‘Everybody crashes: don’t worry about it!” tour guide Fintan McAvinue cheerfully reassures a visitor who has just slammed an aircraft into what must surely be smithereens.

Luckily, however, it’s just a flight simulator: and one of many unique features at the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum.

It might be hard to imagine today, but this sleepy village along the Shannon Estuary was once the centre of international aviation: in particular, between 1937 and 1945, when the so-called ‘flying boat’ – a seaplane with a hull, allowing it to land in water – ruled the transatlantic skies, with famous figures including John F Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway transiting through west Limerick.

It’s a fascinating – if less well-known – chapter of Irish history that has been preserved thanks to a dedicated community effort, with a recent injection of €5m bringing the museum up to a state-of-the-art standard.

“It’s like the tardis,” says Fintan of the surprise that awaits most visitors; indeed, in the entrance hall, you learn that Foynes served as a central hub for flights between locations including New York, Lisbon and Cairo, while during the war years, 48,000 people passed through, including Allied troops disguised as civilians and 1,000 refugees fleeing persecution.

A section dedicated to aviation pays homage to the original innovators, but also some intriguing characters; including Limerick’s Lady Mary Heath, who was the first woman to pilot a commercial flight, jump from a plane with a parachute and fly solo from Cape Town to Croydon. (Sadly, she died after a fall from a tram.)

Luxury, at a price

But what of the ‘flying boat’ itself?

“It was like a flying cruise liner,” Fintan tells me, explaining that passengers on board would have enjoyed luxuries including a seven-course meal cooked from scratch, games of backgammon over brandy and cigars and services including shoe-shining.

The Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum boasts a replica of the B314.

“Just think of Ryanair when you go on board,” Fintan quips, as we step onto the museum’s piece de resistance: a specially commissioned replica of a Boeing 314 Clipper.

Michael O’Leary need not lose much sleep over the competition, however: a transatlantic trip on one of these crafts could take up to 17 hours and battling the infamous Atlantic depressions, would set you back $10,000 in today’s terms for a return trip. Contrary to popular belief, it was not as safe as it seemed.

“The plane would have been buffeted a lot, it would have been shaky and very noisy,” explains Fintan.

Still, thanks to the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum, it’s possible to take a flight of fancy anytime you like, while keeping your feet firmly on the ground. Buckle up.

Hollywood glamour

Irish American star Maureen O'Hara is also honoured at Foynes Flying Boat Museum.

You might not expect to encounter an Oscar in a flying boat museum. Yet the honorary award presented to Irish actress Maureen O’Hara in 2014 by Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson takes pride of place at an extensive exhibition dedicated to The Quiet Man star.

As it turns out, O’Hara’s third husband was Brigadier General Charles Blair, a dashing, deering-do American aviation pioneer who made the first non-stop passenger flight from New York to Foynes in 1942. While he tragically lost his life in a plane crash in 1978, Maureen maintained strong links with Foynes and was a patron of the museum up until her death in 2015.

The exhibition honours the couple’s love story, but also O’Hara’s glittering career, with movie memorabilia including the pony trap from The Quiet Man, film costumes and personal effects including her typewriter and her vanity box packed with her brand of choice: Max Factor.

You can also sit in a small cinema – on furniture from Maureen’s own home – and watch clips of some of her most famous performances: her star quality still shines brightly.

Did you know?

Foynes is also the home of the Irish coffee.

The Irish coffee was invented at Foynes in 1943 by chef Joe Sheridan, after a flight that had left for New York had to turn back after several hours of flying in bad weather.

Tasked with preparing something warm for the returning passengers, Joe had the brainwave of adding Irish whiskey to their coffees and an iconic beverage was born.

This moment is recreated through a fun holographic audio-visual experience, while visitors today can also learn some trade secrets by booking a group masterclass or simply sampling the famous drink at the museum restaurant.

You can also see vintage photos of some famous faces enjoying Irish coffee through the years, including a very glamorous Marilyn Monroe with her then-husband, Arthur Miller, pictured during a stopover at Shannon Airport in 1956.

• Admission to the Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum is €15 for adults, €13 for seniors,students or concessions, €8 for children or €35 for a family ticket (two adults and up to four children). Tickets can be purchased at flyingboatmuseum.com or on arrival

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