Clifden festival recalls historic transatlantic flight

Brian Hughes of the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel with the Alcock and Brown statue now in situ at the hotel in Clifden ahead of the Alcock and Brown Festival, June 11-16. Picture: Andrew Downes

When John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown crash-landed into a Connemara bog almost a century ago, it was a Cork-born journalist who broke the news of their non-stop transatlantic flight to the rest of the world.

Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny’s scoop in June 1919 was recalled in Clifden, Co Galway, yesterday when his grandson Tom joined British ambassador to Ireland Robin Barnett in welcoming a statue of the two aviators.

Mr Kenny’s grandfather, who was nicknamed “Cork” due to his county of origin, was the founder of The Connacht Tribune newspaper. He managed to get to Derrygimlagh bog near Roundstone before the Daily Mail correspondent, who had been assigned to Galway to await the Vimy Vickers biplane arrival.

The two British aviators, who completed their flight in terrible weather conditions in over 16 hours from Newfoundland, still received a promised £10,000 prize from the Daily Mail, along with a knighthood from King George.

Abbeyglen Hotel owner Brian Hughes, who himself survived a plane crash, was host for yesterday’s event when the statue of the two men was “unveiled” at his Clifden premises and details of the Alcock and Brown commemoration festival next month were announced.

A replica propeller from the original plane, which was handcrafted at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Letterfrack, was also presented. The statue of the pilots sculpted by William McMillan for the British government more than 60 years ago has been loaned from London’s Heathrow Airport for eight weeks.

It took four days to deliver the valuable statue to the west of Ireland, and Mr Hughes said insurance demands dictated that it had to be installed in a secure area during its stay.

It is almost 12 years since Mr Hughes survived an air crash himself at Indreabhán airstrip in south Connemara which claimed the lives of Loughrea accountant Paul McNamee (57) and pilot Matt Masterson (59) from Terenure, Dublin.

The hotelier was part of a Clifden Airport Development Company delegation returning from the Aran island of Inis Meáin on July 5, 2007 on board a Cessna Caravan single-engine aircraft which crashed at Indreabhán during the landing approach.

“I was one of the lucky ones as I was only in hospital for 10 days, and I flew again in a couple of months — by helicopter,” Mr Hughes says.

About two to three years later, I was flying from Dublin to Dubai when there was an emergency landing in Jordan, and then I felt as if the blood was flowing out of me

“I never thought I would have that reaction, but it must have been the memory of what occurred.”

Alcock and Brown had no accurate weather forecasts, were exposed to fog and sleet storms in their open cockpit, and survived on sandwiches, chocolate, coffee, and beer when they took off from Newfoundland almost a century ago.

“We scarcely saw the sun, or the moon, or the stars,” the pair said, and they could not even see their propeller blades through the fog. After the men picked out several islands off Connemara, they circled around Clifden in search of a suitable landing spot.

They had spotted the Marconi wireless station at Derrygimlagh bog outside the town, and thought the waving technicians below were welcoming them — they were actually trying to warn them to keep clear.

The plane nose-dived into the bog and the two men escaped from the cockpit, after a 16 hour and 28 minute flight over 1,900 miles. They had carried post with them, making it the first transatlantic airmail flight.

These details will be recalled during the commemorative Alcock and Brown Festival, which opens on June 11 and runs until June 16 in Clifden.

The programme will include an Air Corps flyover on June 15 and the premiere of a documentary featuring the nearest surviving relative to Captain Alcock, Tony Alcock.

An Post is due to release a commemorative stamp, the Central Bank will mint a €15 silver coin, and Waterford Crystal is producing a limited-edition miniature replica of the Vickers Vimy biplane, made up of 51 individually hand-crafted pieces.

Full details of the festival are on alcockandbrown100.com

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