Friday, 19 January 2001

Debt-ridden airline
with colourful past
faces Olympian task
to find partner

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, wife of Olympic Airways founder Aristotle Onassis, was a “courteous passenger”; Former Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, and wife Dimitra “Mimi” Liani, an ex-Olympic Airways stewardess. Her abuse of power in his party forced his resignation as leader.

Olympic Airways has had a rich history – linked with Aristotle Onassis is has become part of the Greek national psyche. It now faces an uncertain future

Patrick Comerford

The Greek Government is seeking a strategic investor to buy a 65 per cent stake in the ailing state-owned Olympic Airways, in the hope of ensuring the flag carrier’s survival. “Expressions of interest” for the cash-strapped carrier are being sought from companies experienced in aviation, with a solid financial background and a restructuring plan.

The sale would form part of an extensive restructuring process that would leave the Greek state with some debt-ridden parts of Olympic Airways, which has accumulated debts of about $100 million.

Today, Olympic Airways is among the 50 largest airlines in the world, with 33 Boeing and Airbus aircraft and about 8,500 employees. But the company's pre-Olympic history goes back 70 years to 1930, when the first Greek airline was established as the Icarus partnership, replaced within a few months by the Hellenic Air Transport Company (EEES). The new company's first scheduled flight to Thessaloniki was inaugurated the following year, carrying the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, among the 28 enthusiastic passengers.

Technical Airline Enterprises (TAE) was established in 1935, but with the outbreak of the second World War the airline was placed at the service of Greece's war efforts against Germany. Civil aviation resumed in 1946 with TAE back in the air, although during the Greek civil war, TAE domestic flights were often hit in crossfire.

[Onassis] was
stern, distant
and inquiring.

He had a
critical eye, so
we always tried
to be perfect

In April 1957, TAE was bought by shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis from the Greek state and renamed Olympic Airways. At the time, Onassis was at the zenith of his legendary career. He had already succeeded as a tanker tycoon, and with his wife, Tina Livanou, and their children, Alexander and Christina, had reached international celebrity status.

“The airplane was a new field for him,” Captain Pavlos Ioannidis, one of his closest associates for two decades, later recalled. “He wanted to fly all over the world, as he wanted to send his fleet of ships all over the world. That was it. Cost couldn’t stop him; nothing could. Proof of this is that he started with Dakotas and DC4s and ended up flying to five continents.”

A Dakota from TAE was decorated with the new airline logo – five Olympic circles that had to be altered later because the Olympic symbol is protected under international law – and Captain Ioannidis flew the first flight from classical Athens to Byzantine Thessaloniki.

Denise Karagiorga, the sole cabin crew member, along with the captain, the co-pilot and the radio operator, later recalled: “We didn’t serve a meal that day because it was a short flight. Nothing out of the ordinary happened.”

But Vassilis Vasilikos, the author of Z and later Greek ambassador to Unesco, saw a deeper, cultural significance in Olympic’s first flight: “By inaugurating the link between Thessaloniki and Athens 40 years ago, it succeeded in joining Byzantium and antiquity, the two main constituents of our national identity.”

A few months after taking over Olympic, Onassis provided a plane to bring home the body of the Cretan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, who had died in exile. The airline had become part of the Greek national psyche.

In its first years, the new national airline had just 865 employees and 15 propeller planes – 14 DC3s and one DC4 – linking the Greek capital with Mytilini (Lesbos), Belgrade, Frankfurt and Thessaloniki, which had connections to Istanbul and Belgrade. One of those early flights was halted on the runway, and the passengers disembarked, because “one of our wheels had been borrowed from TWA”, Ioannidis recalled recently. “They needed it and came to get it back.”

But the airline grew rapidly during the 18 years between 1957 and 1975 when it was owned by Onassis. The first international route, Athens-Rome-Paris-London, was launched in 1957, and in 1958 new routes were opened from Athens to Zurich-Frankfurt and to Tel Aviv. In the mid-1960s, the Athens-New York route was inaugurated, with Pavlos Ioannidis flying the first transatlantic flight.

Mr Ioannidis remembers the touches Onassis brought to the airline. “When we launched our European routes, he put in gold-plated cutlery. In first class he put a candle on the tables. He wanted a piano on the 707s and 747s.” Denise Karagiorga, the sole flight attendant on the first flight in 1957, knew Onassis. “He was the man who never let anybody know when he was going to show up,” she told Olympic’s in-flight magazine, Kenisi (Motion). “He might well show up at the last moment. He was stern, distant and inquiring. He had a critical eye, so we always tried to be perfect.”

Stavroula Stefanou, one of Olympic Airway’s most experienced flight attendants, remembers meeting Jackie Kennedy soon after her marriage to Onassis. But she “didn’t have any special demands. I remember she just asked me to bring her a vodka and not to wake her up until half-an-hour before landing in Paris ... She was very courteous and kept her distance.”

On a flight to Mykonos, the crew helped deliver a baby. The pilot was invited to become the godfather, and at the baptism the management of Olympic Airways was named as the godmother.

