When around 100 soldiers from the newly minted Irish Defense Forces marched into Baldonnel Airfield on a warm, sunny day at midday on 2 May 1922, they found that the former RAF occupiers had destroyed all the aircraft and equipment they had left behind.
In other army barracks, retreating British troops had even gone so far as to cut down flagpoles.
“Although we don’t know if that happened here,” said Corporal Michael Whelan, Air Corps historian at Casement Aerodrome.
He explained that the Aviation Headquarters was of crucial strategic value to Britain during the First World War as it was used as a safe place, out of range of German zeppelins, where they could train their fighter pilots.
In the weeks that followed, the new Air Corps managed to recruit its first 12 pilots, all World War I veterans, while their first official aircraft was the famous “Big Fella” – secured to ensure the rescue of Michael Collins from treaty negotiations in London in case things go wrong, as Collins was still a wanted man in the UK with a £10,000 bounty on his head.
The five-seater Martinsyde aircraft made of wood lay abandoned on the airfield in the years that followed, until it was unfortunately disposed of by fire during a clean-up operation.
Among the 600 guests who attended the 100th anniversary of the official handover at Co Dublin Airport yesterday was Michael Collins’ great-niece, Mary Claire Collins Powell, where a sculpture of her famous great-uncle was unveiled.
“It’s amazing what he has accomplished in just six short years in power,” she said, adding that she was delighted to be part of such a historic event.
The ceremony included symbolic entry through the airfield’s original gate by serving Air Corps members, with the national flag carried by Lieutenant Cayman Roe, 27, of Redcross, Co Wicklow, who received his ‘wings’ last month.
His great-grandfather, Henry Gerrard, was stationed with the RAF at Baldonnel, but it was only after he himself enlisted in the Air Corps and his grandmother shared family histories with him that he realized the extent of his involvement.
“He flew in Iraq and Palestine and flew planes during World War I,” he said.
Meanwhile, an Air Corps spokesman said many of the stories about life at the airfield were unknown to them “until the past two weeks,” when people have come forward because of the memorial service.
Corps members interviewed some of these guests yesterday to learn more.
In his speech, Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Seán Clancy – himself a former Air Corps search and rescue pilot – said there needed to be a conversation in this country about “what we want from our Defense Forces,” and described it as a stark one time in our collective history, with the Russian war against Ukraine.
“We are witnessing the shaking of peace in Europe,” said the chief of staff.
“The people and state of Ukraine have been subjected to an illegal, unjustified, unprovoked and immoral attack.”
The right to self-determination, to democratic rights, to choose your own foreign and security path, to protect your sovereignty, to protect your people are “principles the Air Corps is expected to, and must be willing to uphold.”
He said the world faces “increasingly complex” challenges, with a return to nuclear proliferation, strategic competition between nations, proliferation of ideologies, as well as “cyberattacks right here in our own state.”
“All of this indicates that now more than ever there is a need to have an operational military here in this state,” he said.
Afterwards, he said he did not want to confuse what is happening in Ukraine with changes in the Defense Forces, but said we cannot break away from what is happening there and that it has acted as a “catalyst” for changes in the organization.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/defence-of-the-state-air-corps-marks-its-centenary-41612647.html Defense of the State: The Air Corps celebrates its centenary