Thursday, 22 February 2018

Fitzgerald's Fabulous Folbane Encounter

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the part of Donegal that Michael Fitzgerald called home (go to the Glenveagh National Park website to get an idea of the locale) was prone to extreme weather events. Lightning strikes that tore up the hills and torrents of rain that washed away mountainsides were not uncommon, according to Fitzgerald’s records.
But the events of 6 August 1868 surpassed anything he had experienced before. In fact, they were beyond what most people would have experienced before. The members of the Royal Meteorological Society were intrigued, and an account of Fitzgerald’s fabulous encounter was read at their meeting of 20 March 1878.
“Notes on the occurrence of Globular Lightning and Waterspouts in Co. Donegal, Ireland.” By M. FITZGERALD (Communicated by ROBERT H. SCOTT, F.R.S.)
The following is my experience of Waterspouts and Lightning:- On the 6th of August, 1868, this neighbourhood being free from the dense black clouds that hung over the mountains of Glenswilly and Glendoan, I went up the latter glen to note anything worthy of observation. On arriving at Meenawilligan, the sky was so black over Bintwilly (Bin Tuile, the height of the floods), where lightning and thunder were following each other in rapid succession, that I turned homewards in case the rain should overtake me. When I reached Folbane, on looking behind, I noticed a globe of fire in the air floating leisurely along in the direction of Church Hill. After passing the crown of the ridge, where I first noticed it, it descended gradually into the valley, keeping all the way about the same distance from the surface of the land, until it reached the stream between Folbane and Derora, about 300 yards from where I stood. It then struck the land and re-appeared in about a minute, drifted along the surface for about 200 yards, and again disappeared in the boggy soil, reappearing about 20 perches further down the stream; again it moved along the surface, and again sunk, this time into the brow of the stream, which it flew across and finally lodged in the opposite brow, leaving a hole in the peat bank, where it buried itself.
If it had left no marks behind, I confess that, as I had never seen anything of the kind before, I should hesitate to describe its movements, which surprised me much at the time, but the marks which it left behind of its course and power surprised me more.
I at once examined its course, and found a hole about 20 feet square, where it first touched the land, with pure peat turned out on the lea as if it had been cut out with a huge knife. This was only a minute’s work, and, as well as I could judge, it did not occupy fully that time. It next made a drain about 20 perches in length and 4 feet deep, afterwards ploughing up the surface about 1 foot deep, and again tearing away the bank of the stream about 5 perches in length and 5 feet deep, and then hurling the immense mass into the bed of the stream, it flew into the opposite peaty brink. From its appearance till it buried itself could not have been more than 20 minutes, during which it travelled leisurely, as if floating, with an undulating motion through the air and land over one mile. It appeared at first to be a bright red globular ball of fire, about 2 feet in diameter, but its bulk became rapidly less, particularly after each dip in the soil, so that it appeared not more than 3 inches in diameter when it finally disappeared. The sky overhead was clear at that time, but about one hour afterwards it became as dark as midnight. Thunder and lightning accompanied the darkness, and such torrents of rain fell as I have never seen fall before or since, except on the 5th of August this year (1877), when another waterspout fell on the village of Church Hill. On the 20th June, 1877, two waterspouts fell near Bintwilly, which is 1,112 feet above sea level. From time immemorial this hill has been famous for waterspouts, as its name indicates – The Mountain of Floods. Flying clouds passed by it till about 11 a.m. After this they settled upon its summit, and gradually darkened until the mountain became obscured in pitch darkness, lit up occasionally by lightning, succeeded by thunder.
About 12.30 a vivid flash of lightning struck and tore up the hill-side for a considerable distance between the Bintwilly and Meenirroy road. This was immediately followed by a loud peal of thunder, and succeeded by such a torrent of rain that the flood came rushing abreast down along the whole mountain side about 6 feet high, carrying everything before it. The rain lasted only 15 minutes, and then the sky and the mountain became as clear as ever. The brightness was, however, of short duration, for the clouds soon collected again over and around Bintwilly; but this time the darkest clouds (some of which were as black as ink) rested over Glendoan until about 1 o’clock p.m., when a flash of lightning tore up the solid rocky bed of Crologhy River. Thunder and torrents of rain followed immediately. The rain of the first waterspout was confined to the south side of Bintwilly, while that of the second extended from the summit of Glenveagh Mountains to Bintwilly. The area of the first rainfall was about half a mile square; the second followed the south side of the mountain range through a space about three miles long and a quarter of a mile wide. The second waterspout lasted about 20 minutes; and both in the course of 35 minutes destroyed over £2,000 worth of county property on the roads.
Fitzgerald, M. (1878) Notes on the Occurrence of Globular Lightning and Waterspouts in County Donegal, Ireland, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 4 (27), 160 - 161

