Growth of Aviation and Ireland. [140]

Ireland, in the early days of aviation was a poor, lightly industrialized outgrowth of Great Britain, known for civil strife and its greatest export – people. Yet, it played a role in modern aviation due to one factor – location, or as realtors’ say “Location! Location! Location!”.

Looking at a map, Ireland seems out of the way, far to the north. On a globe, however, it lies on the great circle route to North America. While on a plane surface, such as a map, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points; on the surface of a sphere, such as the Earth, an arc, however, is the shortest distance . Thus, Lindbergh and his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, (Figure 1) passed by Ireland on his flight to Paris. Flying over boats off the Dingle coast, he confirmed his direction, which was commemorated on a 1977 cover. (Figure 2). A few years later, Gen. Italo Balbo routed his Italian Air Force seaplanes to Chicago via a stops at Lough Foyle and Canada. The Germans also catapulted airplane from ship at sea to Galway, and 1929 flight from Galway to London carried the mail to London.(Figure 3).

The most significant event occurred when the Pan Am B-314 seaplane used Foynes, in the Shannon Estuary, as a refueling point en-route to London in 24/30 June 1939. (Figure 4). It didn’t really need the refueling stop at Foynes eastbound with tailwinds, but the westbound fuel stop was critical since they were now fighting headwinds over the Atlantic. There a several collectable covers: Foynes-New York, (Figure 5). and the covers to though the intermediate stops of Shediac and Botwood and outbound flight from New York. (Figure 6). It was perhaps serendipitous that Foynes was in the neutral Eire in 1939. It kept the neutral American planes out of England where they would have been fair game for German fighters. Thus the Clipper flights terminated at Foynes and passengers and mailed were transferred to Imperial Airlines seaplanes for the remainder of the trip.

Pan Am wasn’t the only player in this game. British Imperial Air initially also flew from Foynes, to New York, 5-31 August 1939, (Figure 7) which included a route through Canada. Imperial’s seaplanes were smaller than the B-314, and had a lower payload.

The militarized Pan Am flights to Foynes continued after the American entry into the war in 1941. The rationale was to keep these valuable assets away from German interdiction. In 1945, an agreement was signed requiring American flights passing over the Republic must land. This resulted in the construction of Shannon Airport, near Limerick, in 1945-6. (Figure 8) While improved equipment was not as dependent for the fuel stop, it remained as a economic growth factor in the west of Ireland. (Figure 9). It also made for a convenient stop for connecting service to other European locations – Italy, Switzerland and the Middle East. First flight covers from Shannon to all parts of the world are quite collectable.

The growth of Irish civil aviation created another opportunity, Tourism. The “An Tostal” ad campaign of 1953 welcomed back people to be “…at home.” (Figure 10). Not only did the Irish State Airline, Aer Lingus, bring tourists from the US, (Figure 11) it also connected to other parts of the world. Most important, it fueled a boom in all parts of the Irish economy. With increased tourism, the Irish were drawn away from the isolation of the war years and engaged with other European nations.

The connections to Europe influenced Irish participation in the Common Market, (Figure 12) and later, the European Economic Union. (Figure 13) The links are apparent.

The Republic of Ireland’s continued neutrality was both a disadvantage and an advantage during the Cold War. While a NATO military base on the eastern Atlantic would have been convenient, air and sea operations from the British military bases in Northern Ireland were able to monitor Soviet-bloc submarines and shipping. (Figure 14). Neutrality also denied Irish ports to Russian military shipping. This also gave western intelligence access to Russian air cargo movements through Shannon to Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis since military movements must be declared.

Ireland’s participation in the growth of aviation clearly benefitted its economy and its relations with the rest of the European community.

Are there philatelic collecting opportunities here?


Irish Airmail 1919-1990, Murphy, W., EPA, 1996.

Airway Letters to and fron Belfast, including Air “Railex” Letters, Murphy, W., EPA, 1996.

“Foynes Flying Boat Museum”, Brennan, D., The Revealer, Winter 2007, #249, p.47.