Magnificent men, modest memorials

An Irishman’s Diary about Clifden, Marconi, and Alcock & Brown

Thu, Aug 22, 2013, 01:00

The otherwise-concise inscription on the Alcock & Brown memorial near Clifden includes an unnecessary, although endearing, detail. First there’s a mention of the flight’s historic nature and the date it happened (June 15th, 1919). Then the plaque directs visitors towards the spot on Derrygimla Bog where the two men, as it says, “landed in their aircraft”.

The implication, somehow, is that they and the plane might have landed separately. Whereas, of course, both aviation history and the £10,000 Daily Mail prize for which they were competing required that the men and their machine arrive simultaneously, and in the same place.

That aside, there’s something about the site now that does suggest the aircraft came down in instalments. For one thing, the main memorial – erected in 1959 in the shape of a tail-fin – is about a mile-and-a-half from the actual landing place. This is because, until recently, the path into the bog where the plane touched down was impassable.

Even now, it’s not in good condition. When I drove along it last weekend, dodging the potholes and puddles, I worried for my car. Then I parked and walked the last bit towards the strange, white cairn – like the proverbial lighthouse in a bog – that marks the landing place: only to find that this was not the exact spot, either.

According to a sign on the cairn, that was another 500 metres away. I gazed off into the bog, in the direction of the accompanying arrow, and thought for a moment about continuing the search. But it looked a bit desolate – and wet – out there. In the absence of another marker, my chances would have been slim.

It’s just as well I didn’t try, because I’ve since learned from Breandan O Scanaill, chairman of the Clifden and Connemara Heritage Society, that nobody now knows exactly where the plane landed. Some local sleuths are on the case, however, as part of a campaign to develop a more elaborate commemoration.

And among the clues that may help them pinpoint it are buildings in the background of the 1919 photographs of the half-crashed plane: wherein hangs a forgotten tale about Derrygimla.

It’s hard to imagine these days, when almost nothing of those buildings remains. But part of the reason Alcock and Brown came down at Derrygimla is that the same bog then housed one of the world’s biggest radio stations, courtesy of the great Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi.

Bleak as it now seems, the bog was once the perfect venue for the European end of Marconi’s transatlantic operations. It had unimpeded access out to sea, in the direction of Newfoundland. There was nothing, not even an island, that might interfere with his transmitter.

Importantly too, the 300-acre site he acquired had space for the huge condenser house and other structures. And not least of the bog’s attractions was that it also supplied the huge amounts of water and fuel needed for his gigantic engines. Coal produced twice as much power as peat then, but at six times the cost. So the unlimited supplies of turf sealed Derrygimla’s attractions.

Between those who worked in the station and those who fuelled it, there could be well over 100 workers there at any given time. Senior management lived on-site in proper houses. And the operation ran 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: ceaselessly propelling newspaper reports (at 2½ pence a word) and personal messages (5 pence a word) out into the ether.

It was into this miniature empire that Alcock & Brown flew, and from which they relayed news of their feat to the world. Yet today, there is almost as little trace of the Marconi station as of the plane’s landing spot.

Opened in 1907, it operated for only 15 years. By the time of the famous flight, it was already being overtaken by progress. So when anti-Treaty IRA men burned part of the site in 1922, they only hastened its end. The station was soon dismantled for scrap. Now a piece of wall with a plaque, and the scars left by large-scale turf cutting, are the only signs it was ever there.

Any interpretive centre at Derrygimla, or elsewhere, would have to recreate the Marconi complex. Not physically, I would imagine, but through another century’s cutting-edge technology. It would also, at last, pay proper tribute to those intrepid men in their flying machine: one of whom – Alcock – was soon to underline the crazy courage of the enterprise when, only six months after his Clifden triumph, he came down in another aircraft, fatally this time, in France.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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