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Dark Days and a Phantom Town

Some Fortean events are memorable because of the reactions they provoked. Fear. Terror. Wonder. Awe. Confusion. Disbelief. Loose bowels.
With that in mind, I believe that the following events are worth remembering, not because they are the most mystifying of Fortean incidents - they’re obviously not, all have been readily explained - but because of how they made the witnesses feel.


On Saturday, 6 August 1927, just before 11am, a strange darkness fell over the town of Coleraine. It had been a sunny morning, but very quickly, homes and businesses were resorting to “artificial illumination.” 
The darkness had a strange quality. The town’s older residents had never seen anything like it before. And though the town was never in total darkness, and the incident lasted only 10 minutes, it had quite an effect on the people of Coleraine. According to The Derry Journal: “The strange occurrence, which was the subject of general conversation, greatly disturbed many people, some imagining that ‘The Last Day” was at hand.”
Some thunder and heavy rain brought the event to a close. 
It would be easy to mock the good people of Coleraine. But a few years later …
Sunday, 16 January 1955, had been a “slightly foggy” day in London until “a belt of darkness” descended and plunged some parts of the city into “pitch black” darkness. It was so dark that “people caught in the unlit streets groped their way along fences and walls.”
Some women queuing outside East Croydon Bus Station screamed when the darkness reached its peak. A woman carrying a baby dropped to her knees and prayed. While outside Croydon Town Hall, a man was shouting: “This is the end of the world.”
There was nothing to worry about, of course. According to the Weather Bureau, it was “a cloud composed of London smoke which became trapped between a northerly wind and a south-easterly. The temperature was such that it descended in a dense cloud, between a mile and two miles across.”
They added: “Such a concentration of smoke, although not unique, is a rare phenomenon.”
Like the earlier Coleraine incident, the London darkness lasted about 10 minutes.


At 3pm on Sunday, 2 August 1908, a small town appeared on the sea, about 6 -7 miles from Ballyconnelly, in Connemara. 
Individual houses could be discerned. There was a mix of sizes and architectural styles. Some houses had been “dismantled,” leading one journalist to opine: “ … as if even this strange land of sunshine on the crest of the western ocean had been the scene of misery and devastation.”
The town remained visible until 6pm.
Only a handful of people saw the town appear. But by the time it disappeared, hundreds lined the shore. And though many regarded the phenomenon “as the reflections in the water of some city far away,” just as many were disappointed that the town had not come to stay.
“The crowd gazing anxiously out on the ocean from the shore wondered if their eyes had not betrayed them, but they had all seen the vision in the broad daylight only a few miles from the shore, and they regarded the legend of ‘Hy-Brazil’ as no longer an imaginative story from the region of fables.”
The Belfast Weekly News, 13 August 1908
The Derry Journal, 8 August 1927
The Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 17 January 1955

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Random Fortean Stuff

I laboured long and hard over this introduction. But I have flu and I’m eager to get back to feeling sorry for myself. So, here’s some random Fortean stuff:


On 1 September 1854, Hugh McCartney was working in a field near the townland of Duntybrian, in County Derry, when he saw an object fluttering out of the sky. He thought it was a white butterfly and watched its progress until it landed. “To his astonishment it proved to be a white stone, one ounce in weight, and the exact shape of a boy’s kite.”
According to the report in the Limerick and Clare Examiner, the stone looked like flint but may have been calcined gypsum, and the markings on the “kite” were “like what might be done with a chisel, or by the long continuous action of water.”
Limerick and Clare Examiner, 6 September 1854


