The St. Phelim Tragedy

By Rebekah Daunt

On Sunday the 24th of March 1968, Betty Allshire decided to take a break from her household chores and stepped out into her beautiful garden to enjoy the morning sunshine.

The air was crisp and clean, everything was still, and the only sounds to be heard were those made by a few scattered birds singing in the trees overhead.

Betty’s eldest son William and daughter Judy had left for church with their father half an hour earlier. Betty, a regular churchgoer, had decided to stay at home this particular morning and care for her youngest daughter Anne who was feeling ill because she demolished far too much birthday cake at a friend’s birthday party the day before. The little girl was now paying the price for her sins and was curled up in bed, nursing a tummy ache.

After carefully selecting some daffodils to fill a vase on the kitchen table, Betty gradually became aware of the sound of propellers and the earth started to vibrate beneath her feet.

Her eyes were drawn skyward as an aircraft came into view; the roar of the engine filled the air. “It was the 10:30 Aer Lingus Flight to London,” she exclaimed, “Cork Airport was very quiet back then, it was easy to identify the planes flying in and out, they ran like clockwork!”.

Betty confesses that she remembers feeling a pang of jealousy at the time and would have loved to be jetting off on that plane.

Later that afternoon, Betty sat down to a late lunch with her loving husband and three children in the kitchen of their family home.

The sound of a news bulletin hummed on the radio in the background. Conversation at the table was soon brought to a standstill as the headlines began to unfold. The family, almost choking on their steaming bowls of tomato soup, listened in horror as the top news story unravelled.

An Aer Lingus plane, named St. Phelim, had gone down off the coast of Wexford. The aircraft en-route from Cork to London plummeted 17,000 feet into the Irish Sea, killing all 61 people on-board.

Funeral of some of Tuskar Rock air crash victims at St. Finbarr’s Cemetery on March 30, 1968 (courtesy of the Irish Examiner)

Betty, a former administrator, could hardly believe what she was hearing.

Mrs. Allshire, who will be celebrating her 80th  birthday this October, recalls feeling lost for words at the lunch table. “I could not understand why this had happened; it was such a calm and beautiful day. I had seen the plane shortly after takeoff. A plane crash seemed so unlikely.”

As covered by the Irish Examiner, experts proposed that the plane might have been stuck by migrating birds. Others suggested that the crash was due to a mechanical failure or a collision with a target drone or missile.

Bonnie Gangelhoff, daughter to American passengers Mary and Joseph Gangelhoff, reflected on the crash that killed her parents to the Irish Times in 2009. An investigation into the crash was published in 1970 and a second in 2002.

50 years on, the cause of the crash has yet to be determined.

“This tragedy is like being hit by a double whammy,” said Bonnie, “no definite answers about why the plane went down and no bodies to bury.”

Investigators believe that the Captain of St. Phelim, Barney O’Beirne (35), fought to keep the plane in the air for 30 minutes after take-off before spiralling out of control and crashing into the sea  near Tuskar Rock.

London Air Traffic Control received a broken message from the captain that was later interpreted as “12,000 feet, descending, spinning rapidly”. London ATC never heard from the aircraft again. According to RTÉ news, a full alert was sounded once London ATC lost contact, but it was too late.

Today the pilots on board are remembered as the first recipients of the Wright Brothers Award which honours exceptional service to aviation.

Only 14 bodies were recovered from the jet which had Irish, British, Swiss and Belgian passengers and crew on-board. According to the Irish Times, this was worst crash involving an aircraft in Irish history.

“It was a very sad time for the family and friends of the victims and we were simply devastated for them,” reflects Betty.

Betty will never forget how helpless she felt for all those involved. A woman of great faith, she firmly believes that life is precious, a gift from God. “Live every day to the full, none of us know when our days will come to an end.”

Concluding with a quote by Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Allshire confirms the importance of making the most of the present day. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”