Skibbereen – Ireland’s First Gigabit Town!

Ludgate poster

On Friday, the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen was officially launched.

Minister and Field

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, and John Field of the Ludgate Board

We’ve been watching the progress of this wonderful initiative since last November when we attended the National Digital Week in Skibbereen. Robert wrote then about Percy Ludgate, the re-discovered computer pioneer, and about the plans for the Ludgate Hub. This week, those plans fell into place and gave Skibbereen the distinction of being Ireland’s first 1Gigabit town.Minister's Speech

The Hub was declared open by Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Minister of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, in front of a capacity crowd that included representatives from some of the e-commerce giants operating in Ireland, such as Google, Vodaphone, Glen Dimplex, and Siro. The cheering section also included many local faces we recognised, all there to celebrate this initiative: John and Sally McKenna, the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, a couple of bishops, our local political representatives, Dee Forbes (newly appointed director of RTE, who’s on the Board), and Lord David Puttnam, Ireland’s Digital Champion, who never misses an opportunity to support West Cork.Board

Lots of people spoke, everyone enthusiastically, about the boon this building would be to Skibbereen. But to my mind, the speech of the day was the one given by John Field. John is the Director of Field’s Supermarket, a beloved and respected local institution. The Ludgate Building was the former Field’s bakery. Although the grocery business was established about 150 years ago, the Field family has been running it since 1935. They are committed to stocking the best of locally produced food and indeed they have a fantastic collection of artisan and locally grown produce that is second to none.

Old and new technology

Before it was Field’s bakery, the building was a cinema: the projector is a nod to its historic past

John’s words were simple and direct – we already have excellent local business, but we need to attract and retain more entrepreneurs and young families to West Cork. We can’t do that unless we can provide the most up-to-date technology, and nowadays that means the highest possible broadband speeds. The Ludgate Hub provides exactly that  – a 1000MG fibre-optic connection, to be exact. Lightning speed! They provide single and group work spaces, state-of-the-art video conference rooms that can utilise Google Hangouts, and a variety of meeting and presentation facilities.

Ludgate front

You can’t miss the Ludgate Hub! Below: the colourful entrance, with an informal meeting space above it; Grainne Dwyer, the Hub Project Director, and Robert chat in the coffee room

We attended a talk by the photographer John Minihan in the Hub earlier this week, where we had a first-hand demonstration of the kind of digital presentations possible now (enormous screens that you touch to advance!) and we hope to use a hot desk ourselves in the future, as we develop our ability to produce 3D images of rock art. The local Coderdojo club has been welcomed into the Hub – their Facebook page has a great image of the kids working on a Minecraft project in one of the conference rooms.

Clockwise from top left: Oliver Farrell (Chairman & Co-Founder of Vilicom and a Board member) shows us the desk area; John Minihane, photographer, gives a presentation during the Skibbereen Arts Festival; an informal seating area beside the servers; a conference room;

The building itself is inviting and colourful – in the best West Cork tradition. The staff is young and helpful and energetic. If you’ve ever wanted to live in West Cork (and who wouldn’t!), but needed excellent connectivity, wait no more. Come on down, meet the Ludgate folks, and drive by some of those properties you’ve been drooling over on those online property sites.

Bill Brown

At the opening we met Bill Brown. Bill has a security firm with offices in Belfast, Naas and London but manages to live in West Cork using the Ludgate Hub to provide the connectivity he needs to his business

Oh, and sign up for National Digital Week. Yes, they’re doing it again, in November!

Below: Percy Ludgate beams benignly down on visitors to the Hub

Percy

Gigabit town

Possibly Over-Stimulated

Gloria Steinem is an international icon. This week, we welcomed her to Bantry Literary Festival. Four hundred women, and a few men, rose spontaneously to our feet and clapped and cheered her entrance. First time I’ve seen a standing ovation before someone actually stepped on stage.