In August 1883, while demolishing a house on Bishop Street in Derry, workers found a hand hidden between the ceiling and the roof. Though the hand had been “torn from the wrist,” it  “was in an excellent state of preservation” and was “evidently that of a female of good position.” According to The Belfast Weekly News, the nails on the hand were “three-eighths of an inch longer than an ordinary finger nail.”
And on Tuesday, 8 May 1906, a policeman found a woman’s hand in Belfast’s Ormeau Park. According to The Dublin Daily Express, “Enquiries are proceeding into the matter, but there is no explanation forthcoming as yet.”
The Belfast Weekly News, 18 August 1883
The Dublin Daily Express, 9 May 1906


On the evening of Wednesday, 31 October 1906, Eliza Gillespie (12) and Willie Thompson (10) claim that, while playing “in the vicinity of East Twin Island,” they saw a policeman kill himself. They said he took of his tunic and wrapped it around a large stone, hung it from his neck with a piece of cord and walked into the water, where he disappeared. 
The area was searched immediately but no body was found; and enquiries at police stations failed to find anyone unaccounted for. 
The Irish Independent, 3 November 1906


In the current issue of Phenomena Magazine (available free at, Cormac Strain reports on the Legend Seekers' investigation of an alleged UFO crash in the Curlew Mountains, near the County Roscommon village of Boyle, in May 1996. 

The article, The Star That Fell, is well worth a look. And if you’re interested in reading more, try Conspiracy of Silence: UFOs in Ireland, by Dermot Butler and Carl Nally, or Paranormal Ireland by Dara de Faoite. Both books have chapters on the Boyle incident.
Phenomena Magazine, December 2017 (Issue 104)

Sunday, 7 January 2018

New Year Clear Out!

I thought I’d begin 2018 with a bit of a clear out.
Since beginning this blog, I have accumulated a pile of news items that, though interesting, I haven’t been able to use on the blog. Most of these stories ended up in the pile for one of three reasons: they weren’t really Fortean (even though I have adopted quite a broad definition for the blog); they didn’t happen in Ireland; or they were just too short to publish as standalone posts (Fortean Ireland may be free, but I like to give value for money).
Anyway, I feel that most of these stories are too good to waste. So, here are two from the pile. I hope you enjoy them.


On a November day in 1945, on a beach near Angry, County Donegal, a small child found a corked bottle. It had a message inside:
“This is a note. I hope it will be picked up by someone so that they will let my mother know. It is from her son who is at present aboard HMS Hood. They are coming fast mother. I have no time to write anymore. Good-bye mother.”
The note was signed: “Donal McDonald, Ben Becula, Craitoney, South Uist.”
Sinking of HMS Hood by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt
The HMS Hood had been destroyed at the Battle of the Denmark Strait in 1941. The loss of the Hood was a major blow to the British war effort, and the cost in lives was immense. Of the 1418 men on board that day, all but three perished.
So when Donal McDonald’s note was passed to local woman Bella Boyle, it must have weighed heavily on her that this note was from one of those terrified sailors – a sailor who had reached out to his mother in his final moments.
She immediately sent a copy to the address given by the sailor.
Given the nature of the message, Mrs Boyle may have expected a reply from a very grateful Mrs McDonald. But she didn’t get one.
And she never would. A journalist, intrigued by the story, travelled to the small island in the Outer Hebrides and discovered that, though there were four McDonalds living on Ben Becula, none of them were connected to a Donal McDonald. In fact, no one knew of a Donal McDonald.
Who - or what - was behind this cruel trick was never discovered.
Belfast News-Letter, 20 November 1945
The Londonderry Sentinel, 20 November 1945


