PORTLAOISE aviation history will be at the forefront of Heritage Week 2021 in Laois, as three events celebrate the huge contribution the town has made to Irish and international aviation and exploration.
The Portlaoise Plane, a monoplane designed and built in the town’s Aldritt’s Garage by Frank Aldritt and his sons, was the first plane to be built and take to the air in what is now the Republic of Ireland.
The plane will be on display to the public for the first time at a special event in Fitzmaurice Place, Portlaoise at 6pm on Saturday 21 August.
The event will feature a Guard of Honour by the Irish Air Corps and a performance of a specially-commissioned piece of music by Martin Tourish and the Music Generation Laois Trad Orchestra.
Titled ‘The Impossible Dream’ and inspired by the life of Col James Fitzmaurice, the music was commissioned with the support of the Creative Ireland Laois Programme in partnership with Laois County Council and Music Generation Laois.
Attendance at the public event is free but booking is required due to Covid restrictions. See portlaoiseplane.com for booking details.
The plane, which hung in the rafters at Aldritts for 60 years before being sold to a private collector in England, was located by Portlaoise native Joe Rogers. After a few visits to the collector’s museum by local enthusiasts Teddy Fennelly and Alan Phelan, the plane was purchased by Teddy and brought back to Ireland in 2018.
After restoration by aviation engineers Brendan O’Donoghue and Johnny Molloy, the plane proudly returned to Portlaoise last month.
As part of the restoration project, Alan Phelan, chief executive of APTN Aero and member of the Col Fitzmaurice Commemoration Committee, commissioned a replica of the original engine. This working engine will also be on display at the Fitzmaurice Place event.
The plane is in safe storage provided by Laois County Council and the Heritage Week event will mark its first public appearance in over 100 years.
The plane that first flew for a short distance in 1909 has a fascinating history. Bamboo shoots used in the plane were salvaged from a forest on the former Coote Estate in Ballyfin, which had been hit by a storm a short time earlier.
The propeller was made by Richard P. Bannon of Market Square and John Conroy, a master wood craftsman from Portlaoise’s Main Street, helped formulate the plans and did the carpentry work on the plane. William Rogers, father of the aforementioned Joe, was one of those who helped the Aldritts in the construction.
In a link to Portlaoise’s other major aviation story, his own memoirs reveal that a young James Fitzmaurice witnessed the construction of the plane in 1909 and was also present when it made its first short experimental flight. This early exposure to the excitement of flight was credited by Fitzmaurice with inspiring him in his career as a pioneering aviator. For those who would like to hear more about the first East West transatlantic flight, a talk by Teddy Fennelly will be released on Tuesday 17 August at 7pm on www.facebook.com/laoisheritageoffice.
The first East West Transatlantic Flight was major international news both in Europe and the US. It was front page news on the New York Times for 19 days after the flight, as the triumphant aviators – Col James Fitzmaurice of Portlaoise and the Irish Air Corps and his German team mates, Captain Herman Kohl and Baron Von Huenefeld – toured America , receiving the Congressional Medal of Honour from President Calvin Coolidge and being feted by large crowds in cities across the country.
Aviation enthusiast and author of the book Fitz and the Famous Flight, Teddy Fennelly has been collecting original archive material relating to the flight and Fitzmaurice for many years and his collection contains many fragile archives. Newspapers in particular were never made to last 100 years and had become very fragile. With the help of a Heritage Council Community Grant, these documents have been conserved by specialist paper conservator Liz D’Arcy.
Separately, Liam Byrne from Athlone has also collected a large archive of papers and memorabilia associated with the flight. Both Liz and Liam will give a presentation on their work in a live online event on Wednesday 18 August at 8pm. Details and booking are available at www.facebook.com/laoisheritageoffice
The Portlaoise Plane and the Fitzmaurice connection caught the attention of the team from RTÉ’s TV programme Nationwide. Broadcaster Mary Fanning visited Portlaoise in early August, filming for a piece that will be broadcast on Wednesday 18 August. The Nationwide programme will feature interesting heritage stories from across the country during Heritage Week from 14 – 22 August.
*Additional tickets have just been released for the booked-out public event at Fitzmaurice Place. Once these are also booked, a cancellation list will be in operation.