Aer Lingus: The glory days
With British Airways parent company IAG set to take over Aer Lingus, Kim Bielenberg looks back at the glory days of the airline.
When Captain Mike O'Callaghan joined Aer Lingus as a pilot in 1962, the job was considered other-worldly, dangerous and impossibly glamorous.
The young pilot was one of 10 chosen from 700 candidates; he was one of the first generation of pilots to be trained by Aer Lingus.
"Flying a plane was a job that was considered out of this world," Captain O'Callaghan told Weekend Review this week as he looked back on a career of four decades. "When my grandmother learned I was going to fly a plane, she had a novena said for my safety.
"When I came back after my first month, some of my family asked me, had I actually flown a plane? And when I told them I had they almost collapsed."
In our current age of budget travel, when taking a plane is almost as commonplace as getting on a bus and the state's involvement is gradually disappearing, it is hard to convey to a younger generation the prestige attached to Aer Lingus.
More than anything else, the green shamrock livery evoked national pride, and this was shared not only by the pilots and the cabin crew, but the people at large.
Aer Lingus was a symbol of our new modernity, as we emerged from the backwards era of Éamon de Valera into Seán Lemass's more outward-looking industrial new dawn.
Aer Lingus cabin crew at the original Dublin Airport
As you saw your Aer Lingus shimmering on the tarmac in some foreign airport terminal, your heart lifted. As you stepped inside to a warm greeting and a boiled sweet, there was a feeling that you were already halfway home.
Mike Cronin, the Aer Lingus historian, says: "Everything about Aer Lingus spoke of home - a real one if you were Irish, or an imagined one if you were Irish-American."
And right up until the 1980s, there was no job as glamorous as that of air hostess. It appeared to be first on the list of every secondary school student.
As Terry Prone once recalled: "When someone we knew was accepted, it was like they'd been assumed into heaven. From then on, they would be jetting around the world, living in hotels and tanning themselves on resort beaches until they fell in love with an Aer Lingus pilot."
The reality, of course, may have been somewhat different, but that did not diminish the razzmatazz attached to a job with the airline right from the start.
An original ticket for Aer Lingus's first transatlantic flights
In December 1945, an article in the Irish Independent quoted a Captain Ray Wells, who was advising Aer Lingus as the airline recruited hostesses.
He said the job was reckoned to be "as exciting as that of a movie queen".
The qualifications were listed:
"Applicants must be between the ages of 21 and 26: they must be Between 5ft 2ins and 5ft 6ins in height, and their weight must be from seven-and-a-half to nine stone. They must also be beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated, have a good knowledge of Irish and French and, if possible an extra language, such as Spanish or German."
Their personality was expected to be "distinctive, charming, poised, tactful, and kind." As well as serving light meals, these goddesses of the sky had to "point out the various interesting parts of the country over which the plane is flying".
These early jobs attracted almost 1,000 applications, including one from a Russian princess who was reportedly turned down.
While the women were expected to be beautiful ("the best of Irish womanhood") they were also required to aspire to the "height of respectability", according to Mike Cronin, author of the Aer Lingus history, Doesn't Time Fly?
In the early decades, Pat Blake the manager of hostess branch, enforced a strict regime. They were not allowed to go on dates with customers, and exchanging telephone numbers was considered a "hanging offence". Smoking, chewing gum and alcohol were forbidden; and the hostesses were not allowed to cycle to work.
Gráinne Magee, a member of cabin crew from the late 1980s until 2001 remembers the earlier generation as "out and out ladies".
"I don't think they were ever brash trolly dollies," says Gráinne. She says her own intake of staff were known as "the yellow packs", because they came in on lower pay than earlier air hostesses.
Aer Lingus cabin crew at work on a Super Connie aircraft
While the glamour of the job had begun to pall by the 1990s, with relentless competition from Ryanair forcing the flag carrier to cut staff and service, Gráinne Magee says it was still considered glamorous. "It was hard work, but still fun and never mundane. We were meeting different people every day. There was great pride in working for the airline."
For many cabin crew, the career could be all too short. Until the 1970s, a hostess had to resign her position as soon as she married.
Every issue of the Aer Lingus staff magazine featured a female member of staff receiving her wedding present. As Mike Cronin notes, the gift was as much to mark the woman's departure as it was to celebrate the nuptials.
In terms of glamour, prestige and luxury there was little to match the airline's Golden Shamrock first-class service, which arrived with the first Boeing transatlantic jets.
The advertisements were unsparing with their purple prose:
"Join the most pampered people on earth, or above it. Nothing you have yet experienced in travel will match the elegance and hospitality of the Golden Shamrock service. You're the guest of honour and your slightest whim will be satisfied. How about lobster, broiled Liffey salmon, with Pouilly Fuissé 57, Charles Heidsieck 53 and Sélignac Napoleon Grand Vin Champagne, to mention just a few?"
Those travelling on Golden Shamrock were not confined to rows of seats. In between meals, they could loll about in a lounge area with board games, newspapers and magazines, free-flowing drink and, of course, cigarettes.
This service was prohibitively expensive, attracting Irish-American tycoons and film stars.
With jet-setting tourists relatively rare, in steerage the passengers were likely to be emigrants, or priests and nuns going off to the missions.
An Aer Lingus Super Constellation aircraft
It was not just the passengers who were starry-eyed. Dubliners travelled out to Dublin Airport - even when they had no plane to catch - just to gaze at the planes, and eat in the restaurant.
When two new Constellation aeroplanes, the St Brendan and the St Patrick arrived in Dublin for the first time in the late 1940s, a crowd of 12,000 turned out to greet them, and similar crowds turned out for later inaugural flights.
Captain Mike O'Callaghan remembers the sense of excitement when he first started piloting jets across the Atlantic in the late 1960s.
"It was considered the bee's knees of Aer Lingus. We were travelling on the most advanced aircraft of the day.
"Downtown Manhattan became my second home. We stayed in the Sheraton and the Hilton Hotel, and at that time everything seemed so different.
"A lot of the goodies of life were not yet available in Ireland. We used to bring back things like beef tomatoes and iceberg lettuce."
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Aer Lingus was at its peak in terms of prestige. Mike Cronin says it stood out as a symbol of pride, because at the time we could not boast many big industries like car manufacturing plants or steel works.
"Aer Lingus was futuristic, modern and well-run," says the historian.
The airline was considered a model for newly-independent nations, and trained pilots, engineers and air hostesses from all over the world. Cabin crew from airlines like Air Bahamas were given guidance on the céad míle fáilte.
Mike Cronin says there was something innately Irish about travelling with the airline at that time. "The welcome given by cabin crew was seen as special. The air hostesses were not only glamorous. They were like your mammy."
John Hinde postcard featuring Dublin Airport
Although the fondness and sense of pride for the shamrock on the tail fin lingered, the importance of the national flag carrier diminished as Ryanair came along and ripped up the rule book. They took away the tradition of service, pushed down fares and made air travel accessible to all.
Captain Mike O'Callaghan says: "The problem for Aer Lingus was that it was like the civil service, but all the national flag carriers were like that."
There were budget carriers competing against national carriers across Europe, and in the face of this competition, many of them went under. Under the sharp-eyed guidance of former pilot Willie Walsh after 2001 and later Christoph Muller, Aer Lingus has done well to survive, and make healthy profits.
It is Walsh who is now bidding to take over the airline as boss of the British Airways parent company IAG. The future is uncertain, but the pilots, cabin crew and engineers look back on the airline's history with justifiable pride. Aer Lingus flew the flag for our aspirations and welcomed us home.