Thursday, 18 May 2017

John Corr's Donkey

"This is overkill," says Barney the Donkey. "Everyone knows what a donkey looks like!"
At 1:30 am on Wednesday, 28 November 1906, James Hughes saw a ghostly figure on the Red Row, near Coalisland, County Tyrone. Shortly after this, Hughes’s colleague at the coal pit, Joe McMahon, also saw the figure. According to McMahon, it was dressed in white and had a white cover over its head. “You could not see the arms and legs on it,” he said. “But nevertheless it was distinctly the shape of a human being.”
At about the same time on Thursday, 29 November, Joe McMahon and James Hughes were in the “cabin” at the pit with Joe Hararan and Bernard Quinn when the figure appeared again. It was at a chestnut tree. And though the “ghost” had been moving when it first caught their attention, it stopped and remained static for about five minutes, giving the men a good look at it. In fact, Hughes and Hararan went outside to get an even better look. All of the men agreed that it looked like a man or a woman.
The “ghost” moved on again, prompting the men to fall to their knees and pray. As they prayed, the strange figure climbed a ditch into the field with the coal pit – and disappeared.
At 1:10 am on Saturday, 1 December, the “ghost” was seen walking on the pavement of the Red Row. It walked past the home of the Rev. Mackay, and when it reached the corner of the Row, it stopped and took in the night air for about three to four minutes. It then walked past the chestnut tree and disappeared.
According to the Saturday witnesses, the “ghost” wasn’t remotely human-shaped: it had the shape of a four-footed animal, they said; it was about the size of a sheep; and it had a two-feet long tail and 18-inch long ears.
But 10 minutes after the “ghost” disappeared, it reappeared again, about 20 yards from the pit. This time it was in human form and “dazzling white.” It stood in the middle of the road for a while before walking into the field next to the pit.
It would be an understatement to say the “ghost” caused quite a stir. Priests were called on to counsel some of the witnesses, and many of the men at the pit were afraid to even look at the place where the “ghost” often appeared. According to the Derry Journal: “They all say the apparition would terrify the strongest-nerved man in Ireland.”
A story was being pieced together to explain the events. The “ghost” was a “woman in white”, and the chestnut tree was no ordinary chestnut tree. No. The tree was in an area known as The Mass Garden, a place where Mass was celebrated in “olden times,” according to the Belfast Evening Telegraph. And this very tree was the exact site of those Masses.
But, according to The Tyrone Courier, the whole debacle was just a story to stop the locals stealing coal from the pit. If that was the case it was very effective, as it was reported that “youths and maidens, and even those of riper years, were afraid to move out of doors after sunset.”
However, on 13 December 1906, the Belfast News-Letter reported that one particularly brave local had staked out the area and discovered that the “ghost” was nothing more than a donkey - a grey donkey with “an unusually light-coloured coat” - belonging to local man John Corr.
“It is hoped this explanation will allay the fears of the minds of the timid,” said The Tyrone Constitution.
And it did. Because no one mentioned that donkeys are donkey shaped and humans are human shaped, or that donkeys are bigger than sheep. And not one paper attempted to explain the donkey’s teleporting abilities.
  • Belfast Evening Telegraph, 4 December 1906
  • Belfast News-Letter, 13 December 1906
  • Derry Journal, 7 December 1906
  • The Tyrone Constitution, 21 December 1906
  • The Tyrone Courier, 6 December 1906
  • Wicklow People, 22 December 1906

