Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

In May 1925, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to Belfast. After visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Dark Hedges and getting wrote-off in Fibber Magee’s [1], Doyle gave the first of two lectures at the Ulster Hall. 
The following account is taken from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 14 May [2].
The Best Gift of All
“The New Revelation” was the title of a lecture delivered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before a large audience in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, last night.
The Rev. Canon R. W. Seaver presided, and explained that he was there as a seeker after truth, and spoke for himself only, and not for any church or body. Personally he had never attended a seance in his life, but he believed that the great enemy of modern life was not Spiritualism but materialism. (Applause.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was given a hearty reception on rising to speak, said that Spiritualism was by all odds the most the most important question to-day, and proceeded to explain how he came to take an active part in it. He first took it up in 1886, and during 38 years he had never ceased to read and investigate the subject. During the last nine years he and his wife had devoted almost the whole of their time to its study. His experience in thinking out detective work had enabled him to deal with many rascally camp followers.
He left Edinburgh University an agnostic, believing in the superiority of matter. Shortly after he started practice as a doctor his best patient asked him to come to seances he held. He went, stating frankly, that he had no belief in the thing and what he saw appeared childish and crude. But it arrested his attention and he began to read about the matter both for and against it. He mentioned a few of the great names who believed in it. It was impossible to put them all down as insane or rogues. He gradually found out that those who opposed the subject usually had never been to a seance to investigate it.
Altogether he had collected the names of about 100 professors at universities who had subscribed to the existence of psychical power. Some endorsed the phenomena, and some saw as well the religious implications. He could not see the meaning of it all.
When the war came the whole world was saying, “Where are our boys who went forth and disappeared? Are they still individualities? Are they alive, and what sort of life is it they are leading?” No clergyman or scientist could answer.
It was then, said Sir Arthur, he began to understand the futility of the Spiritualistic phenomena; they were only signals. It was as if there came a knock at the door and they discussed the knock without trying to find out who was knocking; as if they sat round discussing a ring on a telephone bell without attempting to take down the receiver.
The pattern was becoming clear, he continued, and he next described messages received through automatic writing from four young soldiers who were dead by a lady who visited his house. He watched carefully to make sure that there was no fraud or self-deception, and, finally finding none, decided that he would be a moral coward if he did not believe. The difference between believing and knowing, he added, was a great thing.
He and his wife decided to bring across to the race of men the message that was so important that beside it politics and economics sank into insignificance. It involved breaking up their home, dislocating their lives, and interrupting his literary career, but he never regretted the course he had taken.
Proceeding, he narrated certain experiences in Spiritualism. He told how his son came back a year after his death. He (the speaker) was at Southsea. A Mr. Powell, a Spiritualist, visited him, and with three friends there in the evening they tied Mr. Powell up with a rope, so that he could not move, in a corner of the room. Then they turned out the light.
He explained why physical seances were held in the dark. There was a material, he said, which was the basis of spirit phenomena, known as ectoplasm, which emanated from all people in the form of vapour. A medium was one who had a greater amount of ectoplasm than others. But ectoplasm was soluble in light.
Suddenly, went on Sir Arthur, there came from the dark his son’s voice and spoke to him of a thing known only to himself and his wife. The others present substantiated what had taken place. If they could not substantiate a thing by the evidence of people in the room, how could they substantiate any fact.
He related the true story of two boys on the South Coast of Australia who went out in a yacht and were never seen again. At a seance not long afterwards a medium went into a trance, which meant that his soul left his body for a space, so that another tenant might come, and one of the boys, through the medium, told the father that they had been drowned and that his brother had been eaten by a shark of a most unusual kind. Later, near Geelong, an unusual kind of shark was caught by fishers, and on being cut open was found to contain a watch and studs and some other small articles identified as those of the boy in question.
“What is the good of trying to explain the thing,” said Sir Arthur, “except that the boy did come back and tell his message through the medium.”
The real importance of Spiritualism for them, he continued, was that by getting into touch with higher spirits even than their dear dead ones Spiritualism gave them something more solid than faith. To get into touch with higher knowledge that explained the ordinations of God Almighty and the fate that awaited them, that was the pinnacle of Spiritualism.
Learning from messages he told them what they knew of death. Death was pleasant, like sinking into a sweet sleep; the illness before was often painful. On the other side those who loved them were drawn to receive them. Every man had a second body, an ethereal body, like the one he now had, with the same mind and character. He was first of all taken to a place of rest, where he passed a period in coma to give him strength to take up the new life.
The world there was like the world here reproduced on a higher plane, and each one lived with those most congenial to him. It was not what they believed but what they had done and what they were that determined their place in that world. If one died an old man, one became rejuvenated and a child, grew up to normal manhood.
That world, however, was not the final heaven. Everything was graduated, until ultimately they came to the final blaze of glory beyond the imagination. As they got higher desires they passed on until they reached them.
God was infinitely kinder than they had ever imagined. The majority of people, leaving out saints and criminals, passed on straight to that extraordinary happiness.
In the course of remarks on Christianity, Sir Arthur said that the New Testament was crammed with Spiritualism. Christ was the greatest of all psychics. All the gifts of the modern medium St. Paul took as signs of saintliness.
In conclusion, he said that death when they did not know where they were going was dismal and bleak. But once they knew they had no fear. Death was a glorious and beautiful thing. The best gift life had for them was the last gift of all. (Applause.)
The Chairman said that the speaker had given them a new idea of God. Spiritualism was largely Christianity as it ought to be expressed.
The meeting concluded with the singing of the Doxology.
A bouquet of flowers was presented to Lady Doyle.
1. Only one of these is true.
2. I have made no corrections to the text.
The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 14 May 1925

