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

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Baffling Lights at the Boxer's House

The following story appeared in the Northern Whig on 30 March 1936. I like it because, though it's no Amityville Horror, I feel it perfectly illustrates the Irish determination to get out there and experience the weirdness - whatever it is - as it's happening. 
Aughamullan, which is on the shores of Lough Neagh, and the most populous townland in Dungannon Union, has become a centre of attraction by reason of the fact that in a house, now vacant, mysterious lights appear nightly.
When a “Northern Whig” representative visited the farmstead neighbours spoke with awe of the strange happenings.
James Herron, the nearest resident, said the former owner, Michael Quinn, who resided alone, visited his house about a fortnight ago and got a bag of turf which he carried home. Mr Herron’s son, Patrick, accompanied the old man, who was suffering from a severe cold, to the end of the laneway leading to the house. Next morning, when passing, he heard moans from inside the door of the farmhouse. He found Quinn lying, still clutching the bag of turf, and the old man died a few hours later. After the funeral lights appeared nightly at the two front windows, and seemed to move from the kitchen to the room and back again. He had seen the lights in the middle of the night.
At this point the story was taken up by Bernard McStravock, the local blacksmith, who is also a neighbour. Bernard said upwards of 400 people now assembled nightly to watch the lights. On Friday night several young men volunteered to search the house. As they approached the lights went out and a thorough search inside was made without discovering the cause. When they went back to the road the lights again appeared, and were brighter than ever.
A passing motorist put forward the theory that the lights were the reflex from the lighted windows of neighbouring houses, and all windows were blinded with meal bags, but it made no difference.
McStravock added that he was not personally uneasy about the lights, but the womenfolk were becoming alarmed. Quinn, he said, was a sturdily built man, had always loved a “scrap,” and had been in the ring in several parts of England and Scotland in his earlier days.
McStravock and others accompanied our representative to the house, which is mud-walled with thatched roof. The furniture is still there, and the kitchen dresser contains the usual quantity of delph and ornaments.
On Saturday night over 500 people again congregated at the little farm, which contains four-and-a-half acres. At 10pm, a bright light suddenly appeared in the kitchen window and resembled a spotlight. It was seen to move to the other front window, suggesting someone going about the rooms. Neighbours again thoroughly searched the building without result.
  • Northern Whig, 30 March 1936

Thursday, 5 January 2017

A Phantom Plane Crash

At about midday on Thursday, 31 October 1935, Mr A Moore, of Hillside, the Rock, Newcastle, County Down, was at home when he spotted an aeroplane flying towards the coastal town from the direction of St John’s Point. He pointed it out to his daughter. And as they watched together, it crashed into the sea.
According to the Northern Whig: “Suddenly it quivered twice, rose, and turned towards Newcastle as though the pilot was seeking to gain height to reach land, and then abruptly nose-dived into the gale-lashed waters.”
Mr Moore called out to his son. They examined the sea through binoculars, but could not see the aeroplane. Mr Moore then contacted the police.
The police contacted Killough coastguard station, as it was closest to where the plane appeared to have crashed, who contacted St John’s Lighthouse; but they hadn’t seen the crash. Eventually, the volunteer-in-charge at Newcastle coastguard station was contacted. He ordered out the lifeboat.
According to the volunteer-in-charge: “It was out for more than five hours, returning at 6:20pm. Not the least sign of any wreckage or anything else was found.”
Despite a gale and heavy seas, the lifeboat was aided in its search by two Scottish fishing boats. And though they searched until it was dark, they too found nothing.
Mr Moore and his children weren’t the only witnesses to the crash. According to an account received by Killough coastguard station, the plane appeared to have come from Belfast, and passed within a few miles of their station. However, no one at the station saw or heard it.
It was the same at St John’s Lighthouse. No one there saw or heard the plane, despite two of the crew being at the top of the lighthouse cleaning the windows at the time of the crash.
In some accounts, the witnesses reported seeing smoke and flames before the plane crashed.
Unfortunately, there’s no record of where these other witnesses were positioned. When a coastguard made house-to-house enquiries along the shore, from St John’s Point to Ballykinlar, no one recalled seeing or hearing the plane – or the crash.
The day after the crash, an aerial search was carried out. Nothing was found. And a police investigation found there were no missing aircraft.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a simple case of misidentification, but there were a number of eerily similar incidents in the 1930s.
At 3:40pm on Wednesday, 10 June 1931, the sound of a struggling aeroplane engine drew the attention of holidaymakers in Poole, Dorset. After it had their attention, it crashed into the sea. A number of witnesses reported the incident to the harbour master, who later said: “All the eye-witnesses were positive that the machine actually entered the sea. I at once went by speed boat to the spot they indicated, and searched a wide area. I only abandoned the attempt to trace the ‘plane when the heavy seas began to swamp the boat. I found no wreckage at all. The machine was a two-seater biplane, and was meeting with very heavy weather when it was seen from the beach.” Following the search, the aerodromes were contacted; but no aircraft were missing.
 At 2:30pm on Wednesday, 14 October 1936, two men reported seeing an aeroplane dive into the North Sea, about 1 ½ miles from the village of Lybster, in Caithness, Scotland. A search of the area was carried out by boat, but no wreckage or evidence of a crash was found. As well as the sea search, Wick coastguards contacted the Scottish aerodromes, but all of their aircraft were accounted for.
On 29 October 1937, a Brighton publican watched as an aeroplane in flames dived into the sea, about three miles south of the Palace Pier, and disappeared “in a cloud of smoke.” He took a boat to where he believed the plane entered the water. He did find an oil patch. Subsequent checks by Shoreham Airport failed to find any missing aircraft.
An incident on Thursday, 15 September 1932, was a little stranger. The crew of the St Nicholas Lightship, based off Lowestoft, Sussex, saw a plane come down in the North Sea. According to the master of the lightship, the plane sat on the water for a time with its engines running before it exploded. The explosion was followed by the appearance of two white lights.
A lifeboat and a number of tugs arrived and carried out a search of the area, but nothing was found. Needless to say, no aircraft were reported missing.
  • Belfast News-Letter, 11 June 1931, 15 September 1932, 15 October 1936 & 10 October 1937
  • Northern Whig, 1 November 1935