A century ago, two men became the first people in history to cross the Atlantic by plane, and their journey ended in the boglands of Galway’s Connemara.
Just over 100 years ago, on the morning of Sunday 15 June 1919, Connemara locals would have been awakening for another Sunday in the countryside of County Galway.
In the hours preceding this, aviators Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown were becoming the first people in history to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in their Vickers Vimy aircraft.
By 8.30am, the men had made history not once, but twice, as their plane crash-landed in the Derrygimlagh Bog, just south of Clifden, Connemara.
Why fly across the Atlantic?
The owner of a London newspaper, the Daily Mail, offered a £10,000 reward (roughly £519,000 today) to the first person who could fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a plane.
The act of crossing the ocean without stopping was regarded as an impossible task at the time, and the newspaper had suspended the prize due to the First World War.
When the prize was up for grabs again after the conclusion of the First World War, four teams had assembled at Newfoundland, an island off the coast of Canada and North America’s nearest part of land to Europe.
Other attempts failed
It was very nearly the case that Alcock and Brown were not the first people to cross the Atlantic via plane, as a rival crew almost completed the task merely a month before.
Harry Hawker and Kenneth Mackenzie Grieve had been in the air for around 14 hours before their aircraft’s engine gave way. The two men were forced to land on a shipping lane where a Danish stream ship sailed them back to land.
Alcock and Brown’s journey
It took John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown 15 hours and 57 minutes to cross from Newfoundland to the West of Ireland.
The pair had not intended to land in Galway, but rather Dublin or London. However, their conditions necessitated an early landing, and once they crashed, the nose of the plane sank into the heavy bogland of Ireland’s floor. Alcock and Brown escaped injury.
Landing in Galway did not diminish Alcock and Brown’s incredible feat, as the pair had managed to successfully cross the Atlantic from one side to the next, and the two were able to secure the coveted £10,000 prize.
The near 16-hour journey was a difficult and hazardous one for the men. They lost the heating and radio systems that were inbuilt to their plane, and confronted nature’s worst elements in snow, sleet, clouds, and storms.
As the snow took over, the plane’s control began to freeze up, and Brown was forced to leave the cockpit on six separate occasions to clear ice from important parts of the plane.
Once they crossed Irish shores, the plane twice circled the coastal town of Clifden without any navigational aids. The pair then landed next to the Marconi Wireless Station, and their journey was complete.
Who witnessed it?
The initial crash landing was witnessed by but a few people. It is believed a young seven-year-old boy, a farm labourer, and an Australian soldier who was in Ireland for his honeymoon witnessed the event.
The reaction to the landing
Alcock and Brown granted an exclusive interview to Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny, the editor of the Connacht Tribune magazine. The two men were soon brought to Galway to gain access to a better radio system to transmit details of their feat.
From the radio, newspapers across the globe were told of the achievement. From there, the two men boarded a train to Dublin and soon crossed the Irish Sea to London. Here, Winston Churchill awarded Alcock and Brown with their prize and knighthoods.
To honour the men’s achievement and the advancement represented in aviation, there lies atop the High Road in Errislannan a monument in dedication to them. The monument fittingly overlooks the Derrygimlagh bog where the plane was forced to crash-land a century ago.
Address: Unnamed Road, Co. Galway, Ireland
The first two people to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the air were commemorated in Ireland last year in a celebration of their superb aviation achievement.
A series of events were held between 11 and 16 June 2019 in Clifden, and were hosted by the Alcock & Brown 100 Festival.
A statue of the two men was airlifted from Heathrow Hospital to Galway for the commemoration, while the centenary was marked with a ‘twinning agreement’ between the Irish and Canadian states.
Within the agreement, Connemara National Park and the Marconi Station in Galway are to be twinned with the Terra Nova National Park and Signal Hill National Memorial Site in Newfoundland, Canada.
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