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Scareship Letter

I love scareship stories almost as much as I love weasel stories, so I was overjoyed when I found the following in the Irish News and Belfast Morning News of 5 January 1910.
We are disposed to feel sceptical about news of weird and wonderful “shapes” manoeuvring in the higher regions of the atmosphere. Last year a London paper published sensational stories about the performance of one Dr. Boyd in a highly navigable dirigible balloon over Belfast and around the rear slopes of Cave Hill. No one saw Dr. Boyd; and his balloon never existed. Perhaps he did not exist himself. But his alleged exploits were nothing more visionary than aerial monsters which certain Belfast citizens of considerable credibility in other respects stated they had seen hovering threateningly over the Lisburn Road.
Remembering these things, we print the following communication from a correspondent in Drumnaherk, Letterbarrow, Co. Donegal, with due reserve. It is dated “Sunday, January 2nd”:-
“While two young men named Hughey Monaghan and Willie McBride were returning home from a Christmas Party in the early hours of Sunday morning, they were terrified by a strange noise which broke upon their ears. ‘It resembles the vibration of an engine,’ said Hughey. At first they were not able to locate the place; but after a few seconds they had no difficulty. The sound came as if from the clouds; and, looking up, they saw a huge monster moving slowly in the air.
“Asked as to what it looked like, the more intelligent of the two said – ‘It looked like a big cigar with wings. I could see it quite distinct, as it was an exceedingly clear morning; for the moon was shining brightly.’ Asked as to what height it was and what direction did it move in, he said – ‘It was within a gunshot and moved northwards.’
“This is the third airship that has been seen in this part of the County Donegal, and the peaceful inhabitants are greatly alarmed.”
Our correspondent, writing on Monday, sends the following addendum to his awe-inspiring communication –
“A mysterious letter has been found in the vicinity where the airship has been seen, supposed to have dropped from the occupants of the airship. The letter is written in a foreign language, and will be returned to the owner in due course.”
But this is “easier said than done.” If the people of Drumnaherk can locate the owner of the document, that is to say, “the occupant of the airship,” they will have solved the mystery. Lord Charles Beresford, Lord Roberts, and other scaremongers are wasting their time in England. If the British Empire is to be saved they must speedily “commission” one of the Bleriot aeroplanes just purchased by the Government to make a flight to the Co. Donegal. Lord Cawdor’s mistake is now evident. The Germans have no intention of establishing a naval base in Belfast; they intend to build a huge fortress, and within it manufacture destructive aerial warships at Drumnaherk.
As to the other incidents referenced in the article: a few months earlier, at about 5:30 am on Tuesday, 6 July 1909, an airship passed over the townland of Mountcharles, in County Donegal. And despite the early hour, thanks to the actions of a local Paul Revere (minus the horse) who called people out of their houses, there were many witnesses who saw the “cigar-shaped” airship and heard “the machinery working and the human sound of the occupants.”
So far I’ve failed to find anything on the other incident. Can anyone help?
 - Derry Journal, 9 July 1909
 - The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 5 January 1910

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Cleland's Snakes

In 1831, in an effort to test the long held belief that Irish soil is deadly to snakes, James Cleland purchased some snakes and released them into the garden of his County Down home [1]. Cleland chose not to tell his neighbours about his experiment, so panic ensued when snakes were found near the final resting place of St. Patrick.
At least, that’s the story.
We know Cleland had snakes. On 7 December 1831, he donated two “English Snakes” to the Belfast Natural History Society. However, I cannot find an 1831 paper that reported on the finding of snakes in County Down - or the hysteria. These reports came much later.
The following is from the Northern Whig of 22 November 1922.
Why are there no snakes in Ireland? I do not recollect having ever seen any explanation, either by the Editor of our own Nature Notes or anybody else, and, with all due deference to St. Patrick, I cannot think he was the reason. Some people, of course, believe that snakes cannot live on Irish soil, and as far back as 1831 Mr. James Cleland, of Rathgael, determined to try the experiment. He bought half a dozen of the common English snake in Covent Garden, and turned them out in his garden at Rathgael, which, as everybody ought to know, is on the direct Bangor-Newtownards road. A week afterwards one of them was killed at Milecross, about three miles distant. The person into whose hands this strange monster fell had not the slightest suspicion it was a snake, but, considering it a curious kind of eel, they took it to Dr. J. L. Drummond, our own celebrated Irish naturalist, who at once pronounced the animal to be a reptile and not a fish.
The idea of a “rale living sarpint” having been killed within a short distance of the very burial-place of St. Patrick caused an extraordinary sensation of alarm among the country people. The most absurd rumours were freely circulated, and credited. One far-seeing clergyman preached a sermon, in which he cited this unfortunate snake as a token of the immediate commencement of the millennium; while another saw in it a type of the approach of the cholera morbus. Old prophecies were raked up, and all parties and sects, for once, united in believing that the snake foreshadowed “the beginning of the end,” though they very widely differed as to what the end was to be.
Some more practically-minded persons, however, subscribed a considerable sum of money, which they offered in rewards for the destruction of any other snakes that might be found in the district. And three more of the snakes were not long afterwards killed, within a few miles of the garden where they were liberated. The remaining two snakes were never clearly accounted for; but no doubt they also fell victims to the reward. No one who did not live in that part of the country at the time can imagine the wild rumours, among the more illiterate classes, on the appearance of those snakes; and the bitter feelings of angry indignation expressed by educated persons against the – very fortunately then unknown – person who had dared bring them to Ireland.
As always, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can add to this story.
1. Cleland wasn’t the first to try this. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing at the end of the 12th century, recorded that these experiments had been going on for centuries. 
 - Belfast News-Letter, 9 December 1831
 - Northern Whig, 22 November 1922

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Forteana in the Time of Cholera