Ghosts don’t usually surrender, but that’s exactly what happened near Kilkenny in 1883.
In January of that year, a ghost began haunting a stretch of road on the outskirts of the town, frightening people and horses alike. But the sudden appearance of a ghost made some of the locals very suspicious.
And so, one night, a “party of young men” set out to solve the mystery.
They had no luck that first night, but on the following night their luck changed – as did the ghost’s. They found the spook at its usual haunt, appropriately robed in ghostly white. And as the men - who were all armed with stout sticks - approached, the ghost tried to scare them off with a couple of “woos.”
Sensing – quite correctly – that these men were immune to “woos”, the ghost made a break for it. But after a bit of a chase – three quarters of a mile, to be exact - the very exhausted ghost surrendered.
And what was the ghost? It was just a man looking for a job; a man who believed that the best way to get a job was to scare the current jobholder into retirement.
The “ghost” was very lucky: he was unmolested and the mob let him go instead of handing him over to the police.
Usually, though, these things don’t end well. For example, in 1875, in Hampton Wick, a fifteen-year-old shop boy called Frank Williams was sentenced to one month in prison with hard labour after he was unmasked as the stone-throwing ghost that had plagued a local shop owner.
And in 1926, an ex-soldier received multiple stab wounds after he covered himself with a white tablecloth and walked up to the sentry on duty at a Royal Marines base in Deal, Kent.
Belfast Telegraph, 30 September 1875
Dublin Daily Express, 19 January 1883
Larne Times, 20 November 1926

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

No Doubting the Dowsers

The UK press got very excited recently when it was revealed that most of the UK’s water companies use water diviners to find leaks. It prompted Christopher Hassall of Leeds University to say: “This isn’t a technique, it’s witchcraft” and “The statutory bodies need to be stepping in. It is analogous to using homeopathy and reiki on the NHS. These are unproven practices that waste time and money.”
Seemingly, only Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water “did not rely on esoteric energies to find their leaks.”
How times have changed, here in the province.
Back in the 1950s, those responsible for providing water for homes and schools - and even hospitals – in rural parts of Northern Ireland would often employ water diviners.
We had a lot of faith in their abilities. For example, in May 1953, when a sub-committee reported to Derry Rural Council that the water supply to council owned houses in Edenreagh had dried up and that their engineers had drilled three wells without finding water, the council recommended that “the services of a water diviner be sought.”
Such was the strength of our faith in the diviners, that when those digging a well failed to strike water, it was rarely considered to be the fault of the diviner who had divined its location. In September 1951, at a meeting of the Tyrone Education Committee, when it was reported that, despite following the water diviner’s directions to the letter, the contractor had failed to strike water after sinking a well to 43 feet - by the diviner’s “calculations,” he should have struck water at 36 feet, the committee recommended that the contractor continue digging.
And in August of 1951, contractors working on behalf of Cookstown Rural Council had sunk a well to a depth of 70 feet – twice as deep as the diviner had specified, without finding water. The diviner complained that the contractor had dug the well two feet from where he had been told to dig it. So, at the 35 feet mark, the contractor began tunnelling. Still he found no water. The council’s solution? Keep digging.
Not everyone shared this faith in the diviners, however. At a meeting of the Dungannon Regional Committee in August 1939, the committee were trying to establish who was to blame for the waterless 60 feet deep well at the new primary school in Ballynahaye. Mr Leebody said the contractor was to blame because he had sunk the well, at a cost of £102, instead of boring it, which would have cost  £24. But Mr Busby blamed the diviner, and the punishment, he believed, should be severe. “I wouldn’t give you much for divining,” he said. “There should be an Act of Parliament decreeing that all sorcerers and such like should be burned. I don’t believe that any man can divine where there is water, because it is only savouring of witchcraft.”
But, at the end of this meeting, despite Busby’s feelings on the matter and Leebody expressing that “the whole procedure in connection with the well had been irregular,” the committee decided that, regardless of who was to blame, another diviner should be hired.
Why this strange devotion to these waterfinders? Why, as the Rev. David Graham asked the County Armagh Education in June 1954, “in these days of modern science, is it still necessary to employ a water diviner?”
Cost, Graham was told: geologists could find water, but diviners were cheaper. But is that accurate? Is that the only reason?
What if an organisation had the funds to hire a geologist and a diviner?
This was the scenario in Tyrone in September 1951, when the West Tyrone Hospital Committee was wrestling with the problem of the hospital’s inadequate water supply. According to the diviner they had hired, there was spring water, at a depth of 30 feet, in the ground of the hospital. Ballcocks, said the geologist who had surveyed the area.
The committee favoured the opinion of the dowser and instructed that digging should begin at the site he had identified.
When January came and they still hadn’t found water, rather than cut their losses, swallow their pride and bring back the geologist, the committee decided that the best course of action was to hire “one of the very best water diviners in Ireland,” Archdeacon Pratt from Enniskillen.
I have no idea if he was successful. If he was, the committee kept it to themselves.
  • The Derry Journal, 4 May 1953
  • The Guardian, 21 November 2017
  • The Londonderry Sentinel, 24 January 1952
  • The Mid-Ulster Mail, 12 August 1939, 18 August & 29 September 1951
  • The Northern Whig, 19 September 1951
  • The Portadown Times, 18 June 1954
  • The Telegraph, 21 November 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017

