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Portlaoise Aviator’s incredible legacy honoured
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Portlaoise Aviator’s incredible legacy honoured

96th Anniversary of groundbreaking flight marked in Portlaoise

On Friday 12th April – 96 years to the day – a special commemorative ceremony was held at Fitzmaurice Place in Portlaoise to mark the anniversary of the first east west transatlantic flight in April 1928. This was one of the most famous flights in Aviation history in which Col James Fitzmaurice, then Officer-in-Command of the Irish Air Corps, along with two German aviators, Capt. Hermann Koehl and Baron von Huenefeld in the German Junkers W33 plane, the Bremen, achieved what was considered impossible with the aircraft and technology then available– an East to West transatlantic flight. The plane took off early on Thursday, April 12th, from Baldonnel Aerodrome, and landed on Northern American soil over 36 hours later.

Irish UN Veterans Post 27 members at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

The Col James Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee was joined by Brigadier General of the Irish Air Corps, Rory O’Connor, Laois County Council Chief Executive, John Mulholland, Cathaoirleach Pascal McEvoy, Laois Heritage Officer Thomas Carolan, elected representatives of Laois County Council, the Irish United Nations Veterans Association Post 27 Portlaoise Branch and Laois Heritage Society. Piper
Christy O’Brien played after the wreath laying ceremony. 

Irish Air Corps Brigadier General Rory O’Connor at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Alan Phelan, Chair of the Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee was MC for the event with contributions from a number of speakers on all aspects of the life of Col Fitzmaurice, and the historic flight.

Firstly Paschal McEvoy, Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council, noted the work done by the Col Fitzmaurice Committee in highlighting this hugely significant event in world history and the role played by Col Fitzmaurice, a local Portlaoise man. He also reiterated the commitment from Laois County Council to continue supporting these annual commemorative events building up to the centenary in 2028 and
beyond.

The 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Thomas Carolan, Laois Heritage Officer spoke about the famous flight being an historic ‘first’ in human history and also emphasised “the sheer human courage it took to undertake this famous flight” comparing Col Fitzmaurice and his co-pilots to other courageous pioneers who have achieved historic ‘firsts’ such as summiting Everest.

Irish Air Corps Brigadier General Rory O’Connor, Henry McGee, Portlaoise CBS and Laois Heritage officer Thomas Carolan at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Rory O’Connor, Brigadier General of the Irish Air Corps spoke in detail about Col Fitzmaurice’s life – from Portlaoise as a boy, his involvement in WWI, to the famous flight itself and his subsequent role as Commanding Officer of the Irish Air Corps. Fitzmaurice was one of the founding fathers of the Irish Air Corps and it was at Baldonnel that The Bremen took off on its fateful flight on 12th April 1928. Brigadier
General O’Connor went on to acknowledge the skill and bravery it took for all pilots to successfully complete the historic flight.

Viewing the Portlaoise Plane are Laois Heritage president Teddy Fennelly with Paul Conroy grandson of John Conroy who built the plane and Aisling Conroy, great granddaughter of John Conroy at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

The speech of the day was delivered by Harry McGree, TY student at the CBS Portlaoise, the alma mater of Col James Fitzmaurice. Harry spoke passionately and eloquently about his research on the life and achievements of Col Fitzmaurice impressing everyone in attendance. Harry compared the activities of Col Fitzmaurice when he was a 16 year old boy like himself. He cited Col Fitzmaurice as an inspiration
quoting him as saying “the only limits that exist are the ones we impose upon ourselves”.

Laois Heritage president Teddy Fennelly with Louise Fennelly and Emily and Eva Cahill at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Ralph James of the Col Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee (and former Brigadier General of the Irish Air Corps) who replicated the original flight for the 75th anniversary in 2003 reflected on the social and cultural context in which the flight took place and how these presented additional challenges for Fitzmaurice to make the flight a reality. Ralph James listed three particular qualities of Col Fitzmaurice that led him to being not just part of this historic flight but instrumental in its achievement – being “a visionary, an Innovator, and courageous”.

Irish UN Veterans Post 27 members at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Alan Phelan wrapped up the speeches by highlighting some additional Fitzmaurice Commemorative events and activities coming up; The ‘Portlaoise Plane’ (the construction of which was an inspiration to Fitzmaurice as a boy) will be on rare display at Abbeyleix House and Farm Estate Open Day on Sunday 23 rd June. The Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee also hope to display a working model of The
Portlaoise Plane which was expertly crafted and recreated by Dermot Gannon. Finally the longer term plans are focused on the 100 th anniversary in 2028 which should be an international affair befitting this historic event!

With the Portlaoise Plane are Portlaoise CBS students Harry McGree (who spoke at the event); Shane O’Sullivan and Fergal Naughton at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

To commemorate the anniversary wreaths were laid at the Col Fitzmaurice Sculpture in memory of Fitzmaurice and his co-pilots of the flight, Captain Hermann Kohl and Baron Von Hüenfeld by:

● Paschal McEvoy, Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council on behalf of Laois County Council.
● Rory O’Connor, Brigadier General of the Irish Air Corps on behalf of the Irish Air Corps.
● Sinéad Holland on behalf of Laois Heritage Society.
● Donie Molloy on behalf of IUNVA (The Irish United Nations Veterans Association) Post 27.
● Teddy Fennelly, President of the Col James Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee.

Councillors Willie Aird, Paschal McEvoy and Catherine Fitzgerald at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.

MC Alan Phelan thanked everyone for attending the event, and brought proceedings to a close.

The Col Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee is made up of Teddy Fennelly (President), Alan Phelan (Chair), Michael Parsons, Louise Fennelly, PJ Kavanagh, Philip Doody and Thomas Carolan. The event was run in partnership with Laois County Council with technical assistance from the Dunamaise Arts Centre. The Committee is grateful for all this support.

Wreaths being laid at the 96th anniversary commemoration of the first East West transatlantic flight by Col James Fitzmaurice held at Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey.