Michael Whelan MA
Curator: Irish Air Corps Museum & Heritage Project
I am always impressed whenever I approach the galleries housing the modern Irish Defence Forces exhibits in the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition of the National Museum at Collins Barracks, Dublin. On the upper level one is immediately confronted with two aircraft, a Miles Magister dating from the 1930s and the day-glow painted nose of the De Havilland Vampire T55 dating from the mid 1950s, both currently on loan from the Irish Air Corps.
Like the imposing frame of a dinosaur suspended from many ceilings in natural history museums around the world these airframes hark back to more sinister and historic days. However, like the dinosaur, these, some might say inanimate objects, once lived surrounded by flesh and blood, but in the case of the aircraft, the flesh and blood came in the form of ground crew, technicians and pilots.
The Magister monoplane was a trainer aircraft used during the Irish Emergency period of WWII and the Vampire was one of the first jet engine fighter trainer aircraft purchased for the Irish Air Corps in 1956. The Vampire in effect brought the jet age to Ireland and new runways had to be constructed at Baldonnel, as jets could not land on the grass runways, which were suitable only for its predecessors, the lighter Spitfires and Hurricanes etc.
These aircraft hanging in the gallery remind me of the early 20th Century in Ireland and the era that the Air Corps was held “upon the romantic mantle” of Irish Military aviation. They remind me of some of the many historical events of those times, such as the first East West non-stop Trans-Atlantic flight of 1928, which departed from Baldonnel with an Irish military pilot as one of the crew, and of the first and only live ejection in the history of the Irish Air Corps from a Vampire in 1961.
I am also reminded of the span of Irish Air Corps history across the 20th Century and of military aviation from 1913 to date. I think of the thousands of pilots, technicians and service members who served in the military aviation sphere in the Air Corps, many of whom I have been lucky to meet and some who have now passed on. They worked in many capacities but essentially they were soldiers serving their country in sometimes very difficult times. The pilots risked their lives defending the skies over Ireland and depended on the professionalism of their ground crews to keep them in the air. They gave life to aircraft that would be ‘forever remembered’ on the landscape of Ireland and the imaginations of her people. They have been given life once again with the blood, sweat and tears of those who understood their worth and restored them to their present condition. By their very existence, suspended as they are from the ceilings of the museum, these aircraft beg the question from the visitor, ‘What did they do in the past.’ Moreover, the answer would be, ‘Yes, I too once lived among great men in great times. I caressed the clouds, made the skies my own and watched over the earth.’
To me these aircraft are the stories of those who are and were the Irish Air Corps, Irish Military aviation and hence a major if unrealised part of the historical narrative of Ireland.