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The Evolution of Transatlantic Travel

Thanks to Ireland’s position on both the edge of the Atlantic and the edge of Europe, it has often been at the centre of the development of transatlantic travel. From the first steamship crossing to Foynes’ flying boats, here are some key journeys worth knowing about.

St Brendan the Navigator

As every Irish person will tell you, St. Brendan ‘discovered’ the Americas way back in the 6th century – a whole millennium before Christopher Columbus. Or, maybe, it was the Canary Islands he visited.

While ancient Latin texts tell the tale of his seven-year voyage, the facts surrounding the Irish monk’s movements remain unclear. Although, in 1976, modern explorer Tim Severin recreated St. Brendan’s leather boat and managed to sail to Newfoundland, Canada – proving that the journey was possible.

Craggaunowen - St.Brendans Boot 2

Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While nobody knows when exactly the first transatlantic crossing took place, one thing is certain – it happened on a sailboat.

Commercial boat crossings

After Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1492, transatlantic trade routes were quickly set up. Spain established the West Indies fleet to travel to its colonies and other colonial powers like Britain, Portugal and France soon followed suit.

Right up until the 19th century, transatlantic crossings continued to be made in sailing ships. However, these journeys could take a long time and often proved dangerous.

The Jeanie Johnston, for example, began its first journey from Kerry to Quebec in 1848. On average, this journey took 47 days. Considering the low ceiling and cramped conditions below deck, this would have felt like a long time for passengers. However, its comfort would have been better than that of the ‘coffin ships’ some Irish emigrants crossed the Atlantic in.

At that time, commercial sailing ships usually took three or four weeks to make an eastbound crossing. While westbound crossings usually took six.

The Jeanie Johnston made 16 transatlantic crossings during its lifetime. However, when it became a full-time cargo ship, it began to take on water during a trip to Quebec. The crew had to tie themselves to the masts as the ship slowly went under.

Luckily, they were saved by another passing ship. However, they spent nine days tied to the masts before they were rescued, highlighting the perilous conditions some crews and passengers faced at that time.

The first transatlantic steamship

With the invention of steamships in the 19th century, transatlantic passenger crossings became faster and safer.

The first ship to cross the Atlantic using steam power was the SS Sirius. In 1838, it left London and called at Cobh where it stocked up on coal before heading for New York. With 40 passengers on board and thousands of local people cheering it on, the ship left Cork Harbour on April 4, 1838.

SS Sirius (1837)

George Atkinson Jnr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Originally built for short trips between London and Cobh, the wooden, paddle-wheel ship was quite small. However, The British and American Steam Navigation Company wanted to offer the first transatlantic steam service and beat out the purpose-built Great Western steamship, which was under construction at the time.

The SS Sirius reached New York 18 days later to much applause. But the journey wasn’t easy. The weather was bad and it ran out of coal before reaching its destination. As a result, doors and furniture were thrown into the furnace to keep the ship going.

According to the Britannica encyclopedia: “Her captain, determined to complete the passage under steam, refused to hoist the ship’s sails and, instead, fed spars into the furnace. Sandy Hook, New Jersey, was sighted in time to avert a potential mutiny, and the Sirius beat the much larger Great Western to New York by a few hours.”

However, it’s worth noting that many Irish emigrants continued to take perilous journeys across the Atlantic in coffin ships after 1838. However, as the decades passed, steamships became more prominent. Many of them stopped off at Cobh to refuel, drop off post and pick up passengers. In fact, the opening of a railway station at Cobh in 1862 facilitated mass emigration from Cork Harbour.

Transatlantic Flights

The first attempt to take transatlantic travel to the air happened in the 1930s when luxurious German Zeppelins began crossing the ocean. While airships were present in Ireland during World War I, they weren’t readily available to civilian passengers.

The well-known Hindenburg, which did round trips between Germany and the US, could make the crossing in just 43 hours. However, in 1937, the Hindenburg erupted in flames in New Jersey and brought about the decline of passenger airships. By this time, aircrafts were well positioned to take over these routes.

The first transatlantic flight

In 1903, Orville Wright successfully piloted the world’s first powered airplane. Just 16 years later, the first non-stop transatlantic flight was undertaken by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. Their flight from Newfoundland to Galway took just 14 hours.

However, despite this successful trip, it would be some time before passenger airplanes were ready to make the crossing. Instead, seaplanes were used throughout the 1930s and early 1940s.

Flying Boats at Foynes

Because land-based passenger planes still lacked the flying range needed for transatlantic crossings, flying boats were used instead. The idea was that if the weather was too rough or fuel ran low, the plane could land safely in the Atlantic Ocean.

Seaplanes at Foynes

National Library of Ireland, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Because of its location on Ireland’s west coast, Foynes’ port in Limerick became one of Europe’s busiest civilian airports during World War II. Famous faces like John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt landed here before boarding airplanes to other European destinations.

While these huge boats often offered elegant dining rooms and other glamorous facilities, flights could take up to 18 hours and landings were often rough. So, in the 1940s, when airplanes had enough power to cross the Atlantic, seaplanes quickly went out of use.

Modern transatlantic flights

By the 1950s, airplanes had become the predominant mode of transatlantic transport. Speed became more important than comfort, so flight times became shorter and shorter. The first Boeing 707 took just seven or eight hours to go from London to New York. By the 1970s, Concorde planes could do it in just four.

Since then, air travel has also become more affordable and available to all. That’s why this is usually the transport of choice for Irish emigrants heading to the US.

To find out more about Ireland’s history of ocean travel and emigration, visit the Jeanie Johnston Famine ship. Book tickets here.