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Exploding Skies

There have been a number of occasions in Ireland when the sky just seemed to explode. I’m posting two here. While it would be easy – and most likely correct – to assume a meteor was responsible in each case, both incidents were preceded by some strange weather.
The first incident occurred on 7 February 1868 and was reported in The Cork Examiner.
The travellers by the evening passenger train from Dublin, which arrived at Cork at eight o’clock, p.m., on Friday last, were favoured with an atmospheric transformation scene, as remarkable for its unusual character as for its singular beauty. When the train had left the Limerick junction the sky which had since the setting in of night been clear with a bright moon, became suddenly overcast, with vast irregular masses of cloud of unusual density and darkness, and having strange livid edges of glowing red, the combined aspect being unearthly and awful. Some of the passengers, attracted by this unusual appearance while observing the threatening masses overhead, were suddenly dazzled by a glare of light which illuminated the entire heavens with an extreme brilliancy, lasting, some say, upwards of half a minute; others not more than ten seconds. It was entirely instantaneous in its appearance, and died out with the same suddenness. All concur in stating that no meteor or other aerial body was perceptible, and no one could account for the origin of the phenomenon. The recurrence of darkness was immediately followed by an extremely heavy down-pour of mingled hail and snow, which in a few minutes sheeted the country around. In a quarter of an hour the cloud itself had passed eastward, and left the night as calm and bright as before.
The second incident took place on 13 July 1908 and was reported in The Irish News and Belfast Morning News.
Since the hot weather cooled down we have had some strange meteorological experiences. On the 13th, while it was teeming at the Carlisle Circus, not a drop of rain fell at the docks. A few days previously, an extraordinary shower fell on the Lisburn Road. Between Melrose Street and College Gardens it rained as if it had been a cloud burst; from College Gardens to the Infirmary the road was as dry as powder; but from the latter point to Shaftesbury Square it was simply pouring. It would be difficult to explain this occurrence, which, though extraordinary, is not unique. Moreover, the sky was uniformly clouded at the time; there was no break in the clouds – not a trace of the blue.
But a much stranger thing happened on Wednesday during the progress of a prolonged rain storm. The whole sky was overcast. A drizzling sort of rain – not much more than a mist – was falling. It suddenly ceased, and people though the clouds were breaking; but in about two minutes, without warning, a terrific explosion was heard, which shook the windows of the writer’s house. A hissing noise followed, as if a fire were being extinguished, while at the same moment a blaze of fire opened out of a cloud somewhat in the shape of a cross. The illumination bore no resemblance to any kind of lightning, remaining much longer in the vision, and expanding itself right across the clouds. Citizens wondered what had happened, some thinking that it was an explosion of one of the gas mains, others a great conflagration in some part of the city. The area in which the remarkable event happened would be that part of the sky spreading over the Botanic Gardens, but it would be difficult to exactly locate the exact place. Certain gases may have formed in the clouds, and through their antagonistic properties had found vent in the nature of disturbing friction. In any case, this phenomenon has set some people thinking of the end of the world and so on.
Some time ago a similar occurrence took place near Crumlin. Some men were working in a field when they heard an explosion, and, looking in the direction from whence it proceeded, they saw an object falling in a corner of the field, and raising a cloud of dust. They inspected the spot where it fell, and found a large mineral mass embedded in the ground about a foot and a half deep. The stone was hot to the touch; they let it cool, and brought it to a house quite adjacent. The stone is now in the public library on the ground floor, and can be seen at any time.
Of course this stone was a meteoric one – at least this is the opinion of good judges in such matters. It appears there was no rain, nor was the sky much clouded when the Crumlin meteor fell, so that the circumstances are quite different in comparison to the incident narrated above. The Crumlin meteoric explosion took place in the middle of the day, whereas this phenomenon occurred in the evening.
  • The Cork Examiner, 10 February 1868
  • The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 17 July 1908