Cholera came to Ireland in the spring of 1832. In June, as the disease raged through the country, the Dublin Evening Post reported that New Ross, County Wexford, one of the worst affected towns, had been destroyed – by a star.
On Tuesday afternoon the neighbourhood of Rathfarnham was thrown into some consternation, by the arrival of several men and boys in breathless haste from the mountains, with information that the Town of New Ross had been burned the previous night by the falling of a star, this they declared had been pronounced by the Priests as a manifestation of the vengeance of God, now showing itself by the scourge of the cholera.
These men each carried in his hand seven pieces of turf, they left a piece in seven houses, directing the inmates to burn them and repeat certain prayers so long as they lasted; they declared the information they brought had been conveyed across the country, as they were bringing it, each person going to seven houses, and starting a person from each to visit seven other houses at the next village.
The Police thinking there was something mysterious in all this, apprehended two of the men and conveyed them to Dublin, when they were examined at the Head Police Office, and as they evidently knew nothing more than they declared, and could give no reason for their going on so foolish an errand, they were discharged.
Some alarm was created in the minds of many persons, lest mischief should be concealed beneath this apparent folly, and considerable watchfulness was displayed in the neighbourhood during the night.
Whatever might have been the origin of this strange movement, it appears to have extended through the counties of Cork, Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny, Wicklow, and Dublin. A gentleman who left Cork on Monday states, that flying messengers were to be seen in all directions along the road; the story south of Carlow being, that a star had fallen and burned Buttevant – they also carried pieces of burned paper in place of turf. The Kilkenny Journal gives an account of the arrival of some of the messengers in that city late on Monday evening, carrying turf, and giving the same kind of warning that they gave near Dublin, but says nothing of a town having been burned – so that the story lost nothing by the carriage to Dublin.
Probably in a day or two we may hear the origin of all this; at present it is not known where the mission commenced.
- Dublin Evening Post, 14 June 1832

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Sea Serpent Shenanigans in 1850

In September 1850, Cork went sea serpent crazy. It was all a fabulous hoax, of course, and it began with the following letter [1].
Courtmasherry, 29th Aug. 1850.
Sir - The following particulars, the accuracy of which need not be questioned, will I doubt not interest many of your readers.
The different fishing establishments on the shores of this extensive bay, extending from the Old Head of Kinsale to the Seven Heads, have been within the last few days abundantly supplied with fish of every description, and the greatest activity prevails in availing of the bounty which has been thus sent to us literally in shoals. It has been noticed too, that some description of fish - haak for instance, have been captured further within the limits of the inner harbour than was ever known before. In fact, as I heard it observed the fish were literally leaping ashore.
These novel appearances, however, it was my lot to see fully accounted for yesterday. At about 1 o’clock A.M. when sailing in my yacht, with a slight breeze off shore, about two miles to the south of the beacon erected on “Barrels” rocks, one of the party of four gentlemen on board (Mr. B. of Bandon) drew attention towards the structure mentioned, with the interrogatory of “do you see anything queer about the Barrels?” In an instant the attention of all on board was rivitted on on an object which at first struck me as like the up-heaved thick end of a large mast, but which, as it was made out plainer, proved to be the head of some huge fish or monster. On bearing down towards the object, we could distinctly see, with the naked eye, what I can best describe as an enormous serpent without mane or fur or any like appendage. The portion of the body above the water and which appeared to be rubbing or scratching itself against the beacon, was fully thirty feet long and in diametre I should say about a fathom. With the aid of a glass it was observed that the eyes were of immense size, about nine inches across the ball,  and the upper part of the back appeared covered with a furrowed shell-like substance. We were now within rifle shot of the animal, and although some onboard exhibited pardonable nervousness at the suggestion, it was resolved to fire a ball at the under portion of the body, whenever the creature’s unwieldy evolutions would expose its vulnerable part. The instant the piece was discharged the monster rose as if impelled by a painful impulse to a height which may appear incredible - say at least 30 fathoms - and culminating with the most rapid motion, dived or dashed itself under water with a splash that absolutely stopped our breaths with amazement. In a few moments all disturbance of the water subsided, and the strange visitor evidently pursued his course to seaward. On coming up to the beacon we were gratified to find adhering to the supports numerous connected scaly masses, such as one would think would be rubbed from a creature “coating” or changing its old skin for a new one. These interesting objects can be seen at the Horse Rock Coast Guard Station, and will well repay a visit.
These particulars I have narrated in the clearest manner I am able, and if others, in other boats, who had not so good an opportunity of seeing the entire appearance of the animal as those in my boat had, should send you a more readable account of it, I pledge myself none will more strictly adhere to the facts.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
1. I was unable to access any issues of the Cork Constitution for 1850. Fortunately, the letter was reproduced in a number of newspapers, including the Cork Examiner.
Cork Examiner, 2 September 1850

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Meteor or Robot?

