A god with feet of clay

Dan Quinlan talking to Annie and Charles Lindbergh at Galway docks in October 1923.

Dan Quinlan talking to Annie and Charles Lindbergh at Galway docks in October 1923.

Week VI

During Charles Lindbergh’s nation-wide tour, following the first solo transatlantic flight from Long Island, New York to Paris, in May 1927, he met his wife to be, Anne Morrow, in Mexico City. It was a wonder she even got near him. He was mobbed wherever he appeared.

America had taken the young 25-year-old completely to their hearts. His plane The Spirit of St Louis, and the man himself, seemed to have epitomised the new and confident America, as it swung out of the Great Depression of the early 1920s.

It was jazz time. Mass production of automobiles, telephones, radios, women’s fashions, Art Deco, skyscrapers, gigantic cinemas and sports stadia were all the rage - a racy life-style which was echoed in other capital cities such as London, Berlin and Paris. But above all in the sporting or movie world, and in the emerging glamorous excitement of aviation, it was the era of celebrities.

During the Christmas break from Smith College Anne travelled to Mexico where her father was US ambassador. Lindbergh was the ambassador’s guest for the holiday. One year later Lindberg was teaching her to fly, and, after they were married, she would share many of his long journeys, and the charting of new air routes, becoming, in her own right, an expert pilot, successful author, and a pioneer of glider flying.

Lindbergh’s historic flight, and extraordinary celebrity status, however, led to tragedy. In March 1932, his infant son, Charles jr, was kidnapped and murdered in what American media called the ‘Crime of the Century.’ An influential and leading social journalist of the time, H L Mencken, went as far as to describe it as ‘the biggest story since the Resurrection’.*

Life became impossible for the Lindberghs. The outpouring of grief, the crowds outside their home in New Jersey, the hysteria and unrelenting media attention around the trial of the man arrested for the crime, and their fear for the safety of their other child, prompted them to accept commissions from emerging American airlines seeking airports in Europe. The Lindbergh family went into voluntary exile, and only returned to America on the eve of World War II.

‘Scarcely a ripple’

It was during this time that Charles and Anne inspected the chosen landing sites at Foynes and Shannon, and other possible destinations, as they explored the probability of a North American air route.

On Monday afternoon, October 23 1933, their two-seater sea-plane, with its distinctive blue black fuselage, orange wings, and silver floats, flew over Galway town, and ‘landed near the lighthouse at 65mph, with scarcely a ripple on the water’. **

Their arrival was not expected, but it must have instantly prompted the possibility that Galway Bay might well prove to be ideal for the large transatlantic seaplanes then being built. Boatmen from the Claddagh went out to meet the plane and towed it carefully into the docks. The Lindberghs were met by the harbour master, T C McDonogh, and the senior pilot’.

A full night’s sleep

It was not possible to keep the visit of such a famous couple secret. It does appear, however, that people were respectful of their recent tragedy, even if they did crowd around to some extent. Anne signed autographs, and told one well-wisher ‘I could fly hours in my husband’s seaplane, and I am quite content.’ She did ask, however, that she and her husband were not given any civic reception.

During their two-day visit, they accepted the hospitality of the McDonogh family, and attended a private dinner with them. ‘Both Mr and Mrs Lindbergh were very abstemious and only took the smallest of sips of the fine wines that were offered’. They retired to bed shortly after 10pm (probably at the McDonogh’s family home at Belmore, near the Crescent ). Anne explained that she always needed a full night’s sleep. ‘The air above keeps one free from insomnia, and quite apart from that we get good health.’ Her husband said that flying ‘in an open cockpit all day with the world for your route map, you need rest and a steady head’.

The next day they set out with TC McDonogh for a tour of Connemara, and the Corrib. They went by boat to visit Inishambo, the romantic island off Oughterard, with its ivy clad house and farm. Lindbergh discussed the possibilities of using Galway Bay for seaplanes. He added tantalisingly that the bay was sheltered, and he could see that it would be convenient for passengers. He saw no particular reason why an all year transatlantic service could not be developed here.

I can imagine how the leading citizens of the town hung on to Lindbergh’s every word. America was eager for an airbridge to Europe. Alcock and Brown had shown that Galway was accessible on the North Atlantic route. Perhaps this was Galway’s opportunity. But at the heel of the hunt, we know that Foynes beat Galway to it.

On the morning they were leaving their plane was carefully towed out of the docks into the open sea. A large crowd had gathered to see them off. Lindbergh expressed his and his wife’s gratitude to Captain Meskil, to Dan Quinlan of Pratt’s Oil, to George Smith of the post office, and to the McDonogh family. The crowd cheered as their plane took off. Their plane circled Galway twice, then dipped its wings in salute, before flying north, taking a dream of Galway’s aviation prospects with them.

NOTES: *Six months later Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant carpenter, was arrested after paying for gasoline with one of the ransom notes. He was tried, convicted and executed.

**The Lindberghs had left Southampton earlier that day, flew over Cork and Cobh, circled Valentia, before heading up to Galway. Their plane was a Wright-Cyclone with a single 750 horsepower engine and was named ‘Tingmissartog’. The pontoons were designed for sea or a land landing.

The Lindberghs returned to America in 1939 where Charles, still an admired and influential figure, vehemently opposed America joining the war in Europe, even opposing American aid to Britain. President Franklin D Roosevelt publicly rebuked him for his views. However, after Pearl Harbour he flew missions in the Pacific as a civilian consultant. Yet after the war, even when Nazi crimes were well known, he still supported Hitler’s Germany. Many believe that his political views mired his historical legacy.

Lindbergh and Anne had six children (one of whom was tragically murdered ), but later, after his death in August 1974, it emerged that in a series of covert adulterous affairs, he fathered seven more children with three German women.

Anne died as recently as February 2001. She had become a best selling author, mainly advising on women’s self-health, and wellbeing. One of her books, Gift from the Sea is still in print. Last week I bought a copy in Charlie Byrne’s for €6.

Sources for this series included Wikipedia, Connacht Sentinel Oct 31 1933, my colleague on this page Tom Kenny, and He was Galway - Máirtín Mór McDonogh by Jackie Uí Chionna, Four Courts Press, 2016.

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