Gloria and

What followed was breathtaking – Gloria spoke, a little and beautifully, but mostly she listened as audience members asked questions and shared their own experiences as women in this country. People had come from far and wide to hear her and just to be there: people I admire and respect – Tara Flynn (see also You’re Grand) and Louise O’Neill. Lelia Doolan, for goodness sake, a Irish feminist icon in her own right. The conversations weren’t easy (misogyny, abortion, pornography, violence) and there certainly were dissenting and opposing viewpoints presented. But the atmosphere was respectful (if electric) and Gloria calmly dealt with each question in ways that were thoughtful and non-divisive. Two hours later, I think we all felt we had been present at a little bit of history.

Gloria

We attended other Literary Festival events and Robert is writing about one of them – the delightful evening with Seán Ó Sé. That evening formed a wonderful contrast to the talk by Alice Carey, a self-professed New York/Irishwoman, vivacious and stylish, but also moving in her descriptions of a childhood caught between two worlds.

Alice Carey

Alice Carey

And just as that Festival is ending, the Skibbereen Arts Festival is bursting upon the scene with a slew of gallery openings and a 60’s street party! Sometimes it’s hard to know where the dividing line is between business and the arts in Skibbereen. All the business people seem to support the arts and all the arts events seem to work well with the businesses. Shopfronts become display cases. Empty buildings are re-purposed as galleries and theatres. Employees and owners dress up and decorate. Everyone has fun.

Skibbereen shop windows. Hands up who remembers women wearing curlers all day in the 60s!

This Friday was a good example as Skibbereen went all out for a 1960s-themed street party of food and music, to celebrate the opening of the Skibbereen Arts Festival. I wrote about this festival a couple of years ago. As arts festivals go in Ireland, this one is only in its infancy, but it hit its stride right from the starting gate, with an eclectic mixture of art, theatre, music, spoken word, film, and events for children.

Robert used to have a van like that

This year we have tickets for all kinds of disparate events and may have to take a holiday when it’s all over! On Friday we attended three art show openings and then joined the throngs on Bridge Street to get into the 60s swing.

Angela Flowers Exhibition

 

The old Bottling Plant makes an excellent gallery space, in this case for the Angela Flowers Collection

The first opening was extraordinary. Angela Flowers is one of Britain’s foremost gallery owners (she has two in London and one in New York), dealing with contemporary art. She has a house in West Cork and the pieces on display are from her own private collection. (Read more about Angela here and about her galleries here.) This is challenging stuff – no pretty paintings here, but compelling and engrossing. The exhibition was opened by Lord David Puttnam, the film producer and now digital champion and educator, who never misses an opportunity to support Skibbereen, where he lives full time.

Uillinn came next: the whole space was devoted to the work of John Kelly, a painter and sculpture with a studio in West Cork and an international reputation.

Yet a third art exhibition opened in an unused space down by the river – a huge L-shaped room perfect for such a purpose. This one was called Mór (‘Large’) and brought together the work of several artists who work in large scale. Huge canvasses and large sculptural pieces created an imposing and magisterial atmosphere.

Karen Hendy’s triptych (top) and Don Cronin’s piece titled ‘Windfall’

Then it was off to the opening of The Souvenir Shop by Rita Duffy. Robert and I have signed up for two ‘invigilation’ sessions at this quirky and unusual art installation, so I will write about it more at a future date, or post photos on our Facebook page.

Souvenir Shop

The Souvenir Shop

Before we staggered home, we joined the throngs of Skibbereen folk on Bridge Street for the 1960s party. The hippies were out in force!

Finally, tonight, we attended a premier showing of the Film Rebel Rossa. Last year we met the two great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Skibbereen, here to attend various functions commemorating Rossa and to document them for a film they were making. Since I did extensive research on Rossa in preparation for a series of three posts (March Back in Time, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? and Rossa: The Skibbereen Years), I was particularly interested in how the film turned out. They did a great job! Rebel Rossa turned out to be about Rossa, but also about family and about how governments celebrate such things versus how republican groups or local committees do it. Fascinating stuff and they are hopeful about getting a distribution deal.