At 5:20pm on Tuesday, 18 January 1955, a witness (no name was given in the report) saw a “bright, silvery ball of light” moving quickly, in an easterly direction, across the sky over County Donegal [1]. It was about the size of an orange, and it reminded the witness of a Tilley light. “There was no trail as in the case of a shooting star and neither were there any rays of light shed around it.” The sighting lasted a “split second.”
That same evening, there were UFO reports from County Kildare and County Laois. According to the Irish Times: “Controversy has been caused in the midlands by the appearance in the sky on Tuesday evening of a brilliant disc which was seen by people living as far apart as Castledermot, Co. Kildare, and Portarlington, Leix. Some observers who have suggested that the disc was a flying saucer say that there were coloured streaks trailing from its base as it travelled slowly in an east-west direction.”
In fact, there were many UFO sightings across Scotland around the same time. While most of the witnesses saw a “ball of fire”, at 5:15pm, in Falkirk, a mother and daughter saw an object that had the shape of a flat fish and a tail made up of many brilliant coloured lights. The lights, said the mother, fascinated her.
A couple of weeks later, the Derry Journal reported that they had found some more witnesses in Donegal, including “some young ladies” who had become “overcome with fright” at the object’s “vividness.”
They also spoke to Mrs James Moore of Creenasmear in County Donegal, who saw a “bright, glowing light” pass over the area between 4:30pm and 5:00pm on that Tuesday. According to Mrs Moore, the object was “about the size of the mouth of a bucket and had a trail of fire as long as a telegraph pole.” It didn’t move in a straight line; it swooped and zig-zagged. And it didn’t move particularly fast.
Mrs Moore’s son, Charles, also noted the object’s strange swooping and zigzagging motion. Charles believed that the object was either a “damaged aeroplane or a robot.” Suspecting that it may have crashed on Beighy Hill - about two miles away - he set out the next morning to investigate. He found neither crashed aeroplane nor crashed robot.
1 The location of the sighting was not reported, but based on the Derry Journal's follow-up item it’s fair to say it was somewhere over County Donegal.
  • Derry Journal 28 January & 11 February 1955
  • Falkirk Herald, 22 January 1955
  • The Irish Times, 21 January 1955

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Black Puma Pelts for a Few Bawbees

Black panthers and pumas have been roaming Northern Ireland’s countryside since the mid-1990s. They’re very real, say the authorities, and were released by a mysterious collector. He’s been at this for some time, if there’s any truth in this story from 1937.
The Whig’s editor questioned the story because there were no reports of the cat’s “depredations.” Today, when we may have as many as seven big cats here, there are very few reports of depredations. That doesn’t stop the PSNI and the USPCA believing the cats are still out there.
It was only a few days ago that we heard rumour of a Black Puma having been shot in Co. Armagh – an incredulous rumour be it said, but curiosity caused us to make some inquiries. The story is that the animal was shot out in the open, then skinned and the skin sent off to Glasgow, from whence came the determination of species and a certain cash payment for a very fine pelt – something in the neighbourhood of three pounds.
So far so good – very good for him who slayed the animal – but the point arises as to how an American wild cat came to be wandering about in Co. Armagh, and why none of its depredations had been reported? We know there is a Black Puma in the Belfast Zoo, and a more wicked looking creature it would be difficult to find, though at the same time he is not unhandsome. Being safely behind bars he could not be the Co. Armagh animal, and nobody in the county had ever heard of anyone keeping a captive B.P. as a pet. However, there he was, but, strange to relate, there are no stories of sheep killing or dog slaughter: a puma has to live, and one may be quite sure he would speedily and frequently find his prey. Well, he simply did not, and the identity of the animal (unfortunately now unsupported by any tangible evidence) topple to the ground. There is little doubt that the victim was simply a good old black tomcat which had gone wild, as this undependable feline frequently does. On such occasions cats become larger, fiercer, and of finer coat, especially in winter; it is merely a case of reversion to type.
We have known of many such cats – big handsome fellows, living chiefly on field mice and birds. There were a couple of which we retain a lively recollection that lived in the innermost recesses of a store in a fishmonger’s shop. Curiously enough, they never ate the fish or trussed fowl, preferring to exist by their own prowess among the rat and mice population; pretty good proof of their reversion.
What is difficult to understand in the case of the Armagh “Black Puma” is any Scot parting with quite a few “bawbees” for the pelt of an Irish tomcat! Strange, but seemingly true.
  • Belfast Telegraph, 25 September 2003
  • Northern Whig, 12 March 1937