Ah, the empty skies! Climate campaigners may celebrate the 41pc decline in air traffic since the onset of the coronavirus - the air is purer, the birdies are singing louder - but it's sad all the same. We may reflect that many of us have probably lived through a golden age of air travel, ever since Dublin Airport was opened 80 years ago, in January 1940. Some may even recall that it was once called 'Collinstown' and that children were taken to the airport for their special First Communion treat, just to watch planes take off. I was brought to Shannon, aged about 10, as a special treat, and I thought it was the most exciting place in the world. I resolved there and then to be an air hostess, deviating from my previous aspiration to be a prima ballerina.
Ireland's geographical position made it a natural for the development of aviation: Alcock and Brown's famed first transatlantic flight came to land at Clifden in 1919, and the sight of the islands off the west coast of Ireland from their open cockpit was a signal that they had made the perilous journey. Charles Lindbergh said that to glimpse Ireland coming into view from the air was an epiphany confirming success in flight.
James Fitzmaurice, a noted air ace and a Clongowes boy, pioneered the first East-West Atlantic flight (along with a German co-pilot) from Baldonnell in 1928. Fitzmaurice subsequently became involved in the development of Aer Lingus, which was established in 1936.
By 2020, Ireland was a key hub for aviation, and a lead nation in the financing and leasing of the global aviation business. Ireland had very high rates of flights per capita - more than twice that of America, three times that of Canada - and it was expected to grow exponentially this year. Alas for predictions.
Aer Lingus was important in the development of Irish aviation because it was the national flag carrier and a visible symbol of Ireland's identity and status. But it was Tony Ryan - born in a modest Limerick cottage - who started the airline-leasing business and, of course, subsequently launched Ryanair. This became the leading European budget carrier, and the fifth-biggest airline on the planet. Quite an achievement.
Norwegian airlines carry portraits of famous Scandinavians on the tail fins - Ibsen, Alfred Nobel, Kirsten Flagstad - but Aer Lingus aircraft have long been named after Irish saints. The aviation historian Eamon Power, who has an archival memory of Aer Lingus's story, has furnished me with an impressive list of the saints honoured by Boeing, Viking, Fokker, Saab, Airbus, etc. Many saints were honoured twice or thrice as one airplane replaced another. Obviously, St Brendan the Navigator is popular; Patrick has always made an appearance, but Brigid, Ciara, Columba, Columbanus, Conleth, Colman, Finnian, Finbar, Fintan, Jarlath, Eithne, Malachy, Fergus, Davnet and Maeve are among the extended roll call.
Maeve? According to Pádraig Ó Riain's A Dictionary of Irish Saints, there is no St Maeve! Ah well, I'm sure there have been saintly Maeves, so let's stretch a point.
Aer Lingus also launched with a ceremony blessing the aircraft - the first blessing of the fleet, Eamon Power notes, took place on July 23, 1947, performed by the Rev W Kenry, from Swords. Hundreds of people sometimes attended aircraft blessing ceremonies (RTÉ has some fine footage of these events), which was another great day out at the airport. The practice ended in 1967, not because anyone thought it was sectarian - people accepted it as a national ceremonial - but because there were too many aircraft on the runways. There is still an annual, and ecumenical, general fleet blessing at Christmas.
Times continually change and air travel evolved from a luxurious and glamorous pursuit by an elite to mass travel for millions. Granted, it became less enjoyable, especially after September 11, 2001, when draconian security measures had to be implemented to deter air terrorism. But though the security measures are vexatious - the endless queues, the intrusive body searches - air travel also became increasingly safe, helped by computerised science and precision engineering.
Irish aviation was also driven by brilliant, modernising, dynamic personalities - Jeremiah Dempsey, Tim O'Driscoll, Michael Dargan - who came from small beginnings (and big families!) where you had to strive to self-improve. Seán Lemass, Taoiseach from 1959 to 1966, was always a huge supporter of developing Irish aviation. Like Jerry Dempsey, and Tony Ryan, he was a CBS alumnus. Fair play to (Clongowes-educated) Michael O'Leary, who had that same burning, entrepreneurial energy - as well as to Peter Sutherland (Gonzaga), who opened up the skies to fair competition via the EU. I only mention schools as they can be the key to motivational achievement.
Yes, I look up at the empty skies ruefully. With the greatest respect to our friends in the climate change lobby, I hope it won't be too long before we hear that "fasten your seatbelts" announcement again. It has been our pleasure flying with you, ladies and gentlemen of the aviation industry, and it should be our national duty to support the return of the big bird of the skies.