Rebel Rossa

More, much more in the days to come. How am I going to cope? I came here to retire!

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?

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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.

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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.

SEO

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.

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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.

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The Fastnet Short Film Festival

Our Village is Our Screen Schull has been getting ready for this Festival for months. Everyone we know seemed to be volunteering or involved or just, like us, planning to cram in as many films and events as they could. The town was freshly painted (yes – the whole town! Well, it seemed that way), banners and streamers flapped gaily along the main street, and cinemas popped up everywhere. The church hall became The Adelphi, Hackett’s Bar became The Carleton and Grove House turned into The Palace. You see – Schull doesn’t have an actual cinema!

But lack of facilities has never stopped a West Cork town intent on hosting a world-class festival. They have come up with the most ingenious method of screening and watching that you can imagine. For the duration of the Festival, the films are hosted on a server and the whole village becomes an intranet. While the main programme runs at the Adelphi, all the pubs, cafes, shops and premises on the intranet have large screens where you can watch the movies. Some are playing the ones on the programme, and others are hosting re-runs so you can catch up on what you’ve missed. You can sit with a coffee and a scone, or a pint and a sandwich and watch whatever’s on screen. You can drop in and out, all for free. But there’s more: you can bring your own device – computer, tablet, phone – and log into the intranet and watch on a park bench, or sitting in your car, or while shopping, if you want. The marvellous Whyte Books hosted a story telling session, and The Blue House Gallery got in a load of bean bags so you could lie on your back and watch movies on the ceiling.

Robert, Chris O'Dell (Festival Artistic Director) and young Austrailian filmmaker Jake Zappia

At the Opening Reception: Robert, Chris O’Dell (Festival Artistic Director) and young Austrailian film maker Jake Zappia

The opening party was at Grove House – the sun shone, much Corona was downed (the generous Festival sponsor), and then it was off to The Adelphi for The Lord’s Burning Rain, filmed in West Cork and based on the Aeneid – a coming of age story with echoes of Ireland’s War of Independence, the effects of which still resonate in this area. This was followed by a Q and A with the filmmaker, Maurice O’Callaghan, hosted by the excellent John Kelleher. With our Canadian visitors in tow (Alex and Mavis, enjoying it all hugely) we took in some shorts the next day in Newman’s restaurant and that night attended the second featured film, Living in a Coded Land. The Q and A session afterwards was enjoyable and stimulating – the director, Pat Collins, expounded on his vision and his influences, and the host, Aidan Stanley, drew him out with thoughtful questions and directed traffic as audience members got into the conversation.

Our most unusual experience of the festival came on Saturday. We took the ferry to Long Island and watched movies in the bedroom of a beautiful island house courtesy of the owners, Maurice and Helen. Long Island has a year round population of under ten people. A local film maker, Helen Selka, has made it her focus. Although we didn’t get to see her longer piece, Bleak Paradise, we watched a shorter one called The Polling Station. In the film, nothing much happens beyond a handful of people coming to a cottage to cast their ballots in a referendum – and yet it was funny, charming and poignant. We also watched one of the eventual Festival winners – a closely observed tragicomedy called Breakfast Wine. The set finished with a gut-wrenching, wonderfully conceived and acted piece called Stolen. I was glad I brought along kleenex for this one. 

There were celebrities to meet (David Puttnam, Steve Coogan and the team from Philomena, Stephen Frears), events for children, lots of technical sessions for the hoards of young filmmakers invading Schull for the festival, and forums and clinics on all kinds of topics. But mostly there were the films – in turn quiet, ambitious, animated, provocative, amusing, youthful-but-showing-potential, soulful, well-written, cleverly directed, beautifully shot. They left us marvelling that powerful stories with fully realised characters can be told in a few precious minutes.

Superlatives fail me – especially when I think that this was all accomplished by a dedicated group of volunteers! Well done indeed Schull and the Fastnet Short Film Festival Team!