Halpin, Robert Charles (1836–94), sea captain, was born 16 February 1836 at Wicklow town, the youngest of thirteen children of James Halpin, tavern owner, and his wife, Anne Halpin (née Halbert). Educated locally at Leitrim Place, he left school at the age of eleven, with the permission of his parents, to go to sea. On 27 March 1847 he joined the Briton, beginning his officer's apprenticeship. He served on the Briton for three years, and escaped with his life when it was shipwrecked returning from Canada in 1850. After serving in a number of vessels he became first officer of the Khersonese (1854–7), and then captain of the Circassion. In 1858 he joined the Galway Line and commanded a number of their ships, sailing the Argo to New York on its maiden voyage. He arrived safely in America, but disaster followed his attempt to bring the ship to Canada; it hit an iceberg and sank, prompting questions about his abilities. At the subsequent board of enquiry Halpin was not cleared, and had his master mariner's certificate suspended for nine months.
The incident did little to damage his reputation as a seaman in the long term. In 1860 he was entrusted with commanding a two-ship convoy to Canada. Over the following years he was employed by the European Trading Company, which had been established to smuggle supplies to the Confederacy during the American civil war. Halpin became involved in blockade running, and in 1864 took the Virgin into Mobile Bay, past the Union-controlled Fort Morgan. After the fall of Mobile he was arrested by the United States government and tried, but nothing was proven and he was released. It seems that Halpin had no great ideological sympathy for the Confederacy, and had become involved purely for financial gain.
On his return to Europe he began his greatest work, the laying of telegraph cables in the Atlantic. After taking part in an unsuccessful attempt in 1865, as first officer of the Great Eastern he oversaw the completion of the line from Ireland to America the following year. He became captain of the Great Eastern in 1868 and the next year helped to lay the French cable, for which he was offered, but declined, the Légion d'Honneur. The acknowledged expert in the area, and known as ‘Mr Cable’, he was invited to supervise the Bombay to Suez cable in 1870. He married 14 October 1873 Jessie Munn, of Newfoundland, Canada, the daughter of John Munn, a politician; they had three daughters.
During the 1870s Halpin gradually withdrew from seafaring, and in 1877 he wrote a pamphlet against intoxication. Retiring to live in Wicklow town, he built Tinakilly House, and was a local hero, though this status was put to the test in 1892 when he decided to contest the East Wicklow election as a unionist. Halpin was a right-wing protestant, a strong supporter of the British empire, and a fervent opponent of home rule. With the slogan ‘Give the helm to Halpin’, he stood against the Parnellite and anti-Parnellite candidates, but came second in the poll. His share of the vote was only marginally greater than that for previous unionist candidates, and he felt betrayed by his defeat. Nevertheless he was elected chairman of the harbour board shortly afterwards, and on 1 November 1892 appointed deputy lieutenant of the county. He contracted gangrene after an accident while cutting his toenails and died 20 January 1894. He was buried in an open grave overlooking Wicklow town and the sea. In 1897 a monument was erected in the town to his memory.