For the tenth year in a row, the Tchaikovsky Perm State Ballet of Russia, to give it its full title, will travel to Galway this month to perform to packed houses and appreciative acclaim.
It’s a long way from Perm to Galway, but it is now a journey undertaken with anticipation and pleasure by the Russian ballet company, where the bonds with the west of Ireland are now strong.
But none of this would have happened without the determination and vision of a Castlebar-born ballet teacher who knows that the best way to get someone to do something is to go there and ask.
Regina Langan and her late mother, Marie, will be well remembered in Mayo as the family which brought ballet to the west of Ireland. Wife of the late and much-respected Dr John Langan, Marie had been trained in ballet in England and decided that she wanted to pass on her love of the dance to the young people of Mayo.
With her daughter Regina as her first pupil, she began ballet classes in Castlebar, soon moving on to Westport and Ballinrobe. Soon, a cohort of young dancers had been formed in the county, and Mayo ballet performances became part of the local cultural scene. Regina became Regina Rogers and went to live in Galway eventually, where she set up her own ballet school. But her main regret in those formative years was that her young dancers, and their parents, were being deprived of the opportunity of seeing professional ballet performed by professional companies, unless they were prepared to make the journey to Dublin or even London.
For Regina, the turning point came ten years ago when she went to see a stunning performance of Spartacus by the Bolshoi Ballet at The Point in Dublin. There and then, she decided she would bring the cream of the world’s ballet to Galway, however unlikely that task seemed at first glance.
When a first, experimental show at Leisureland filled the auditorium with over a thousand in the audience, the die was cast. Michael Diskin, the manager of the Galway Town Hall Theatre, agreed to help, and together they hit for Russia.
They had heard about Monica Loughman from Dublin, the only European ever to have been accepted by the Perm ballet, and it was this tenuous link which would prove vital in the end. They flew to Moscow and then undertook the 23-hour journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, across the frozen wastes and higher and higher into the Ural mountains.
But if the journey was cold, the welcome was warm for the two strangers all the way from the west of Ireland. The State Ballet of Perm does not perform at home; such is its cultural value as a symbol of Russian excellence. Regina Rogers did the deal which would see Galway become the Irish home of the Perm State Ballet. She agreed to pay the flights, the accommodation and the performance fees, which were quite low as she recalls.
Central to the smooth running of the arrangements was Monica Loughman, who had spent 14 years living and dancing in Perm, a city where winter temperatures drop to minus 40 and where conditions are fairly basic.
But the rest is history, and when the Perm Ballet come to Ireland this month to perform the Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, it will be to Galway first, and then to Dublin. The Russians will not be forgetting just where that first invitation came from ten years ago.
For Regina Rogers, it has all been worth the time and the effort and the faith she had that the west of Ireland public would share her enthusiasm for ballet performance. And one thinks just how much Marie Langan - who thought nothing of cycling to ballet classes, small daughter propped on the back - would be pleased at what Regina has accomplished.
Tom King wins an electoral joust
Castlebarman, Tom King, struck a small but significant blow for democracy last week when he overturned an electoral requirement imposed on those who want to run for the Dáil as independent candidates.
It started in 2002 when Mr King, who lives at The Curragh, Castlebar, offered himself as a general election candidate. However, he was told he would have to get 30 signatories to support his nomination; but even more demanding, all 30 would have to go to the local authority offices in Castlebar and present themselves in person.
Considering that party political nominees need only a letter from their masters to be placed on the ballot paper, Mr King considered it a tad onerous, to say the least, that independents would have to go through the hoops as the law directed.
Just before the election, Mr King made an unsuccessful application for an injunction requiring the authorities to put his name on the ballot paper. A full High Court hearing last year also held against Mr King’s view. But he battled on, and last month the Supreme Court overruled the earlier decision, declared the ‘thirty nominators’ requirement unconstitutional, and earned for Tom King his own special place in the annals of elections.
James Daly, remembered at last
As we go to press, plans are in hand to honour the memory of James Daly, often referred to as the forgotten man of Irish history.
Monday night’s meeting of Mayo County Council was due to consider the establishment of a James Daly Bursary Scheme to run over four years to 2010, the centenary of his death.
A contemporary of Michael Davitt and editor of the Connaught Telegraph, Daly was a central organiser in the formation of the Land League. A fearless defender of the rights of the country’s small farmers, he used his journalistic powers to telling effect in exposing to condemnation the excesses of the landlord class.
The proposed bursary will be offered to a Mayo student who, in the opinion of a panel of adjudicators, presents best written work on some aspect of James Daly’s life or his historical legacy.
The initiative to honour Daly will be welcomed in particular by Castlebar councillor, Johnny Mee, who has taken the lead in seeking to have due recognition accorded to the Land League co-founder.
