In 1910, about six weeks before the first successful powered flight in Ireland by Harry Ferguson in Co Down, the King’s County Chronicle reported as follows, ‘Mr Michael Carroll, cycle mechanic, conducted experiments in aviation in the hills adjoining Birr reservoir. An apparatus constructed from calico and bamboo made one or two fitful attempts to ascend. The incredulous may laugh at his efforts but it should not be forgotten that every great invention has its beginning in failure.’ One week later it was noted that the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland [founded in Dublin in 1903] had been discussing aviation, ‘The opinion was expressed that flying through the air was not an accomplished fact, though eventually it would be, that flying was not of any practical use and that men now engaged in a series of experiments in aviation would not die in their beds.’
Aviation potentially came closer to the county in August 1913 when the Chronicle ran a small news item which stated that Birr, at which was situated the Depot of the Leinster Regiment, had been mentioned as a possible base for aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps [RFC] which would soon be flying to Ireland to take part in the Irish military manoeuvres, adding, ‘It is quite possible that the War Office will decide to have a flying squadron permanently in this country.
The first association between the RFC and Ireland on 1st September 1913 was truly historic, being the first overseas deployment of the RFC. Five BE2a aircraft, flown by Captains JWH Becke, CAH Longcroft and ACH McClean, Lieutenants FF Waldron and L Dawes and a single Maurice Farman Longhorn, piloted by Captain GWP Dawes, all of No 2 Squadron based at Montrose, flew from Scotland on their way to take part in large-scale Irish Command manoeuvres centred around Rathbane Camp near Limerick.
On Tuesday 2nd September the Maurice Farman, No 207, with Captain Dawes and Lieutenant Harvey, flew over from Limerick towards Birr for the purpose of selecting a suitable landing ground and would have alighted in the Fourteen Acres of Birr Barracks but for the fact that sheep were grazing there and so obstructing a safe landing. The Midland Tribune stated that, ‘The aeroplane was first seen by officials at the railway and was then between the Birr Military Barracks and the station and was flying low. The two men seated in the machine could be seen quite distinctly. The buzzing of the engine attracted the attention of a number of people on the street in the immediate vicinity of the station. The aeroplane was first seen at 11.40 o’clock.’ When it got as far as Sharavogue [just a few miles south of Birr], it circled a couple of times and landed in one of the Earl of Huntingdon’s fields between the polo ground and the railroad.’ Unfortunately a gust of wind caught the Farman; the right wing tip touched the ground first and caused an inter-plane strut to break. This proved something of a bonus for the crowd of onlookers who gathered, as they had much more time to inspect the novelty. A telegram summoned a mechanic from Rathbane, who arrived by motor vehicle at 5.30 pm. Repairs were effected within 20 minutes and the two airmen (pilot and observer) prepared to depart, ‘the aeroplane ran rapidly along the field for four or five hundred yards and then rising over ‘mother earth’ was bidden adieu by loud cheers. It soared over the trees and in a few minutes came back at a fairly high altitude right over the field where it had met with the mishap, and heading for Limerick was eagerly watched till it was a mere speck in the sky and finally disappeared.’ More were to follow on Saturday 6th, ‘Three BE Biplanes arrived in Birr on Saturday from Limerick. They executed manoeuvres over the town, and the people were afforded a fine view of the machines as they made graceful turns and swoops high in the air. The biplanes descended in the Fourteen Acres, Crinkle, around which an interested crowd remained all day.
On 8th September, Captain Longcroft, en-route from Rathbane to the Curragh, in BE2 No 218, attempted to make a landing in a field owned by Mr J Gleeson of Rose Cottage, Brosna, a village in the south-western corner of the county, ‘On coming to the ground it landed in a hole, smashing some of the struts. It continued to run along, and got into a ditch, where further damage was done. The machine was dismantled on Tuesday and taken to Limerick on Wednesday. No one was hurt.’ The damage was quite severe as the undercarriage was torn off and about a foot from the tip of each propeller blade.
also described progress at the manoeuvres, noting that the 5th Division was encamped at Roscrea and that severe ‘fighting’ had taken place around Shinrone, adding, ‘The aeroplanes seem to be about the best value of the lot – at least they are the most talked about. Some of them have been down, and more of them up, and some have got into difficulties. The aeroplanes seem to have an infirmary of their own. When one of them gets injured a motor aeroplane ambulance comes along and takes the injured plane off to Limerick for repairs. There was a lot of talk in Birr during the week about hangars being out up at the Fourteen Acres. Disappointment was felt when the scheme did not fructify. All are glad that none of the airmen, so far, at least, have come to grief. They go up with a laugh, taking their seats in the machine with as much sang froid as one would in an ordinary car.’
The continuing story of the pilots and their craft may be found in Offaly and the Great War pubished on 11 November 2018.