Flying Boats and River Boats at Foynes

Flying Boat. Full scale replica of Boeing 314

Flying Boat. Full scale replica of Boeing 314

On a beautiful sunny day, too hot to sit out, I headed 10 miles north to the cooling waters of the River Shannon and pulled in to the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum. What a serendipitous decision that was, with the Museum  about to celebrate 75 years of commercial transatlantic flight. Imagine!  ONLY  75 years since those flights began, and haven’t they come a long way as we now criss-cross the Atlantic without giving it a second thought!

imageAt Foynes, just 15 minutes  off the Wild Atlantic Way from Tarbert, Co Kerry,the only Flying Boat Museum in the world is in the original terminal building right on the main street on the N69 Tralee to Limerick road.

Rineanna had been selected as the location for an airport as the wide River Shannon estuary on Ireland’s west coast  made identification easy for pilots who had crossed the 2,000+ miles  of Atlantic Ocean. While the new airport at Rineanna – now Shannon Airport – was being built, it was decided that Foynes, further down the estuary,would be a good interim location for the European Terminal.  After some test flights in either direction, on 9 July 1939 the first commercial flight, the Yankee Clipper arrived.

The Museum is full of treasures for aviation enthusiasts as well for the non-expert like me. It is a techy-kids paradise as there are several interactive pieces of equipment on which they can have fun.

The Museum is in three main sections. The Aviation section  is devoted to the history of trans Atlantic flight, the focal point of which is a full-scale replica of the Yankee Clipper. This can be explored at leisure. Upstairs is the very spacious flight deck, relatively devoid of any high-tech banks of dials and gauges.

The B.314 could carry thirty-five passengers in relative luxury. The dining room could seat fourteen at a time for a seven-course meal, freshly prepared by cabin crew. The seats converted to bunk beds for sleeping. and there was even a honeymoon suite on board! There certainly were no leg-room issues here!

With tickets costing up to $600, only the very wealthy could afford to travel on these early flights. Posters advertising exotic destinations adorn the walls of the recreated waiting room

There is a good display of old radio and morse code equipment as well as flight simulators that can be tried out!

There were security issues back in those days too as can be on this notice.

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The new trans Atlantic service attracted a number of wealthy and high profile travellers.

imageAmong the high flyers on these first flights from  New York to Foynes, were Ernest Hemingway, Anthony Eden, John F. Kennedy, Lord Mountbatten, Yehudi Menuhin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bob Hope, Gracie Fields, Douglas Fairbanks Snr and Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe.

Irish Coffee to warm up the frozen passengers

Irish Coffee to warm up the frozen passengers

Irish coffee was invented by chef Joe Sheridan at Foynes in 1943. A Hologram presentation tells the story of the first glass served in the B O’Regan Bar to cold and wet passengers!

On a more sober note, here too is part of the wreck of a BOAC Sunderland that was travelling from Lisbon to Foynes  and crashed into Mount Brandon in Kerry in foggy conditions. 10 crew and passengers, mostly military personnel, lost their lives on July 28 1943

More details of this tragedy can be seen here

Foynes was the centre of European Aviation for a brief time only and ended in 1945 when Shannon Airport opened. Passenger flights ceased at the onset of WW 2 in September 1939, although military traffic continued to use the facility throughout the war. In the 1940s style cinema the story of the ‘Atlantic Conquest’ is fascinating and will be enjoyed by all!

The recently extended Museum now includes a Maritime Section. The River Shannon on which Foynes is located has an impressive history, from Limerick City to Loop Head right at the end of the Estuary.

US Civil War  Confederate uniforms manufactured in Limerick at the Tait factory, were shipped from Foynes, breaking the Union Blockade.

Tate Confederate Uniforms shipped to USA during  Civil war

Tait Confederate Uniforms shipped to USA during Civil war

Not only goods, but people too were exported from the Shannon region. Many emigrants’ had their last glimpses of Ireland here. I was particularly taken with this poster from 1842 advertising passage to USA.

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A poster from 1842 – no fewer than 5 ships would be sailing to American within a few days of one another

Here at the Museum the hand-made weather charts drawn up at Shannon have been preserved in the Archives (miraculously saved from a skip!) Their Archive includes letters, diaries, postcards newspapers relating to Foynes as an air hub and about 200 years of records relating to Foynes as an important harbour, including bills of lading and correspondence between ship owners and others. In addition they hold an extensive collection of papers on Local History as there were a number of prominent and influential families living in this area.

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D-day Weather Chart

The original Control Tower has recently opened and provides great views across the river and is truly the pinnacle of the tour around this wonderful place. Foynes Harbour is Ireland’s premier deepwater bulk carrier port. On the day of my visit, there was no merchant shipping berthed, but the gantries used to load and unload the giant ships up to 250,000 tonnes, can be seen here.

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Sadly the rail station closed in the 1960s, but hopefully some project may be found to utilize this beautiful cut stone building

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Foynes railway station- now closed with Alumina plant in the background

The Celtic Cross peeping out from the trees on the hill was used as a marker by pilots flying into Foynes. This is a memorial to Edmund Spring Rice, a local landlord  and politician who was held in high esteem in the area

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The Spring Rice Cross from the Control Tower

Some nice original feautures have been retained in the old terminal building

There is so much to see at this excellent little museum – surely one of the mid -west’s best kept secrets! It is so well worth a visit and has something for everyone.  It also boasts a coffee shop and restaurant serving up some delicious food and homemade cakes.

To celebrate the 75th Birthday, there will be a spectacular air display tomorrow, out over the wide River Shannon –  it should be a wonderful sight!  Happy Birthday to them!

My thanks to Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum for permission to take photographs  and for the guided tour of their extensive archive during Heritage week in 2013. The archive is accessible to researchers – see website for details.

Further reading:

Foynes Flying Boat Museum

Sunderland G-AGES Crash

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14 Comments

Filed under Ireland, Irish Heritage, Living in Ireland, Transportation

14 responses to “Flying Boats and River Boats at Foynes

  1. An excellent description of the museum at Foynes SV. It really was the dawn of air travel and it must have been quite a wonder for those living in the remote west. And that is a harrowing tale of the tragedy on Mt. Brandon with the survivors having to be hauled down the mountain.

    • Thanks Roy – glad you liked it – it’s a great place for a stopover – a very scenic little town. It is hard to believe that cuch progress has been made in aviation! The crash is very sad indeed – Foynes was shrouded in mist and they headed down estuary and out to sea in the hope that it might clear,but hit Mount Brandon at the end of Tralee Bay.It was amazing that there were survivors at all.

  2. Amazing. I had no idea about these amazing planes. Something to think about while we crunch ourselves into the middle seat on today’s cross-country planes. Now I really want to visit and see this in person. Thanks for the great descriptions/explanations.

  3. What a fascinating place.

  4. Lyn Nunn

    Fascinating place and I loved the notice about the Jane Black – for anyone who has a Sea Captain in their family, as I do, it would be fantastic to see their name up there in print.

  5. You do a wonderful job of conveying all there is to see at this museum–it sounds great! It really is hard to fathom how much flying has progressed in a fairly short time –and regressed, as far as passenger comforts are concerned!

    • There is so much there it was hard to know what to choose. I am not sure what the $600 fare equates to in modern times, so at least now in relative terms we may not have the 7 course silver service meals, but it is more affordable and accessible to many. It’s quite astonishing how much progress has been made in a lifetime! Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Thanks for a great post, SV. Definitely a place for the MUST SEE list!

  7. Really amazing post. Your blog never ceases to amaze me. T

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