Out of this world: How the first Moon landing thrilled Ireland

It was a moment in history that seemed for a short time to bring the entire world together.

Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who later said he was descended from cattle rustlers from Fermanagh, cautiously pressed his boot on to the Moon just before 4am Irish time on July 21, 1969.

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He was careful as he felt around on the lunar surface. When he stepped out he could not be certain that the terrain was firm. Nobody could be sure that he would not sink.

And then, as he stepped away from the ladder, he uttered the line that echoes across the decades: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

He meant to say “one small step for a man”, but who could complain when he had just piloted a spaceship a distance of 239,000 miles from Earth?

At that moment, thousands of Irish children were bleary-eyed and bewildered, having been woken by their far-seeing parents who wanted to give them an opportunity to witness a moment in history on television – the time when humankind finally found its way to another world.

We could just about make out the grainy human figure of Armstrong stepping lightly through the lunar shadows on the small black-and-white TV.

And my first thought at that moment as a seven-year-old was – “Man on the Moon – hasn’t there always been a man in the Moon?”

At the time of the moonshot, America was mired in the Vietnam War, where it was to lose nearly 60,000 men.

The Moon landing was as much a spectacular political stunt as a scientific expedition. America wanted to show the world that it was more advanced technologically than the Soviet Union. The lunar surface was the finishing line of a Cold War space race.

Northern Ireland was being engulfed by its first flare-ups of the Troubles, with nationalist protesters clashing with the RUC.

But at that moment in Ireland – with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin treading lightly on the Moon – there was a feeling among the starry-eyed adults that anything could be achieved. Through scientific progress, there were boundless possibilities.

Back then, nobody would have thought that this phase of interplanetary travel would prove to be so short-lived. Steeped in futuristic picture books and sci-fi stories, we expected families to be living on other planets in homes connected by transparent tubes – and by 2019 we would have expected humans to be living on Mars.

Wernher von Braun, who designed the Apollo 11 rocket having developed deadly weapons for the Nazis, believed humans would reach Mars by the 1980s.

Fifty years on from the Moon landing, we can still look back in awe at how scientists and astronauts brought a spaceship to the Moon using a computer with less power than a present-day smartphone.

One can still marvel at how the vast space rocket, Saturn V, lifted itself to the heavens with a volcanic eruption of noise before the astronauts eventually transferred into a tiny lunar landing craft through elaborate docking manoeuvres.

When President John F Kennedy made his famous declaration in the autumn of 1962 – “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – many households in Ireland did not even have running water.

Moon estate in Coolock

President Éamon De Valera had only recently opened our TV service, and we were just emerging from our long period of inward-looking economic stagnation.

It was not only regarded as a miracle to put a man on the Moon less than a decade later, it was also miraculous to see live pictures of the event from 239,000 miles away.

These great global TV spectacles became a habit in a country that was increasingly looking outwards, rather than inwards. If you talk to those who lived through this period, they often mention the Muhammad Ali fights of the same era that were beamed around the world.

There was such excitement in Dublin after Apollo 11 that the streets of an entire housing estate in Coolock were named after the astronauts and other features of the mission.

There is Apollo Way, Armstrong Walk, Aldrin Walk, Eagle Park and Tranquility Grove – the latter was named after the Sea of Tranquillity where the spacemen landed.

When I called into Armstrong Walk in recent days, neighbours Monica McGarry and Jo Ann Toolan were still excited by the link with Apollo 11.

Monica, now in her seventies, says: “It is nice to have the association with the astronauts.”

“They call it the Moon estate around here,” said Jo Ann. “When you tell people the address they don’t forget it.”

On Tranquility Grove, 83-year-old John Callan was equally proud. “When I say I live on Tranquility Grove, people say it must be very peaceful.”

But of course, amid all the hoopla of the summer of 1969, not everybody was impressed by men touching down on another planet.

A woman interviewed on the street on RTÉ News that evening back in 1969 said: “It’s a lot of money being wasted that could be used for people who are starving.”

Patricia Breen of Beechwood Avenue, Donnybrook, was similarly dismissive, telling the Irish Press: “We didn’t watch it on television, because we don’t watch television.”

While the general reaction in Ireland was one of Apollomania, the well-known Irish Independent columnist Desmond Rushe ruefully remarked that the Moon’s isolation and mystique had been shattered.

“Her remote, romantic, mysterious purity is tarnished forever. No longer can writers adulate her beauty…”

And according to Rushe, Joxer Daly, the famous character from Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock could no longer ask: “Ay, that’s the question – what is the Moon; what is the Moon?”

Up to 600 million people around the world may have been watching as the lunar module landed.

But none of this would have been possible if a Dubliner, William Rowan Hamilton, had not gone for a stroll along the Royal Canal in Cabra one October morning in 1843.

The scientist was just ambling along the canal banks when he had a Eureka moment. He dreamt up a new system of four-dimensional numbers called ‘quaternions’, and scratched his mathematical formula in the stone at Broombridge. This was the formula that helped to put men on the Moon.

Hamilton’s Quaternions

When one of the astronauts was later shown a bust of Hamilton on a tour of Trinity College, he was suddenly impressed and remarked how he had used Hamilton’s Quaternions to land the lunar module.

As the Saturn V rocket blasted off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on July 16, the Irish papers emphasised the Irish links of the wife of the third astronaut, Michael Collins.

While Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon from the lunar module, Collins stayed orbiting above in a command module, ready to meet up with the moonwalkers for the return trip to Earth.

The Irish Independent reported that his wife Patricia was the daughter of a Mayo man Joseph Finnegan, and her relatives in the county were said to be “glued to their TV sets, watching the progress of the astronauts”.

