When us Irish look out our windows and see the incessant rain belting against the glass we curse our position as a windswept little island in North Western Europe which bears the brunt of unforgiving Atlantic weather systems. On the other hand, our geography has meant the country has played an enviable role in world aviation which remains to this day.
Ireland’s first step into aviation began when John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown landed their plane in a bog near Clifden on the west coast of Ireland in June 1919. Theirs was the first non-stop transatlantic flight having departed Newfoundland, Canada, approximately 16 hours earlier. It took until 1928 for a successful east to west non-stop transatlantic flight to materialise when James Fitzmaurice, Baron Gunther von Hunefeld and Hermann Kohl departed Baldonnell Aerodrome near Dublin on 12th April and landed on Greenly Island, Canada, the following day. Commercial transatlantic flights were now a reality but only seaplanes had the endurance for such a route. In 1935, the Irish, British, Canadian and American governments came to an agreement regarding the transatlantic route with Foynes in County Limerick becoming the European flying boat terminal. Foynes was chosen for its proximity to the sheltered River Shannon estuary.
In 1939, commercial flights by Pan American, British Imperial Airways (later BOAC), American Export Airlines and Air France Atlantique began carrying passengers and cargo between North America and Europe. During the Second World War neutral Ireland walked a diplomatic tight-rope by allowing the Allies to transit through Foynes, albeit in civilian clothing.
Advances during the war led to the advent of long-haul land planes and, with the opening of a land-based runway at Rineanna on the opposite side of the estuary in County Clare (modern day Shannon Airport), operations at Foynes ceased in 1945.
In its few short years of operation, Foynes was the epicentre of transatlantic aviation with a VIP passenger list to rival that of modern day Heathrow or JFK. Thankfully much of its activity is preserved at the wonderful Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum located in the original terminal building. It’s the most engaging museum I’ve visited in Ireland and is a must for aviation fans and historians worldwide. It contains a replica B314 flying boat, an excellent audio-visual presentation, flight simulators and a wide selection of original aviation equipment and tools. Cocktail aficionados will be delighted to know that the Irish Coffee cocktail was invented by chef Joe Sheridan at Foynes and, yes, its available to sample!
Visitors will learn how our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, Eamon de Valera, embraced the concept of aviation through his friendship with pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh. De Valera delegated political aviation administration to Seán Lemass, Minister at the Department of Industry and Commerce. Lemass head-hunted Brendan O’Regan to manage catering at Foynes and when the flying boat terminal closed O’Regan transferred to Rineanna where he set up the world’s first duty free shop. The adept and dynamic Lemass also oversaw the establishment of Aer Lingus and the construction phase of Dublin Airport.
Ireland continues at the forefront of aviation with Dublin the aviation finance and leasing capital of the world, and Shannon Airport co-ordinating North Atlantic air traffic control with Prestwick Airport in Scotland, to name but a few endeavours. My first thought when I exited the Flying Boat Museum was that of bewilderment as to why Ireland’s pioneering and extensive aviation history was never studied in school. As we progress towards the centenary of Irish independence a visit to this entertaining and educational museum is a must for anyone who wishes to explore the lesser-known part of Irish history, its unsung heroes and its undisputed place on the world stage.
© Hazel Joy 2016