Memories of building Dublin Airport
‘Building Ireland’, the geographical, engineering and architectural series, returns to RTÉ One tonight (Thursday).
Series three will offer a spectacular look at some of our country’s most striking and iconic locations.
Tonight at 8pm, architect Orla Murphy explores Dublin Airport’s first terminal building, a gem of modernist architecture constructed in the late 1930s. This iconic building heralded the birth of Modernist Irish architecture and was the gateway to an era of international air travel for an island nation. Now 80 years old, the terminal building embodies a spirit of innovation and ambition still evident at Dublin Airport.
The late Cork native Dunsany-based businessman Chris Jones worked on the building of Dublin Airport, then Collinstown Airport, as a young apprentice plumber with Rathmines company, HA O’Neil.
He recalled in his memoir, shortly before he died in 2013, that it was his first major project with the Portobello-based firm.
This contract lasted 18 months, with Chris cycling from his digs in Drimnagh to Collinstown every day.
“It was a long distance, and it became a ritual. Up the hill at Crumlin Road, another hill at Drumcondra, but I would eventually manage it in three quarters of an hour. There were a lot of characters along the way, the milkmen, the postman out at Santry, and of course there was the clock in Drumcondra - you’d want to be passing it at 10 minutes to eight to be at the job on time.
The main contractors were Murphy Brothers, whose staff had to be in by 8.25am, or they wouldn’t be allowed in until after lunch, and have their pay docked. But as the plumbers were sub-contractors, they were not subject to that type of discipline, and had some leeway.
Alfie Byrne, who was Lord Mayor of Dublin throughout the 1930s, had advocated developing the Collinstown site as a major airport. In 1935, Byrne asked the Minister for Transport and Commerce, Sean Lemass, to consider building an airport at Collinstown, partly as a relief scheme, as there was much unemployment in Ireland at the time.
In the late ‘30s, development had begun on a terminal building and grass runways at the Collinstown site. The architect of the new terminal building was Desmond FitzGerald, an elder brother of the former Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald. The curved building with its tiered floors was designed to echo the lines of a great ocean liner and won many architectural awards for its design. This original terminal building was designed to cater for just 100,000 passengers a year. HA O’Neil was the main plumbing contractor for the terminal building, hangar one and hangar two.
After cycling home in the evenings, Chris would then cycle to Bolton Street for instruction, until 9.30pm, cycling home the Crumlin Road after that. Holiday entitlements had just became legal, and he received one week’s holiday, which was spent doing the garden or going for walks, as there was little money for anything else.
Later, Chris, who lived at Killeen Glebe, took over HA O’Neil and established the Jones Engineering group, and was also well known as owner of Chelthenham-winning racehorse, Klairon Davis.
Future episodes of 'Building Ireland' take viewers on a sweeping journey through time and space, from Ireland’s remote Atlantic shores (Valentia, Allihies) to the projects that brought Ireland into the modern age, such as Turlough Hill and the Shannon Free Zone.
Orla Murphy is an award-winning architect with an expert knowledge of civic buildings and industrial archaeology, and a passion for sharing her insights with the nation at large.