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Jet plane screams through the Newbridge sky

High balls dropping out of the air over St. Conleth’s GAA grounds in Newbridge regularly feature in the reports filed by the sports correspondents of the Leader reporting on games at county GAA headquarters. But footballs have not been the only object seen at high altitude over St. Conleths. On a few memorable occasions in the early 1970s the GAA grounds was the centrepiece of an impressive military tattoo which followed a parade by all elements of the Defence Forces down the main street of Newbridge.

The spectacle organised by the Army included demonstrations of athletics from the School of Physical Training on the Curragh and exhibitions of precision drill by the trainee officers of the Cadet school, distinctive by the white bands on their green peaked caps. Even more spectacular were displays of motorcycle manoeuvres by personnel of the Cavalry Corps including a trick where four or five soldiers lay side –by-side on the ground while a colleague gunned his bike up a small ramp and took to the air in a jump which would hopefully carry him over his plucky comrades lying under his trajectory. Clearly no health and safety worries in that era!

The finale of the evening comprised a mock battle in which the Defence Forces rolled out all their hardware including the thunderous discharge of blank rounds from the big 25-pounder field guns – the shock waves all but lifting spectators off their seats. There was further drama when three Air Corps helicopters came in line abreast and dropped assault troops on the pitch. The helicopters departed and the mock battle on the pitch continued. Playing the role of the opposition were local units of the FCA, the reserve defence forces. For some reason the FCA always seemed to lose the battle.

All in all the Newbridge tattoo was a spectacular opportunity for the public to see the professionalism of the Defence Forces in operation  But the most startling episode in the tattoo was heralded by a scream-like sound coming from the west, its source hidden from view by the stand, until a bizarre looking silver-and-orange object burst over the field. The object turned out to be one of the Air Corp’s Vampire jet trainer aircraft – it made a stunning sight as the pilot rolled it upside down while it climbed away over the Liffey at high speed.

The Vampire was often seen in the sky over east Kildare during its twenty years of service as the Air Corp’s first jet training aircraft. Recently at Air Corps headquarters at Casement a number of current and retired personnel (many resident in Co. Kildare) gathered for a reunion to reminisce on the challenges of operating what was a state of the art aircraft when it arrived into Irish service in the mid 1950s. The Vampire had first been seen in the skies over the Curragh in 1948 when a demonstration aircraft from England flew a low pass over the Camp. The Irish Government, anxious to ensure that Ireland’s aviation capacity should be kept up to date ordered three of the aircraft in 1956 at a cost of £49,000 each. They were the first jet aircraft in Irish state ownership, pre-dating by some years the acquisition of jets by Aer Lingus. In fact one of the main outcomes of the Vampire fleet – three more came to Baldonnel in 1961 – was to form a pool of pilots with jet flying experience from which Aer Lingus could draw personnel for more advanced training on its multi-engined passenger jets. Another well-remembered public demonstration of the Vampires was their fly past at the annual Easter Parade when four aircraft in formation rent the air over O’Connell Street.

The Air Corps maintenance crews had to work hard on the Baldonnel ramp to keep the demanding Vampires serviceable – they were a high-maintenance machine with a big appetite for fuel, new tyres and spare parts. The Irish Government never had enough money to keep the spares coming so the Vampire’s forays into the skies over West Dublin and North Kildare were few but spectacular. The aircraft were taken out of service after twenty years in 1976. The then Minister for Defence, Mr. Paddy Donegan TD, squeezed into the two-man cockpit for a farewell flight.

 However any reader who was present for the Newbridge military tattoo in St. Conleth’s park in the early 1970s when this startling shape screamed over the grounds, its vibrations threatening to pop every rivet in the old stand, will not easily forget this iconic aircraft which brought the jet age to Ireland.

Thanks to Brig. Gen. Ralph James, GOC Air Corps and Airman Michael Whelan, MA for their help in recalling the Vampire’s service. Series no: 184.

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 8th July 2010 reflects on the military displays in 1970s Newbridge. Our thanks to Liam.  

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