Reno Irish Group Commemorates Century Long Tradition

Note: The following article was published in the April 2024 edition of the Irish Herald of Northern California

By William Puchert

The Sons & Daughters of Erin of Northern Nevada (SADOE) commemorated a century long tradition of honoring Irish-American airmail pilot William Blanchfield.

Over the weekend of March 9-10, the Reno-based Irish heritage club celebrated the 100th anniversary of the tradition spreading shamrocks sent from Blanchfield’s native town of Courtmachsherry, County Cork and placed on Blanchfield’s grave at a Reno cemetery on or around St. Patrick’s Day with at their annual dinner and a memorial ceremony the following day.

The tradition began after the airmail pilot died on August 1, 1924 while attempting to perform an ariel stunt of dropping a wreath on the grave of a fallen pilot. Ordinarily a two-man task, it was unexpectedly left to Blanchfield alone when his aerial assistant fell ill. As he made the last of three slow descending circles over the burial ground, maneuvering his DeHavilland DH.4 bi-plane with one hand while holding the wreath in the other, the aircraft struck telephone lines and burst into flames. The young flyer was killed instantly, and fire from the wreckage destroyed a house nearby. He was only 29 years old when he died.

The following March, Blanchfield’s mother in Ireland began sending sprigs of shamrocks to then Reno undertaker Silas Ross to be placed at the grave of her son on St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition continued by other relatives until the undertaker’s death in 1975, was continued by Barbara Rabenstein of Reno, whose home Blanchfield struck and destroyed with his plane and then by Reno historian Cindy Ainsworth, who was honored at the dinner. In 2012, SADOE created a formal memorial ceremony with a bagpiper and a recitation of Blanchfield’s life, at the request of a few Courtmacsherry residents.

Since SADOE has carried out the ceremony, interest has grown in the tradition and in recent years has attracted three of Blanchfield’s living descendants Bob Williams of Carson City, Erin Saenz of Sacramento and Maureen Nokes of San Jose who all received a proclamation at the dinner honoring their relative by a group of Reno elected officials.

Blanchfield was a distant cousin of Captain Myles Keogh, an Irish-American soldier who served in the Papal Army and then in Union Army in the Civil War where he fought in the Battle of Gettysburg and served under Gen. George Custer until he died in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Prior to emigrating to America, Blanchfield flew reconnaissance missions for the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War I, shot down three German aircraft and attained the rank of Major by the war’s end. He arrived in Reno in 1920, where he immediately applied for citizenship and a year later joined the fledgling US Government Postal Service as a pilot flying the Reno to Elko leg in the first day-to-night transcontinental airmail delivery. These pioneer aviators were regarded at that time as the “Pony Express of the Skies.”

Blanchfield was widely mourned when he died and Reno’s first airport, now a municipal golf course, was named “Blanch Field” in his honor. Reno’s surrounding area still has remnants of cement navigational arrow beacons that guided Blanchfield and other airmail pilots along their transcontinental route.

SADOE also has engaged in a public service project of restoring 30 Irish family plots at one of Reno’s oldest cemeteries near its university in recent years. Founded as the Sons of Erin in 1969 and reincorporated as SADOE in 1996, the non-profit Irish heritage organization presents and sponsors Celtic events, celebrates Irish history and culture, participates in local events and donates to local charities. For more info, visit

William Puchert is the President of SADOE. A San Francisco native, his Irish ancestors were stone masons in the Colma cemeteries

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