Stepping stone to the new world, Ireland

Cork city, was the main port of departure for people fleeing the Irish famine of 1845-50.
  • Cork city, was the main port of departure for people fleeing the Irish famine of 1845-50.

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FOYNES, Ireland—As you walk down the main street — pretty well the only street — of this seaside village, it’s hard to believe that it once was as well known to air travellers as Heathrow is today.

From 1939 until 1945 Foynes was a flying-boat port, the first touchdown for the giant Yankee Clippers after a sometimes-hazardous journey across the Atlantic, and the last port of call for passengers before setting off for New York on the westbound journey.

Those heady days are recalled in a museum located, appropriately, in the old terminal building. The building itself dates to the 1860s — it was Foynes’s first public bar. Offshore, in the Shannon River estuary, there’s a placid stretch of water, a perfect “landing strip” for the airborne palaces that crossed the oceans before the days of tarmac runways.

Their story is told in pictures, artifacts and dioramas in the museum, which also includes the radio room of the terminal and — the newest attraction — a full-scale replica of a Boeing B-314 (the Yankee Clipper).

Margaret O’Shaughnessy, the museum’s curator, says the Clippers could carry up to 40 passengers on the transatlantic run. “It was the pinnacle of airplane luxury,” she says. “Every passenger had a bed; the stewards pressed their clothes and polished their shoes; and in the dining room they were served on fine china and drank from crystal glasses.”

Such luxury didn’t come cheap. The round trip fare was $675, about half the price of a small house at the time. The people who could afford it — or could put it on an expense account — were tycoons, movie stars, military planners (the Second World War was raging, but Ireland was neutral) and diplomats.

The museum explains that over the Atlantic there was what the pilots called a “point of no return,” where the captain had to decide if there was enough fuel to complete the journey (this varied according to weather) or to turn back.

(The Clipper route was Long Island Sound, New York; Shediac, New Brunswick; Botwood, Newfoundland; Foynes; and Southampton, England, or vice-versa. The trip took about 24 hours.)

One of these aborted flights has a footnote in history. Late one night in 1942 a group of passengers who had taken off from Foynes returned in a rainstorm. In the terminal, chef Joe Sheridan made them coffee and to cheer them up he added sugar and a healthy belt of Irish whiskey and topped it with thick cream. “Is this Brazilian coffee?,” asked one of the passengers. “No sir,” said Sheridan, deadpan, “that’s Irish coffee.”

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