At 108 years of age Máirín Hughes is older than the Irish Air Corps, but she had a very special reason to visit its Baldonnel base yesterday to celebrate another milestone.
When Máirín was 18 her first cousin Fionnbar O’Cathalain was one of the Air Corps pilots who flew in the flypast on the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932, and on the 90th anniversary of that day she stretched her hand across history and touched one of the planes he piloted.
Máirín recalled the excitement of seeing Fionnbar on the day, and the pride she felt that he was playing such an important role.
In the Air Corps museum, historian and curator Corporal Michael J Whelan explained to Máirín that Fionnbar was in the first flying training course for cadets when he arrived in Baldonnel in 1926, and in 1932 he was eligible to become a flight instructor.
“This day 90 years ago all the dignitaries, including the representative of Pope Pius XI, came to Dublin for the Eucharistic Congress, and six aircraft flew in cruciform shape escorting the Papal ship from the Kish Lighthouse,” he said.
Máirín said: “I remember it well. I was in the Phoenix Park and it was the first flypast by the Air Corps, and I was very proud, looking up and saying ‘my cousin is up there on the left wing’.”
“So, 90 years ago we know what Fionnbar was doing, flying in the formation, and we know what you were doing, standing in the Phoenix Park watching him,” said Cpl Whelan.
Máirín was shown Fionnbar’s plane, an Avro 631 Cadet single prop bi-plane with an open cockpit.
“His grandmother used to say: ‘What the divil was his mother doing to allow him join such a dangerous job,” she said with a laugh.
Brigadier General Rory O’Connor, General Officer Commanding of the Irish Air Corps, presented Máirín with a photograph of the flypast, with Fionnbar’s plane visible in its left wing position.
Máirín was born in Belfast but grew up in Killarney after her family moved to Kerry when she was young.
She can remember the Black and Tans patrolling Killarney, and can recall the Spanish Flu pandemic.
She attended UCC in the early 1930s, an era when women traditionally did not attend college, and worked in UCC’s medical laboratory following her graduation with a science degree. She later became a teacher after she married her husband Frank and they lived in Palmerstown in Dublin.
“I’ve had a wonderful time,” said Máirín, peering at a helicopter in a distant hangar, and promising to come back someday for a spin in it.