But one ex-flight attendant has also been associated with the fall of a government. The late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou met Dimitra Liani, a flight attendant popularly known as “Mimi”, on an Olympic flight. Their open affair and the public humiliation of his second wife, Margaret Papandreou, contributed to the election defeat of his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) in June 1989. They married the following month, but her abuse of power in the party eventually forced his resignation as party leader.

Today, Olympic admits its “Achilles’ heel” is the under-developed state of Greece’s airports. But the 2004 Olympic Games have brought a rush to improve standards, and a new airport to serve Athens is being built at Sparta by March. Whoever buys Olympic must operate out of the new airport.

This full-page feature was first published in the Business This Week section of ‘The Irish Times’ on 19 January 2001

Thursday, 18 January 2001

An Irishman’s Diary:
SPG missionaries

George Berkeley: missionary as well as philosopher

Patrick Comerford

Some time ago, as we travelled through east Cork, I was determined to visit Cloyne Cathedral, with its round tower and Bruce Joy’s impressive monument to a former Bishop of Cloyne, George Berkeley, laid out in the north transept in all his episcopal finery.

As we approached the monument, my younger child asked: “Is he dead?” The bishop was dead since 1753, I replied. But Joe persisted: “Does he know he’s dead?” I presumed so. “Well, does God know he’s dead?” In three quick questions, a young boy had cut to the heart of Berkeley’s empiricist philosophy, which holds that everything save the spiritual exists only as it is perceived by the senses.

Berkeley was Bishop of Cloyne from 1734, but due to failing health he moved to Oxford in 1752. Although his monument may be seen in Cloyne, he does not rest there: he died in Oxford on January 14th, 1753, and was buried in Christ Church. Today, he is largely remembered for his work as a philosopher and mathematician, but is seldom referred to as a pioneering Irish missionary.

Educating colonists

In 1728, Berkeley sailed for North America in the hope of establishing a college in Bermuda for the education of colonists and American Indians. He settled in Newport, Rhode Island, returning only in 1731 after his plans and hopes were undermined and a grant of £20,000, approved by parliament, failed to materialise.

Berkeley’s plans and works in America were sponsored by the oldest Anglican missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), founded in 1701 by the Rev Dr Thomas Bray with the support of the bishops of the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

Between 1706 and 1761, 26 clergy served from the Church of Ireland served as missionaries with the SPG, all but four of them in the American colonies. William Smith was the first missionary to the Bahamas and the first colonial bishop from the Church of Ireland was Charles Inglis (1734-1816) from Glen Columbkille, Co Donegal. Inglis taught in Pennsylvania before he was ordained in 1759 for the parish of Dover in Delaware.

In Delaware, Inglis worked among the Mohawk Indians, and pressed for an Anglican bishop in the colonies. In 1765, he moved to New York as the curate of Trinity Church, where he became rector in 1777, during the early stages of the American Revolution. Trinity Church was destroyed by the rebels, Inglis was attained and all his property was confiscated.

In 1783, he moved with his family to Nova Scotia. During a brief return visit to these islands in 1787 he was consecrated at Lambeth Palace as the first bishop of Nova Scotia, with jurisdiction over Quebec, Newfoundland and New Brunswick. Two months later, in the first Anglican ordination in Canada, he ordained his nephew, Andrew Inglis.

Founder in Canada

Charles Inglis has been hailed as the founder of the Anglican Church in Canada. His son John became the third bishop of Nova Scotia, with a diocese that extended as far as Berkeley's beloved Bermuda.

Of the 106 clergy from the Church of Ireland who worked as SPG missionaries in the period 1824 to 1870, 67 (more than half) went to Canada, 19 to Australia, and six to South Africa. Among the remaining 14 was the Rev George Hunn Nobbs of Dublin, who worked in the Pitcairn Islands among the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and later joined their migration to Norfolk Island.

In Australia, Hussey Burgh Macartney, a former curate of Kilcock, Co Kildare, built St Paul’s Cathedral and became Dean of Melbourne. William Wright from Ireland was the first Anglican missionary in South Africa. His strong opposition to early racism led to a conflict with the Irish governor of the Cape, Sir Lowry Cole, and he left the colony in 1829. But later SPG missionaries in southern Africa included Francis Balfour from Townley Hall, near Drogheda, the first resident Anglican bishop in Lesotho, William Gaul from Derry who became Bishop of Mashonaland, Davis Croghan from Wexford, who was Dean of Grahamstown, and John Darragh, who was instrumental in building St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg.

Social justice

It was men like these who shaped the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, giving it its high church ethos and its commitment to social justice and action against racism. Later Irish SPG missionaries did pioneering work in Burma, China, Japan and Korea, and provided bishops for dioceses in Lahore (Pakistan), the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Gambia.

In 1965, the SPG merged with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. Today the society is known as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). To mark its 300th anniversary, a new history of SPG and USPG has been edited by the Rev Dr Daniel O’Connor, former principal of the College of the Ascension in Birmingham. The tercentenary celebrations, which began in St Chad’s Cathedral, Lichfield, on January 6th, will culminate with an international anniversary service of celebration in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, on June 15th.

