“The first great adventure of my life,” French Girl Guide Janine Alexandre recorded on 12 August, 1946, in her little notebook as she sat in an old war plane rattling its way over the decimated French countryside toward Ireland. The 16-year-old hadn’t a clue just how great an adventure it would turn out to be.
Sitting with Janine were 20 other girl guides, ranging in age from 13 to 21, all equally excited by their first trip abroad on a plane. They had been invited by their Irish counterparts, who felt that some hearty Irish hospitality might make up for the deprivations of the war years. However, poor visibility and driving winds blew the plane off its course for Dublin. For the eager young French girls, the crunch of metal, searing pain, then deathly stillness, marked their introduction to Ireland.
In the Wicklow hills, where the plane crash-landed, the event is part of folklore. Now writer Suzanne Barnes brings the events back to life in When Our Plane Hit the Mountain (New Island). Her vivid reconstruction of the crash and its aftermath on the dank, boggy mountainside is enough to curl the edges of the pages. English-born Barnes, a resident of Ireland since 1989, first discovered hints of the story while on a walk in the Wicklow Mountains in 2002. Intrigued, Barnes began her own search for the plane crash victims; now women in their 70s and older, scattered throughout France, but for whom the memory of the crash and their time in Ireland, as she discovered, was still very much alive.
The girls and their crew of five all survived. While two uninjured girls and the pilot stumbled down the mountain in search of help, clambering down a sheer cliff face at one point, the remaining girl guides, cold, many seriously injured — one girl trapped in the tiny toilet — kept their spirits up by singing a favorite song, “Whatever should happen to me/I will keep smiling/And look on the bright side of life.”
For most their disastrous first encounter with air travel and Irish weather did not sour them. A number of the women returned to Ireland in 1996 to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash. And earlier this year several traveled to Dublin for the publication of Barnes’s book. “I never met a more enthusiastic and vibrant collection of women in my life,” Barnes says. ♦