I arrived early at Shannon Airport to find my flight home delayed by two hours. I decided to step back outside for one final cigarette before surrendering to the fifteen hour journey of airports and airplanes. I was sitting exactly where the woman with the red suitcase is sitting in the photo below when an airport security guard sat down next to me. “Now, would you be out here having that cigarette because you don’t think you can smoke inside the airport?” I must have looked at her like she had just flown in from another dimension because she added, “Oh but sure you can smoke in this airport.”
Unbelievable but true. Up the escalator to security. Through security. Through the gift shop that serves as the entrance to the departure lounge. Turn right. Go down some stairs and back outside, albeit within a chain linked fence, and arrive at a covered smoking area. It turns out this extraordinary accommodation is made for the huge number of American troops that regularly land at Shannon on a refueling stop before heading to the Middle East. When I went down to the smoking area that first time it was packed with men and women in freshly laundered uniforms. The silence was eerie. Through a whispered inquiry I learned they were headed to Afghanistan.
This event happened a few years ago but the troop presence remains. That Shannon Airport is considered by many Irish to be a subsidiary US military base was a heated topic of conversation over dinner with friends. The question that loomed large was whether the troop planes carry anything other than troops. A woman they all know was recently arrested for scaling the perimeter fence in an effort to get a closer look. Irish government officials won’t talk about it beyond referencing a closely guarded and diplomatic agreement with the US government. The lack of any denial of munitions movements only fuel concerns.
“Ah now there’s always going to be war. It’s part of the human condition. Those planes are important to Shannon Airport and there’s a lot of jobs in that airport.” I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for this perspective from a friend near Galway. He had read about the arrested woman and went on to say that she is retired with a comfortable income so what is she doing getting involved in actions that might jeopardize the income of others. My friend was as emotional on this subject as were my dinner friends. And I’ve been aware that for many years there has been talk of closing Shannon Airport and shifting all flights to Dublin. It would indeed be an economic blow for the area – for the airport itself and the many surrounding tourist related businesses.
Beyond the movement of troops and possible munitions, Shannon Airport is clearly a cultural and economic war zone for the Irish.