Thursday 23 November 2017

Flashback 1981: Hijack of Aer Lingus flight

This weekend 35 years ago, Aer Lingus flight 164 from Dublin to London was hijacked by an Australian passenger

Safe landing: Then Transport Minister Albert Reynolds pictured with Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet Airport in France the day after the hijacking of Aer Lingus flight 164 -Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection.
Safe landing: Then Transport Minister Albert Reynolds pictured with Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet Airport in France the day after the hijacking of Aer Lingus flight 164 -Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection.

Ger Siggins

Flight 164 was a standard Aer Lingus hop from Dublin to London. On May 2, 1981, the Boeing 737 piloted by Eddie Foyle carried 10 crew and 103 passengers, including a 55-year-old Australian called Laurence Downey who was living in Churchtown in south Dublin.

The flight passed without incident until shortly before it was due to land at Heathrow, when Downey visited the toilet. There he rubbed petrol on his hands, doused his clothes with water, and returned to the cabin.

"When I turned around this passenger was there and he was covered in petrol. He had two little vials and said they were cyanide gas," recalled cabin crew member Deirdre Dunphy.

Downey demanded the plane be diverted to Tehran. He said he had drafted a new constitution and wanted to deliver it personally to the Iranian people. The crew explained that as Tehran was more than 5,000km away they would need to refuel. They landed at Le Touquet, in Normandy, where a different motive emerged.

In the 1950s Downey had been a Trappist monk in Rome but was expelled for punching the superior in the face. Later he acted as a tour guide in Fatima, the Portuguese shrine where three children claimed to have seen Our Lady in 1917. The children also claimed that the apparition had told them three apocalyptic "secrets", two of which were revealed in 1941 and appeared to apply to the two World Wars. At the same time the third secret was written down by one of the visionaries, but when it was opened in the Vatican in 1960 it was immediately put under wraps.

The Third Secret of Fatima attracted enormous interest, and it was this which obsessed Downey. He demanded it be revealed to him, and requested that the Irish Independent publish details of his efforts to learn the secret. Independent editor Vincent Doyle was in regular contact over several hours, and after Downey threw a 3,500-word document of his theories onto the tarmac it was transcribed and sent to the newspaper office by telex. Downey told of a vision in which he saw himself in concert with Padre Pio and Pope John XXIII - "since I am the sole remaining survivor the onus rests with me to make it work, for now is the acceptable time."

Mr Doyle came on the radio and finally agreed to publish the story just as an anti-terrorist squad burst into the cockpit. Captain Foyle grabbed Downey's arm and the GIGN troops overpowered him. The hijack ended in seconds with no-one harmed.

It was a fraught time in Ireland - Bobby Sands was in the final stages of his hunger strike and died two days later - but Minister for Transport Albert Reynolds flew to Le Touquet to assist. He climbed aboard the plane and was pictured in the Irish Independent kissing several relieved passengers.

More details emerged about Downey's extraordinary life, in which had been a merchant seaman, a soldier-of-fortune and professional boxer before fleeing Australia - and a wife and five children - with police seeking answers over a $70,000 land fraud. He ended up in Shannon where he ran a language school.

The 1981 State papers include Downey's letter to then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald complaining how he had been treated: "I went to Ireland thinking she was an oppressed underdog. I tried to help in the hope that I might be accepted in the land of my ancestors, but they hated me without cause and told me not to interfere," he wrote.

Downey was tried in Calais in February 1983 where it emerged the vials contained blue toilet salts and vodka. He was sentenced to five years in jail, released after 16 months and deported to Australia.

The Third Secret was released by Pope John Paul II in 2000, claiming it was related to the assassination attempt on his own life in 1981. Downey was last reported to be living near Perth more than 20 years ago.

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