long enough to complete a prototype: he died from pneumonia at the age of 39. It’s great, though, that this whole 21st century digital project carries his name.

Mobile best practice

Last week’s venture involved a series of conferences and workshops designed to introduce anyone who wanted to attend to the concept of the Digital Hub – and to give insights into how the use of the superspeed technology could benefit all businesses. We attended – partly because we wanted to be in the know on the whole venture – but also because we could see how it would help us in producing this blog – and in getting it seen by more people! As with any business, it’s important if you have something to promote (in our case) or to sell (in the case of a producer), you need to know how to get your message across in the most accessible and attractive way. You also need to know that the message is getting to where you want it to be. This is where ‘Analytics’ come in. We already knew it was possible to see how many people were reading our blog and – more or less – where they came from. Now we have discovered that it’s possible to analyse a whole lot more about where our work is reaching, and who looks at what and for how long. This could be sen as frightening, I suppose, in a ‘Big Brother’ context, but it’s all anonymous and – in the end – it’s all just data. Anyone in commerce nowadays who has a command of that data will be best placed to make sure that their own business will offer what the markets seem to be looking for – and that’s what a thriving economy is all about.


A special mention has to be made of the many young people involved in this venture. In the digital world it seems that it’s the youth who are mentoring the not-so-young! Think – who are the most computer-savvy members of your family? Important faces here include Project Director Gráinne Dwyer and Corporate Development Director Callum Donnelly, seen here (far right and far left) with the rest of the team at the launch of the Ludgate Centre:

NO REPRO FEE Pictured at the 'sod turning' launch of the Skibbereen's Ludgate Hub at the old fields bakery on Friday 7th August 2015 Picture: Emma Jervis Photography
The ‘sod turning’ launch of Skibbereen’s Ludgate Hub at the old Field’s Bakery, August 2015 (Emma Jervis Photography)

One of the many great things about Ireland is that there’s always a creative side and a human side to every venture. So – after every day’s lecture sessions and masterclasses – it was time for relaxation and social activities. Skibbereen came up trumps, thanks in no small measure to one of the town’s most treasured human assets – Declan McCarthy. Declan runs the world-renowned Baltimore Fiddle Fair every year and also organises a whole raft of first class musical events in West Cork: with the help of many others during Digital Week he ensured the smooth running of quite outstanding evenings to turn minds away from digital matters. On the first night we had Jessie Kennedy’s Carbery Songs; then, on Friday, what could have been more inspiring than an evening in the Skibbereen Town Hall with our favourite traditional music makers Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Kevin Burke? And this fabulous concert was broadcast live online right across the world! The following evening we were royally entertained again, this time by Sacha Puttnam, son of the renowned film maker Lord David Puttnam (remember Chariots of Fire – The Mission – the Killing Fields – Midnight Express?). Both Puttnams live here in West Cork (why would they live anywhere else?), and Sacha – ably accompanied by some local young musicians – gave us some superb renderings of film music from his father’s movies on the Skibbereen Town Hall grand piano (which, incidentally, was donated to the town by the family, having been played previously in 10 Downing Street amongst other venues). Behind it – on the big screen – we could watch stills from the movies – and there were orchestral accompaniments all synchronised digitally: again, everything was broadcast live to the world over the internet.

Puttnam and friends

Worldwide web broadcasts from Skibbereen: Burke, Hayes and Cahill (above) and Sacha Puttnam and friends (below) – anyone recognise the scene from War of the Buttons?

David Puttnam (below), who holds the honorary title Digital Champion for Ireland, is the chair of Atticus Education, an online education company based in Ireland which delivers interactive seminars on film and a variety of other subjects to educational institutions around the world. The Puttnam involvement in Skibbereen’s pioneering digital venture is therefore most apt.


Keynote statement from Ludgate@Skibbereen: Digital will negate the conventional disadvantages of working and living outside cities; creating real jobs, real commerce while real people enjoy the superior lifestyle option of living in rural Ireland.