A Profane Spook

In 1906, a “spook” was entertaining the people of Clonmel, County Tipperary. Even though it caused quite a stir and nobody seemed to know who was responsible for the “extraordinary and mystery manifestations,” no one was pushing the supernatural angle too hard.
The first report comes from the Irish Independent of Tuesday, 29 May 1906.
Particulars of a series of extraordinary and mystery manifestations which have set the inhabitants of Clonmel all agog for some time are sent to us by our correspondent in that Tipperary town, who states that the singular occurrences which he relates are at present the subject of investigation by the local police, who have so far failed to find a solution to the uncanny affair.
The mystery, says our correspondent, concerns the residents in two business houses adjoining in one of the chief thoroughfares in Clonmel, and it manifests itself in rapping at the walls and the use of “terrible language” – of which separate complaints have been made to the police by both parties – together with pilfering, upsetting of goods and household fittings, locking and unlocking of doors, and other inexplicable happenings.
Prior to these manifestations anonymous letters of an extraordinary nature were received daily by the residents alluded to, the missives being dropped through the letter-box into the hall. A watch was kept on one occasion for over three hours by one of the house holders, and nothing occurred; but no sooner had the watcher left the hall than a note was slipped through the letter-box stating: “There is no use in your watching; you won’t catch me.”
On another occasion parties of police were stationed, unknown to one another, in the two houses at the same time, and some extraordinary things came under their notice. They both heard the rapping and unspeakably foul language uttered in a disguised female voice.
Immediately after they left a mysterious letter was dropped in through the letter-box giving a detailed account of the conversation that had passed between the owner of the house and the police, while the same female voice bade the R.I.C. men welcome when they came and good-bye when they left, and inquired in a mocking tone why he did not ask them to have tea, having kept them so long.
Complaints are continually being made of goods in shops being pitched about, furniture overturned, beds tossed, and water thrown on them. Meat is also taken out of the safe and only the bones left. It is altogether an extraordinary and most unpleasant affair, and it is hoped that the mystery will be soon and satisfactorily cleared up.
Two days later, the Irish Independent brought its readers up-to-date with the latest goings-on.
The Clonmel “spook” mystery, the story of which was told in Tuesday’s “Independent,” still continues to excite extraordinary interest in that town. On Tuesday night hundreds of people blocked the street where the “haunted” houses are situated, and a large force of police, in charge of District Inspector Tweedy and Head Constable Brady, were on duty up to a late hour moving them on. As already stated, the trouble takes the form of a loud rapping on the diving wall between two houses, and the use of exceedingly bad language, in a disguised female voice.
In addition to the pilfering of the meat beforementioned, it is said that soap was found in the kettle, and salt in the teapot; beds that had been made up were immediately afterwards found tossed and water poured over them; the owner’s day shirt was thrust into a ewer of water while he was in bed; statues of saints and pious pictures were removed from brackets and walls and defiled – all this on the authority of the people themselves. The anonymous letters, which, as previously stated, have been received, have been handed over to the police, who are worked off their feet in connection with the matter, and have failed, so far, to find a clue to the origin of the strange occurrences.
In early June 1906, the police claimed that they had solved the mystery. However, they said nothing about who was behind the shenanigans - or how or why they did it. 
And about two weeks after the police “solved” the mystery, the “ghost” delivered its final letter to one of the house owners.
“I am sorry for all the trouble I caused you, I beg your pardon, and I promise I’ll never do it again.
“Yours truly, The Ghost.”
The Independent, on printing the letter, commented: “We fear there are some clever practical jokers in Clonmel.”
  • Irish Independent, 29 & 31 May and 5 & 15 June 1906

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Ireland's Consulting Witch Detectives

