Laois has a long a proud tradition of achievements in aviation, the most well known of which is the achievement of Colonel James Fitzmaurice, a Portlaoise native who was co-pilot on the first plane to cross the Atlantic from East to West, in April 1928.
Fitz and the Famous Flight
In April 1928, the Junkers aircraft the Bremen took off from Baldonnell Aerodrome in Dublin, and set out to cross the Atlantic from East to West – against prevailing winds – for the first time. On board was Portlaoise native Captain James Fitzmaurice, along with Germans Hermann Kohl and Ehrenfried Günther Freiherr von Hünefeld. When they touched down on Greenly Island, off the coast of Canada, more than 36 hours later, they made history.
The achievement has been celebrated in Laois over the years, and a series of commemorative events were held to mark the 90th anniversary of the flight, in 2018. This included an exhibition by artists Brendon Deacy, a documentary by Louis V Deacy and a joint Irish German commemorative flight and wreath-laying in October 2018.
The Portlaoise Plane
The first aeroplane built and flown in what is now the Republic of Ireland was constructed in Portlaoise (then Maryborough) by a family of renowned motor engineers, the Aldritts, Frank, the father and founder of the business, and his sons, Louis, Frank and Joseph. The Aldritts worked with master carpenter John Conroy and mechanic William Rogers to build their plane, and in 1912 it flew a short distance, witnessed by a number of people .
The Portlaoise Plane is a rare aviation artefact but, better still, it has a close connection with Ireland’s most famous aviation pioneer, Col. James Fitzmaurice, the co-pilot on the Bremen, the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic east to west in 1928. Fitzmaurice grew up in Portlaoise and received all his formal education in the local CBS, next door to Aldritts’ old garage. He later wrote that as a schoolboy he became involved in the plane’s construction, with particular mention of his mentor, Louis Aldritt, and it was from this early experience that he first acquired his interest in aeroplanes.
Following research by Joe Rogers, a descendant of William Rogers, and aviation enthusiasts Teddy Fennelly and Alan Phelan, the plane was discovered, after being housed in a private museum in the south of England and almost forgotten for 40 years. The plane was restored by aircraft engineers Brendan O’Donoghue and Johnny Molloy . The short clip below records the homecoming on the 14th July 2021.
Laois Represented at Major Conference on Irish Aviation History
Laois was represented at a major international conference held in Clifden in June 2019 to mark the centenary of the first non-stop transatlantic airplane flight by Alcock and Brown in June 1919.
Teddy Fennelly of Laois Heritage Society, Catherine Casey of Laois County Council and Michael McEvoy President of the Model Aeronautics Council of Ireland (also an active member of the Laois Model Aero Club) attended the conference organised by Galway County Council.
Teddy Fennelly, a lifelong aeronautics enthusiast, was introduced at the conference by Laois Heritage Officer Catherine Casey. Currently President of Laois Heritage Society and Chairman of the Laois Heritage Forum, Teddy has written numerous books, mainly historical and biographical, including the biography of Ireland’s most famous aviator, Col James Fitzmaurice, titled “Fitz and the Famous Flight”, published in 1998. He spoke about the life and achievements of Col Fitzmaurice, a Portlaoise native, as co-pilot of the first nonstop transatlantic plane flight from Europe to North America, in April 1928.
Those present were also fascinated to hear about the “Portlaoise Plane”, built by Louis & Frank Aldritt, Motor Engineers and Johnny Conroy Master Carpenter with the help of mechanic William Rogers – the first plane built and flown in what is now the Republic of Ireland. It is known that Aldritts had a patent to build an airplane as early as 1907. It is also on record that the Portlaoise Plane succeeded in covering a short distance in November, 1909.
Teddy Fennelly said “We know that Colonel James Fitzmaurice helped in its construction as a young boy, and it’s quite likely that this is where the seed was sown for his life-long passion for Aviation. The airplane remained in storage in the original Aldritt motor works at Bank Place, Portlaoise until the late 1970s. It was acquired by a private collector who transported the plane to his premises in the South of England, until we recently brought it home to Ireland. You can follow the story of the Portlaoise Plane at portlaoiseplane.com.
Another highlight of the conference was the display of model aircraft brought to Clifden by Laois and Midland Model Aero Clubs members Michael McEvoy, Mel Broad, Heather Broad and Martin Sweeney. The aircraft were on display in the Museum in Clifden for the duration of the commemoration events.
Michael McEvoy said “The Model Aeronautics Council of Ireland (MACI) was formed in 1939 by a group of model aircraft enthusiasts when model aircraft technology was in its infancy. Today, 80 years later, almost 6,000 enthusiasts have passed through MACI, many carrying their interests to a life in aeronautics, designing, maintaining and piloting a range of aircraft from a Cessna 150 to a 747 Jumbo Jet while others have taken the road to military aeronautics. The Laois Model Aero Club is one of 29 clubs nationwide with almost 500 members. The MACI website covers all aspects relating to model aircraft and the many different types now available to the modelling enthusiast from a simple electric to a sophisticated turbine model”.
Catherine Casey, Heritage Officer with Laois County Council, said “with so many strands to the story, the history and the future of aviation in Ireland are firmly centred on County Laois. We look forward to working closely with MACI and Laois Heritage Society as we start to plan for the centenary of the first East West transatlantic flight, in 2028”.