Model citizen – Frank McNally on aviation pioneer Nancy Corrigan

From Mayo to Cleveland and beyond

Nancy Corrigan: Even before she became a certified pilot, she was a young woman in a hurry

Announcing new direct flights to Cleveland, Ohio, an Aer Lingus publicist writes to draw my attention to the story of a pioneering Irish aviator, Nancy Corrigan, and wonders “if it would make a good Irishman’s Diary”.

It would indeed. Alas, as is often the case, it already has. Or to be more exact, it made an Irishwoman’s Diary, written by Deirdre McQuillan in this space back in 2015.

As Deirdre recounted then, the remarkable Corrigan (1912–1983) grew up in Owenduff, Co Mayo, before the death of her father in a railway accident left the family destitute and forced Nancy and her three sisters to emigrate to the US.

Even before she became a certified pilot in Cleveland, Corrigan was a young woman in a hurry. She earned her licence in under five hours of flying lessons.


It was an expensive hobby for somebody of poor background, however. So in the meantime, in a career others would have settled for, she became a model, moving to New York to join the famous John Robert Powers agency.

She was a hand model, specifically. But the hands that rocked the cradle of US fashion were more at home in the cockpit. And when the second World War broke out, she got a job training fighter pilots, with great success.

Then in 1948, to compete in an air show, she put all her savings (as well as money from friends and supporters) into buying her own twin-engine aircraft. She also earned a commercial pilot’s licence and went on to amass 600,000 airmiles in a career that ended with a soft landing – and peaceful retirement – in Florida.


Cleveland is something of a Mayo colony, it seems. Although Irish emigrants first went there in large numbers for the building of the Ohio and Erie canal in 1825, there were later and greater waves from Mayo in particular, especially in the late 1870s.

“The vast majority of Cleveland’s Irish have their family origin in County Mayo,” one local history sums up, adding: “They were more dutiful in the practice of their faith than the Irish who preceded them in 1845. Perhaps they were not as lawless but they were surely more clannish.”

The clannishness may have diminished a little down the decades, the historian suggests, but the Mayo surnames are conspicuous still, including “Corrigan, Kilbane, O’Malley, Stanton, O’Connor, McGovern, Gallagher, Sweeney, Patton, Murphy, Lavelle, Gibbons, and so many more.”

As often happens, once an emigrant community establishes a beachhead in a place, later generations follow. That must be how Nancy Corrigan ended up in Cleveland.

And Mayo people were still going there in the 1950s, when the German Heinrich Böll lived in Achill and lamented that the county was being “slowly but steadily depopulated” by the annual exodus to “London, Manhattan, Cleveland, Liverpool or Sydney”.

There are many other emigrant communities in Cleveland too, of course. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than 23 “sister cities” abroad, ranging alphabetically from Alexandria, in Egypt, to Volgograd in Russia. Somewhat lost in translation, the list of “cities” also includes Mayo.


The Corrigans of Ireland have stamped their name on the history of aviation to an extent that perhaps only the latter-day Ryans can better. This is not just because of Nancy. When she bought that twin-engine plane in 1948, so many other members of the extended clan in Cleveland contributed that she painted the name “Corrigans” on the fuselage.

Then there was Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan – no apparent relation and from Texas rather than Ohio – who flew a patched-up plane from New York to Dublin in 1938, having ostensibly set out to reach California.

Of course, he knew what he was doing – he just didn’t have permission to do it. The plane was certified only for overland flights. So after taking off in fog, he claimed to believe he was travelling west until noticing his mistake – which eventually proved to be Ireland – 26 hours into the flight.

“That’s my story”, he said at the time, and in the title of a subsequent memoir. He never changed it.

Among the reasons to doubt that Wrong-Way Corrigan made any navigational errors are that he was a skilled and very experienced airman. A decade before his transatlantic journey, he had been part of the team that built the much more expensive aircraft, Spirit of St Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh would fly from New York to Paris.

The company responsible for that, by the way, was called Ryan Airline. Founded by one Tubal Claude Ryan and based in California, it not to be confused with a latter day near-namesake that, despite occasional rumours, still has no plans to fly translatlantic.