Historically, being a witch in Ireland has always required a certain amount of versatility. You had to be good with animals as well as people, and as adept at curses as you were at cures. 
And you had to be able to solve crimes.
In 1916, PJ McCorry sought the help of a witch when his local police proved incapable of providing either clues or suspects in the short time they devoted to investigating a burglary at his home.
The thief had taken £50 while the farmer laboured in the fields in Aghadalgan, near Crumlin, County Antrim. It was a significant sum, and McCorry wanted it back.
So, he travelled to Belfast to meet a witch (unfortunately, her name is not given in the article). At their meeting, she not only produced an image of the thief on a mirror, she also told McCorry that his money would soon be returned to him.
On the morning after McCorry’s meeting with the witch, the local postman returned from his round to find that someone had left a parcel on a window ledge at the post office. The parcel was addressed to PJ McCorry. Inside was £45 10s.
Despite getting most of his money back, McCorry wasn’t entirely satisfied. But at another meeting, the witch reassured him that the balance would soon be repaid.
Regardless of whether or not McCorry got the rest of his money (I haven’t been able to find a follow-up), it was still a good result. This isn’t always the case, though.
In May 1867, when two dresses and a jacket were stolen from Margaret Martin of Lisburn, County Antrim, Martin employed the services of Moses Wilson instead of contacting the police. It didn’t end well.
The following exchange took place in Belfast Police Court on 19 August 1867.
Mr Orme - Why did you go to him and not to the police?
Plaintiff - Because it was said he could do such things (laughter).
Mr Orme - That he could work miracles?
Plaintiff - Yes; I asked him what he would charge. I said if he would cause the parties to carry my clothes back that took them I would give him 10s.
Mr Orme - That was a rise (laughter).
Plaintiff - I gave him a shilling, as part payment, on the 31st July. That day week I gave him 6s. 6d. He then asked me if I had any daughters, and if they could write. Having answered that I have two, he got them to write their names, for which he gave them threepence each. Three weeks after he went to Hillsborough. I inquired about the detainment of the clothes, when he told me that he would have to touch the pins on which the clothes hung (Laughter).
Mr Orme - Had he a staff or a wand in his hand? (Laughter.)
Mr Orme (to prisoner) - What object had you in getting the daughters’ names, or in touching the pins where the clothes hung - to make the persons return them?
Prisoner - That is a thing which I could not do, nor any man on earth (laughter).
Mr Orme (to plaintiff’s daughter) - I wonder that you, an intelligent girl, should allow your mother to be imposed on by a scamp.
So, Margaret Martin got conned. She lost some clothes and some money, and she was humiliated in court. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.
In August 1807, a cow kept by Alexander and Elizabeth Montgomery was producing milk that couldn’t be churned into butter. Local gossip helped convince Elizabeth that the cow had been bewitched.
A number of “spells” were recommended and tried. At one point, twelve local women encircled the cow and blessed it. Nothing worked.
The family were told to contact Mary Butters, a witch living in Carnmoney, County Antrim, who had a bit of a reputation. Butters arrived and tried a number of “cures.” Again, nothing worked. Unperturbed, she announced that, as soon as it became dark, she would perform a spell “that would not fail.”
Seemingly, this spell "that would not fail" would compel the witch responsible for the bewitchment to come to the Montgomery house - in her true form. It would require Alexander Montgomery and another man to wait with the cow in the cowshed - armed with a knife and a Bible - while Butters performed the spell in the house with Elizabeth; the Montgomery’s son, David; and Elizabeth’s friend Margaret Lee.
But, having spent the night, uneventfully, in the cowshed without being called by Butters, Alexander returned to the house, where he found his wife and son dead, and Margaret Lee dying. Only Butters survived.
At the inquest, the Coroner said: “It is the opinion of the Jury, that the deceased Elizabeth Montgomery came by her death from suffocation, occasioned by a woman named Mary Butters, in her making use of some noxious ingredients, in the manner of a charm, to recover a cow.”
Margaret and David, according to the Coroner, had died in the same way.
  • Ballymena Weekly Telegraph, 5 February 1916
  • Caledonian Mercury, 29 August 1808
  • Dublin Daily Express, 21 August 1867
  • Larne Times, 3 May 1951