This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 January 2001.

Thursday, 11 January 2001

An Irishman’s Diary:
A saint from Co Clare

Harriet Monsell, founder of the Community of Saint John Baptist, was born at Dromoland Castle, Co Clare

A nun from Co Clare who was also the sister of a patriot MP has been honoured among the saints by the Church of England.

A new prayer book, new liturgies and a new calendar of saints’ days have been in use throughout the Church of England since January 1st. The 1980 Alternative Service Book has been replaced by Common Worship, which includes some changes to the Calendar of Saints’ Days, with an eye to ecumenism and the addition of a considerable number of contemporary names.

Patrick and Columba (Colmcille) were included in the old ASB calendar, along with Jeremy Taylor, Bishop of Down and Dromore. But Ireland’s third patron, Brigid, now also features in the Church of England calendar. Another Irish woman named for the first time in the list of saints is Harriet Monsell, commemorated on March 26th.

O’Brien titles

Born Harriet O’Brien, she was a member of the Inchiquin branch of the family from Dromoland Castle, Co Clare. Her father, Sir Edward O’Brien, was a direct descendant of Brian Boru and the O’Brien Kings of Munster. When the Thomond peerages became extinct in 1855 with the death of James O’Brien, third Marquess and seventh Earl of Thomond, it seemed the ancient O’Brien titles had come to an end. However, Harriet’s eldest brother, Sir Lucius O'Brien, was surprisingly successful in taking his claim to an obscure and almost-forgotten 16th century title to the Committee for Privileges of the House of Lords, and in 1862 he became the 13th Baron Inchiquin.

As a result of the decision in the Lords, Lord Inchiquin’s four surviving sisters and two of his three surviving brothers were given a royal licence to use “the style and precedence of the younger sons of a baron” – meaning, in effect, they could put the prefix “The Hon” in front of their names.

The other surviving brother was William Smith O’Brien, MP for Co Limerick; he had inherited the Cahirmoyle estate in Co Limerick through his mother, Charlotte Smith, whose father had bailed the O’Briens out of threatened bankruptcy. Charlotte was one of the founding lights of the women’s branch of the Church Missionary Society, and the MP was proud of his mother’s humanitarian work among the starving and homeless famine victims of Co Clare in 1847. A year later, on the 50th anniversary of the 1798 Rising, he led the Young Ireland insurrection.

After the failure of the Battle of Ballingarry, O’Brien was deported to Tasmania, but was eventually pardoned in 1854 and allowed home. Despite being snobbily snubbed by the House of Lords two years before his death, O’Brien is commemorated today by a statue at the south end of O'Connell Street, Dublin.

Three brothers

In the year the Lords snubbed William Smith O’Brien, his elder daughter, Lucy Josephine, married the Very Rev John Gwynn, Dean of Raphoe and Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin. At one time, three Gwynn brothers were prominent in TCD so that it was referred to jokingly as “Gwynnity College”. Dean Gwynn’s son, the Rev Robert Malcolm Gwynn, shared his grandfather’s radical political outlook: it is said that the concept of the Irish Citizens’ Army was born in his college rooms, and later, as senior master, he introduced social studies to Trinity. His daughter, equally active in campaigning on social issues, was the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Simms.

Three of the patriot MP’s sisters were married into clerical families: Anne was the wife of Canon Arthur Martineau of St Paul’s Cathedral, London; Katherine was married to Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar; and in 1839 Harriet married the Rev Charles Henry Monsell, youngest son of the Ven Thomas Bewley Monsell, Archdeacon of Derry and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Harriet and Charles had no children, and after his death in 1851 she founded one of the first Anglican religious communities of women, the Community of St John the Baptist at Clewer, near Windsor in Berkshire. The order soon spread to India, South Africa and North America.

Today, the Clewer Sisters run the Clewer Spirituality Centre, with retreats, conferences and workshops. They also run St Anne's House for the elderly and St John’s Convent Home for mentally handicapped women, and some of the nuns are engaged in parish work, missions and retreats. Individual sisters are involved in a local day centre, the Thames Valley Hospital, work with the deaf and blind, and in ecumenical projects.

Modern names

A pioneering nun, Harriet O'Brien Monsell was the Mother Superior of the House of Mercy at Clewer for 25 years until she died at the age of 71 on March 25th, 1883. However, unlike the usual convention with saints’ names, she cannot be commemorated on the date of her death: March 25th is Feast of the Annunciation, and the day before has been reserved for the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was murdered while saying Mass on March 24th, 1980.

The modern names in the Church of England calendar include Archbishop William Temple, the author and mystic Evelyn Underhill, Mary Sumner of the Mothers’ Union, and two second World War martyrs, Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoffer.

Many people were surprised last year when Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX in the face of strong opposition and criticism, although he has been slow to recognise the radical martyrs of the 20th century, such as Oscar Romero. But this year Oscar Romero joins the ranks of Anglican saints along with Harriet O’Brien Monsell, the patriot’s sister and radical nun from Co Clare.


This feature was first published as ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ in ‘The Irish Times’ on Thursday 11 January 2001