On Sunday morning June 15 1919, the editor of the Connacht Tribune, Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny (the grandfather of my colleague on this page ), got a phone call from the police station in Clifden to say that two young men had landed on Derrygimla bog, close to the Marconi station, claiming they had just flown in from America. Tom immediately motored out to Clifden, and what must have sickened poor Lord Northcliff of the Daily Mail, who had offered £10,000 to the first aviator to fly across the Atlantic, Tom was the first journalist to interview the successful pilot, John Alcock, and his navigator, Arthur W Brown. He beat them all with a world exclusive story.
As the first aviators queued up to try their skills in Newfoundland that summer 100 years ago, Northcliff had a small army of journalists waiting to pounce on the first to arrive in Britain or Ireland. He must have believed that the story was his by right. Northcliff, however, accepted his defeat in good grace, and sent a Marconigram warmly congratulating the two flyers. As the news streamed out from the Marconi station at Clifden, messages began to arrive from all over an excited world. Among those who sent their congratulations were King George V, the British prime minister Lloyd George, and the American president Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
Alcock and Brown were exhausted after their challenging flight, and with people running up to the plane, being the centre of attention. It was decided to bring them into the Railway Hotel in Galway (now the Meyrick ), for rest, and to prepare for the journey to London the following day to claim their valuable prize.
Tom ‘Cork’ must have been delighted with his catch. As they sat in the hotel a train arrived full of journalists from Dublin. They erupted on to the platform, ran past the hotel, and out on to the street shouting for taxis or ‘anything’ to take them out to Clifden to get their hands on this great story. Tom must have chuckled to see them tear off.
Singing all night
Not only was the Marconi station sending out the news to the world, but the staff at the Galway post office played a major role answering queries coming from the airmen’s family and friends, interested parties, and aircraft engineers in other countries. Journalists praised its staff’s efficiency: ‘Their interest never flagged; their courtesy remained undisturbed. They did more than they could have been expected to do, playing a worthy part in giving to the world the airman’s story. Some of them worked fourteen and a half hours at a stretch.’
Crowds began to gather outside the Railway Hotel hoping for a glimpse of the two men. They stayed outside singing and with good-natured banter throughout the night, despite the rain. The next morning Alcock and Brown went shopping for fresh clothes, but had to struggle through the crowds which had grown immensely. Somehow they managed, and were presented with a gold Claddagh ring by Dillon’s jewellers, which Captain Alcock said he would wear as a lucky charm.
Lord Lieutenant of Galway, Michael Morris Killanin, added a sort of an up-market swish to the occasion by telling journalists that he was not in the least surprised that the first transatlantic flight would land in Galway. “As I have always maintained in the House of Lords, Galway is the natural port for the traffic from America to Great Britain because it is the shortest route, as Captain Alcock and Lieutenant Brown have proved beyond our wildest expectations.”
At a hastily convened civic reception the two men were ‘heartily welcomed’ on behalf of the ‘whole county of Galway and all of Ireland,’ and congratulated on their ‘courageous and sporting exploit.’ Chairman Thomas Mc Donogh wished them both a ‘long life to enjoy the unique honour you have so well earned’.*
The airmen, however, were men of few words and poor public speakers. Captain Alcock did manage to address the council members, as briefly as a shy man can do: “ I hope you will excuse me. I am not used to this sort of thing. I wish to express to you our feelings of deep gratitude, and if you will kindly excuse me.”
With those few words they returned to the station to catch the mail-boat train, and once again had to struggle through large crowds, everyone anxious to catch a glimpse of the airmen, or get their autograph. As the train pulled out of the station Galway gave them ‘three cheers’, and sang ‘For They are Jolly Good fellows.’
Next week: ‘Kiddo’ - a stray cat attempts to cross the Atlantic in an air ship
NOTES: *Sadly, later that same year, December 18 1919, Alcock was killed near Rouen, France, on his way to the Paris air show to display the latest Vicker’s aircraft. Brown, always a shy, reserved man, was greatly affected by the death of his friend. He never flew again. He died in 1948. Both men were knighted by George V for their services to world aviation.
Thank you Jonathan Margetts for information on the Galway visit by Alcock and Brown (displayed in his interesting Claddadh Ring museum in Dillon’s shop in Quay St ), Brendan Lynch’s excellent Yesterday We Were in America, Haynes Publishing 2009, and Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill’s Beyond the Twelve Bens, first published 1986.