Collins, whose grandfather came from West Cork, has said that Neil Armstrong was the ideal man to be in charge of the spaceship and walk on the Moon.

He described him as an extremely intelligent man of many talents with a deep knowledge of scientific history.

According to Collins, the notoriously reticent Armstrong lived in his own shell, but occasionally, if a subject interested him, he would come out of it.

David Moore, head of Astronomy Ireland, met Armstrong in the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin in 2003, and planned to do an interview.

Armstrong almost fled to his bedroom at the prospect.

“I was amazed at how nervous he was, and he was shaking,” said Moore this week. “This was a man who had flown to the Moon and flown combat missions in the Korean war, and he seemed scared of me.”

Whatever pressure Armstrong felt during the Moon landings, he hardly showed it as he brought the lunar module down, even though it was a hugely risky mission. As the Irish Independent reported on the following day, it was a landing that came perilously close to disaster.

“As the module neared the Moon’s surface, Armstrong saw that the computerised auto-pilot was sending the fragile ship towards a field scattered with rocks and boulders in the projected landing site.”

Armstrong grabbed the controls of his ship, sent it clear of boulders and landed six kilometres away, with hardly any fuel left.

During his meeting with David Moore over coffee in the Four Seasons in 2003, Armstrong said he had only recently been researching his ancestry.

As Moore recalled this week, “He told me that his ancestors had come from Fermanagh – and were known for stealing cattle.”

When Armstrong set foot on the Moon, Ireland was still a religious country with Mass attendance of around 90pc, and the papers gave due prominence on the front page to the Pope’s reaction to the news.

The Irish Independent (see insert for the pages) carried a rapturous response from the Pontiff to the landing on the Moon, “pale lamp of our nights and our dreams”. He exclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth to men of goodwill.”

It was also noted that Buzz Aldrin took Communion bread with him to the lunar surface.

While the BBC and ITV covered the Moon landing with bells and whistles, RTÉ was given a critical pasting for adopting a no-frills approach to the coverage.

It gave the job of covering the Moon landing to Kevin O’Kelly who sat in an inflated plastic chair with a model of the module. There were no experts and no panel, while O’Kelly gallantly filled up the broadcast time.

The Irish Independent TV critic compared him to Michael Collins, the astronaut left behind in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin landed for their space walk.

As the critic put it: “If Michael Collins was the loneliest man in outer space, he had a counterpart on old Mother Earth. He was in the Teilifís Éireann studios in Montrose and his name was Kevin O’Kelly.”

O’Kelly was subsequently appointed religious affairs correspondent, causing some to joke that his brief was Space and Heaven.

The low-key RTÉ coverage on television did not dampen the enthusiasm of Irish spacewatchers, and Apollomania continued into the following year.

During their 21-hour sojourn on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin gathered up rocks and brought them back to Earth.

When a “priceless sample” of Moon rock was put on display in the American Embassy in Ballsbridge, it was mobbed by crowds, with 4,000 people turning up at the start of the display.

Missing Moon rock

The rock, no bigger than a walnut, was described as the “most valuable geological specimen ever seen in Ireland”.

While Moon rocks are regarded as hugely valuable, mystery surrounds the precise location of one of these priceless samples after it was presented to President Éamon De Valera.

The small rock was put on display at Dunsink Observatory, but in 1977 part of the building was destroyed in a fire.

Professor Luke Drury, a former director of the observatory, told Review: “The floor of the Meridian Room, where it was on display, collapsed in the fire. A smouldering pile of debris had to be cleared out quickly.”

Prof Drury, who became director of the observatory long after the fire, said the tiny Moon rock could not be found and almost certainly ended up in the Dunsink municipal dump.

The Moon rock could be the most valuable item of rubbish in Ireland. Who knows? Some time in the future, a treasure hunter or archaeologist with a Moon rock detector might find it.

By the time the lunar treasure was buried under a mound of discarded washing up liquid bottles, Corn Flakes boxes and rusting pram wheels, interest in the Moon was already on the wane.

Between July 1969 and December 1972, 12 men walked on the Moon. But nobody followed.

The last words from the surface of the Moon from astronaut Eugene Cernan on the last mission were more prosaic than the first: “Okay. Now, let’s get off. Forget the camera.”

There is renewed interest in travelling to the Moon from billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, and the Chinese government wants to send up astronauts. But whatever their achievements in the coming years, it will be hard to recreate the excitement generated by the men who arrived there half a century ago.


Apollo 11: a ­timeline

July 16 9.30am US Eastern time (2.30pm Irish time)

The Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 spacecraft blasts off from John F Kennedy Space Center. It carries the command service module housing the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and a lunar module to be used to land on the Moon.

Once out of Earth’s orbit, the command service module, Columbia, separates from the Saturn rocket, and connects nose-to-nose with the lunar module, Eagle.

July 19

Apollo 11 enters lunar orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin separate the lunar module Eagle from Columbia. Collins remains in Columbia.

July 20 3.17pm (8.17pm Irish time)

Armstrong and Aldrin land on the Moon at the Sea of Tranquility. Armstrong announces: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” He walks on the Moon at 10.56pm (3.56am, July 21 Irish time), followed by Aldrin.

July 21 1.54pm (6.54pm Irish time)

Armstrong and Aldrin lift off from the Moon, leaving the lower stage of the lunar module behind. They dock with the command service module, piloted by Collins.

July 24

After its long return journey, Apollo 11 re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. It splashes down in the Pacific Ocean at 12.51pm (5.51pm Irish time).

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