Liam Scollan holds the vision
The more the capital becomes choked on the gridlock of commuter tailbacks and smothered in the sheer volume of excessive traffic, the more attractive is the option of a second major airport away from Dublin.
It is a lesson already being taken to heart by airline travellers from a growing catchment reach who see in Knock Airport the perfect answer to avoiding the nightmare of Dublin access’.
It is a situation which certainly encourages Knock CEO, Liam Scollan, who confidently sees his airport reach the one million annual passenger throughput by 2009.
In a recent interview in the Fáilte Ireland publication, ‘Tourism Matters’, he sets out his ambition to ultimately have over fifty route destinations out of Knock, including connections with all the main regions in the UK and Europe, as well as weekly flights to North American destinations.
The potential of Knock Airport is, he says, both huge and largely untapped. Scollan gives as an example the decision two years ago by My Travelite to open daily services to Birmingham. In the very first year, the service carried 90,000 passengers and a handsome reward for the airline which took the chance on the route being a success.
But, true to the vision of Knock’s founding father, Liam Scollan believes that his company has a much wider remit than just the operation of the airport. Like the late Monsignor Horan, he believes that the long-term goal must be to position itself as a key driver of the region’s economic development. Like Liverpool and Cork - where the remit of the airport extends beyond the core business of flying - the plan for Knock is to develop a business park eventually providing up to 2,000 jobs.
For Liam Scollan, although much has been achieved, the story has only started.
When Ballinrobe welcomed a pilot hero
I am sure there are very few of the Lithuanian migrant workers now settled in Ballinrobe who are aware of the historic link between their country and the south Mayo town.
On the other hand, there are probably few enough Ballinrobe natives who have heard - much less recall - how Cloongowla made it into the world headlines over 70 years ago.
It all began in the early days of air flight when two Lithuanian-born pilots attempted the non-stop flight from New York to Kaunas in Lithuania, in 1933. The flight ended tragically when their plane, named Lithuanica, crashed in a German forest, 400 miles from their goal, killing both men.
Two years later, some prominent members of the Lithuanian community in Chicago discussed the possibility of financing another transatlantic flight. Even though it was the Great Depression, the idea was warmly supported. The funds were raised, a new aircraft - the Lithuanica I - was prepared, and the search for a suitable pilot ended when Feliksas Vaitkus agreed to take on the challenge.
Vaitkus was American-born of immigrant Lithuanian parents. He had enlisted in the US Army in 1928, when he was 21, and having graduated from advanced pilot training school, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps. In 1931, he had returned to civilian life, working with his father-in-law at a flying school in Wisconsin.
In 1935 came the call to make an attempt at the transatlantic challenge. Vaitkus arrived at Floyd Bennett Field in New York in May, but he had to wait four long months to get the go-ahead that the weather conditions were good enough for his flight.
On September 21, he climbed into the cockpit, roared his engines to life, lifted into the New York morning sky, and headed for Europe. Unfortunately, the forecasters proved to be well wide of the mark. Rain, fog and ice were his companions; several times he had to descend to low altitudes to throw the ice off the wings. Dublin, he was told, was fogged in as well, as were all areas east to the Baltic Sea.
He knew he would not make it to Kaunas in Lithuania. His fuel supply was low, he was exhausted after a 23-hour battle against the elements. It was best to find a landing in Ireland.
At mid day, he spotted an open field at Cloongowla, just north of Ballinrobe. He hit land with his aircraft suffering extensive damage, but Vaitkus miraculously escaped without injury. When word was received back in America that he had made it safely - albeit without reaching his goal - there was joy and celebration. His plane was packed in crates for shipment to Lithuania, where it was eventually restored. He himself made his way, by ship and train, to Kaunas, where he was given a hero’s welcome. He went into aviation’s history books as being the sixth pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Feliksas Vaitkus was recalled to serve in the US Air Force during the Korean War. He died of a heart attack in Welsbaden, Germany, where he was stationed on July 25, 1956, at the early age of 49. His body was shipped home to be interred in his wife’s family plot in Shebrygan, Wisconsin.
A national hero in Lithuania, it is hoped in his home country to have special celebrations in his honour to mark the 75th anniversary of his flight in 2010.
Surely there is call for a special place in any such ceremonies for Cloongowla and Ballinrobe.
Ninety years young
Finally, the column sends its best wishes to old friend, Willie Murphy of Ballyglass, whose ninetieth birthday was fittingly observed in recent days.
Friends, family and neighbours converged from far and wide to pay tribute to the old soldier at Mayo Abbey and Balla, and none enjoyed things more than the guest of honour himself.
Still hale and hearty and as agile as ever, we add our warmest congratulations to Willie, who does not know the meaning of the term ‘old age’.