The Emergency Corridor

Bundoran, County Donegal

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Photo of Tullan Strand, Bundoran by Brittni Stasiuk, licensed under Creative Commons

Is it smugness or insurgency
That makes them say ‘Emergency’?
I feel it lacks the urgency
Of World War Two
— ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’, song from Improbable Frequency

In April 1941, the men at an Irish army observation point watched as a fishing boat approached Tullan Strand near Bundoran. This would have been a normal sight, except the catch of the day was not herring but a Saro Lerwick sea-plane. Its pilot, British Army Officer Denis Briggs, had been forced to ditch when he ran out of fuel off the coast of Donegal.

Ireland was officially neutral during World War Two; the impact of the European conflict was dealt with under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939 and the situation in Ireland was therefore dubbed “The Emergency”. At various spots along the coast, the word EIRE was spelled out in large white stones, warning Allied planes that this was not the place to land and Axis planes that this was not the place to bomb.

So as Briggs and his plane were brought ashore, the local Irish army thought they knew what to do. They impounded Briggs’s plane and brought the crew to the nearby Finner Army Camp.

They were not aware that an under-the-table deal had been made between the British and Irish governments. British planes could use the air route over north Leitrim and south Donegal that linked the Atlantic Ocean to Northern Ireland, so long as they kept above a certain height, avoided the Finner camp, and didn’t make a nuisance of themselves. This route would become known as “The Donegal Corridor”.

Officer Briggs had, through no fault of his own, breached the accords of the “Donegal Corridor”. However, after a certain amount of diplomatic wrangling, a camouflaged aircraft lorry arrived from Northern Ireland with aviation fuel and the crew could take off again. Media censorship ensured that the news didn’t travel far, so Ireland’s neutrality was officially kept pure.

Three years later, the crew of a British Halifax aircraft was not so lucky in their flight through the Donegal Corridor. They were gathering weather-forecasting information that was essential to the war effort, so they were forced to go out despite atrocious conditions. Tragically, the plane hit the cliffs near the Fairy Bridges at Bundoran, and all ten men were killed. A monument to the Halifax crash can be seen today at Tullan Strand.

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Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

A Soft Landing

Clifden, County Galway

Photo of Alcock and Brown in Clifden, public domain

15th June 1919. The two airmen flew eastwards into the dawn. The heating in their flying suits had stopped working a few hours after they’d taken off from Newfoundland, so they warmed themselves with whiskey-laced coffee. Lieutenant Arthur Brown and Captain John Alcock had survived several close calls, flying part of the way upside-down in freezing fog.

When the sun appeared, Alcock stripped the gloves from his freezing fingers and measured their location using the sextant. They were on course, but the controls threatened to freeze up if they didn’t move into warmer air. He pushed the joystick forward and descended into the cloud, where there was no visibility beyond the nose of the plane.

The two men were soon sitting in a puddle as the ice in the cockpit melted. But then, to their exultation, they spotted land! They had intended to fly direct to London, but under the circumstances a touchdown in Ireland seemed like a good idea.

Alcock flew towards Clifden at a low height, circling the streets as he looked for a convenient field. The locals strained their necks and dropped their jaws as this strange, noisy machine buzzed above them in the sky! Out by the Clifden wireless tower, some men waved towards the plane, as if inviting it to land in the green meadow beyond.

Alcock didn’t realise their waves were a warning about the bog he was about to land in. The Vimy Vicker, veteran plane of the Great War, ploughed a deep furrow before burying its nose in the mud of Derrygimla Moor. After 16 hours and 3040 km (1890 miles), Alcock and Brown had become the first aviators to make a non-stop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

The men who’d tried to warn them jumped from one grass tuft to another as they made their way to the plane.

“Anybody hurt?” they asked. “Where are you from?”

“America,” said Alcock.

The crowd broke out in laughter. Brown gave one of them an orange from Newfoundland as proof this wasn’t an elaborate joke.

News of the landing was relayed from the wireless station, just short hop from where the plane had crash-landed. When Tom “Cork” Kenny got a message at the offices of the Connacht Tribune in Galway, the journalist knew this could be the scoop of his life. He jumped into his V8 car and drove to Clifden to pick up the pilots, keeping them away from other newspapermen until he had his exclusive.

Alcock and Brown spent the night at the Railway Hotel (now the Meyrick) in Galway, and received a hero’s welcome the following day despite the heavy rain. But they were in a hurry to get to London and collect their prize. The Daily Mail had offered £10,000 to ‘the aviator who shall first cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane in flight from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland to any point in Great Britain or Ireland’. At the London Royal Aero Club, Captain John Alcock handed over a bundle of letters that had been entrusted to him by the postmaster in Newfoundland. Air mail was invented!

Alcock and Brown were knighted by King George V for their achievement. Sadly, Alcock didn’t enjoy his success for long; that December, he was in a fatal air crash in fog over France. But the inhabitants of Clifden would never forget the day two men dropped out of the sky to meet them. Today, the Alcock and Brown Hotel takes pride of place in the town square.

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