When around 100 soldiers of the newly formed Irish Defense Force marched onto Baldonnel airfield at midday on a hot sunny day on May 2, 1922, they discovered that the former RAF occupants had destroyed all aircraft and equipment left behind.
In other army barracks, departing British troops had even gone so far as to pull down flagpoles.
“Although we don’t know if it happened here,” said Corporal Michael Whelan, Air Corps historian at Casement Airfield.
He explained that the aviation headquarters had been of vital strategic value to Britain during the First World War, being used as a location out of range of German Zeppelins where they could train their fighter pilots.
Over the next few weeks the new Air Corps managed to recruit its first 12 pilots, all veterans of the Great War, while their first official aircraft was the famous “Big Fella” – secured to ensure the rescue of Michael Collins from the treaty talks in London in case things turned sour, as Collins was still a wanted man in Britain with a £10,000 bounty on his head.
Made of wood, the five-seater Martinsyde aircraft was abandoned in the following years on the airfield until it was unfortunately destroyed by fire during a clean-up operation.
Among the 600 guests at a ceremony at Co Dublin Airfield yesterday to mark 100 years since the official handover were Michael Collins’ great-niece, Mary Claire Collins Powell, with a sculpture of her famous great-uncle unveiled.
“It’s amazing what he has accomplished in just six short years in power,” she said, adding that she was delighted to be present on such a historic occasion.
The ceremony included a symbolic entry through the original airfield gate by serving members of the Air Corps, with the national flag carried by Lt. Cayman Roe (27) of Redcross, Co Wicklow, who was awarded its “wings” last month.
His great-grandfather Henry Gerrard had been based at Baldonnel with the RAF but he only realized the extent of his involvement after he joined the Air Corps himself and his grandmother told him the stories of family.
“He flew in Iraq and Palestine and flew planes in World War I,” he said.
Meanwhile, an Air Corps spokesman said many stories of life on the airfield were unknown to them “until the last two weeks” when people came forward due to the commemoration.
Yesterday, members of the body were interviewing some of these guests to find out more.
In his speech, Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Seán Clancy – himself a former Air Corps search and rescue pilot – said a conversation needed to take place in this countries on “what we want” from our Defense Forces, describing this as a difficult period in our collective history, with the Russian war against Ukraine.
“We are witnessing the outbreak of peace in Europe,” said the Chief of Staff.
“The people and the state of Ukraine have been victims of an illegal, unjustified, unprovoked and immoral attack.”
The right to self-determination, democratic rights, to choose your own foreign and security path, to protect your sovereignty, to protect your people are “principles that the Air Corps is expected and must be prepared to uphold.”
He said the world faces an “increasingly complex” set of challenges, with a return to nuclear proliferation, strategic competition between nations, expanding ideologies as well as “cyberattacks here in our own State”.
“All of this underscores the need now more than ever to have a suitable military here in this state,” he said.
Speaking afterwards, he said he did not want to confuse what was happening in Ukraine with changes in the Defense Forces, but said we cannot detach ourselves from what is happening there and that it acted as a “catalyst” for change in the organization.