A low-key visit it might have been, but there was no mistaking the warmth of the welcome when a Claremorris man, now long resident in Cork, made the journey to Castlebar last week.
John Finnegan and his family made the trip on the invitation of former Castlebar Mayor, Kevin Guthrie, but it was also to mark the fiftieth anniversary of an event which is still fondly recalled in the Finnegan household. For it was in this very month back in 1966 that John’s brother, Michael, piloted the first ever flight into the newly-built Castlebar Airport on the Breaffy Road, which had been opened just weeks earlier by the Ryan brothers, Peter, Jim and Hugh.
The four seater plane had landed that day to huge local excitement. It had been chartered by Frank Gill and Bobby Smyth of the Royal Blues showband, accompanied by their flamboyant manager, Andy Creighton, and a huge crowd turned out for the occasion, given added glamour by the showband which was then at the top of the Irish entertainment scene.
John Finnegan was officially met last week by Blackie Gavin, current head of the Castlebar Municipal District, and former Mayor Johnnie Mee, with the former presenting the visitor with a signed copy of Noel Campbell’s ‘History of Castlebar Town Council’ as a memento of his visit. Mr. Finnegan’s one regret was that his visit came too late for him to renew acquaintances and to share memories of that auspicious day with Peter Ryan, whose sudden death took place just a few weeks ago.
That Royal Blues flight was to herald almost 30 years of activity at Castlebar Airport before the land was eventually sold off to make way for a retail park in 2001. During that time, it had facilitated regular flights to Dublin and the UK, had been the busy headquarters of Mayo Flying Club, and uniquely for the time, had hosted transatlantic flights. These had commenced in 1972 on the private jet of businessman, Denis Ferranti, who lived at Massbrook House, now the residence of former President Mary Robinson.
Mr Ferranti’s pilot, Jim Donoghue, was based and lived with his family in Castlebar, and the low hum of the jet engines as it dipped over the rooftops on its return from the USA or the south of France, where its owner had a holiday home, became a familiar sound to the town’s residents.
Johnnie Mee recalled for the visitors that Castlebar’s aeronautical links went back a long way - his own father, James Mee, and local man William Munnelly, both members of the Royal Flying Corps, had often landed there in the days of the Great War. And the airport had been at the centre of an early but ill-fated transatlantic crossing in August, 1927, when an experienced RAF pilot, Terry Tully, a native of Carracastle, had attempted the flight to Ontario, Canada. The plane and its crew were lost, and no trace of their whereabouts was ever found.
In 1967, a group from Castlebar Chamber of Commerce, led by its president, Michael J Egan, flew from the airport to Belfast to be received at Stormont by the Prime Minister, Sir Terence O’Neill, before travelling on to Ballymena to initiate formal twinning links between the two towns.
Happily, the airport enjoyed an accident free existence over its 30 years of operation. The only mishap came in the eighties when a light plane carrying a cargo of Clew Bay oysters for the French market failed to take off and came to a halt embedded in the wall of the Travenol warehouse on the opposite side of the road. Nobody was injured, and the pilot walked away unscathed.
History, however, does not record the fate of the oysters, and whether they ever reached the tables of the top French restaurants for which they were bound.