As the entry point of Ireland and a refueling point and entry in to Europe, Shannon Airport has hosted its share of US presidents, film stars, writers and politicians, all making the transatlantic crossing.
The airport’s colorful historic past featured in a BBC Radio 4 documentary, which aired Saturday evening. Journalist Christine Finn got the idea for the program during a transatlantic flight when a communication between the crew and air traffic controllers was accidentally broadcast over the PA system of the passenger cabin.
“It genuinely came about when I heard the cockpit radio, long before I started presenting documentaries on BBC radio,” Quinn told The Clare Herald.
“Listening to archive of transatlantic flights from the first by Alcock and Brown in 1919, I discovered that the west coast of Ireland looms large in the history. I visited Shannon airport, scene of many departures and reunions and, in the 1950s and 60s – before the jet engine – a stop-over for most of the popular icons of the day as their planes refueled after the 3000 mile flight.
“Every US President since JFK has visited Shannon, and most stars from Marilyn Monroe to Fred Astaire,” she said.
In her report for the BBC, Quinn describes the history of the airport and how it came to be.
“The story begins back in June 1919. John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown set out from Gander in Newfoundland in a World War One Vickers Vimy, their historic crossing ending with a crash landing in a green field – more accurately, a bog. Startled locals, including Patrick Boulton, out with his dog, greeted the equally started aviation pioneers: 'Welcome boys. Where to, and where from?' They then shook hands and congratulated them, as the pilots took in that their rugged arrival point was not England, but Ireland.
“That handshake helped to forge a near-century long relationship between Shannon and North America. As commercial flights began with the Transatlantic Flying Service in 1937, it was flying boats that made the crossing, not into Shannon, but over the estuary at Foynes in County Limerick.”
Quinn also recounts how the famous Irish coffee was invented at Shannon.
“An enterprising local called Joe Sheridan, seeing the Atlantic passengers arriving cold, made them coffee and, seeing they needed a bit of a boost, added a splash of Irish whiskey, topped with a thick layer of cream. It was an instant hit. When Shannon Airport was built, the duty-free trade invented there – another remarkable first – was surely helped by the passengers returning across the Atlantic with bottles of Irish whiskey, to make their own Irish coffee.”
Every US president since John F.Kennedy has flown in and out of the airport. Michael Fitzgerald, who was a barman at the Sheridan bar for 35 years, remembers serving Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Even the fictitious James Bond made a stop in Shannon on his way to New York.
Nearby Ballygirreen in Co Clare houses the North Atlantic Communications Centre, which was founded in 1936 to provide long range communications for the transatlantic flying boat service located in nearby Foynes.
Today the centre communicates via long distance radio with over 1,000 transatlantic flights every day.