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Supposed Spectral Visits and Mysterious Sounds

 The following is a standard ghostly-goings-on-scare-a-family-from-their-home story that, for most of the newspapers that covered it, required only a couple of paragraphs to tell. Over at The Derry Journal, however, one journalist saw it as a chance to shine.
From time to time the Derry constabulary have had rather knotty problems submitted to them for solution, but it is open to doubt if they ever had placed before them a “case” so queer and uncanny as that which is presently having the attention of the acutest members of the Bishop Street Station force. It is often difficult enough, in all conscience, to get at the real root of disturbances happening in the open, during wide daylight, and usually traceable to a sudden ebullition of temper among a group of persons whom controversy causes to adopt dangerous methods. However, when the peace of a household is repeatedly disturbed and a certain measure of alarm is raised only in the gloom of night and only through manifestations of an occult nature, the difficulty of satisfactory investigation is ten-fold increased.
An extensive section of a thickly populated district in Derry city has been thrown into a state of consternation by a series of extraordinary and mysterious nocturnal occurrences. Faint rumours of peculiar noises having been heard within an inhabited house in the vicinity of the thoroughfare known as Hogg’s Folly made themselves felt about a week ago. At first they were discredited as being the outcome of  a practical joke. These reports of a man and his family being most strangely disturbed at night in their residence continued in circulation despite a general tendency among people in the quarter to set them down as childish and as not having foundation in fact. Still the rumours persisted, and when a neighbour spoke jocularly to a member of the family concerned about the alleged mysterious happenings in their house the answer given was in no humorous vein. Though the inhabitants of the house were for obvious reasons inclined to allay undue alarm, yet the prevalent reports were corroborated with circumstantiality. As a consequence, excitement in the neighbourhood increased and it became common knowledge, by this time, where the abode which caused all the commotion was situated.
The house which, by the way, within the past two or three days has been hurriedly vacated by the family who dwelt there stands, as the last of a street row, on a little eminence at the junction of two thoroughfares, namely Hollywell Street and Hogg’s Folly. It is a plain-built but substantial two-storied structure, having a frontage lighted by five windows. In exterior aspect its walls contrast favourably with those of some adjoining houses, since they are freshly and neatly whitewashed. In brief the building might be described on the view as a very suitable cottage for an artizan’s family. It seems that there is a cellar beneath the ground floor of the cottage, and it is from this cellar that uncanny noises have been for some time emanating nightly. Patient and cool attempts to trace the origin of this mysterious visitation were made but the investigators were baffled and yet remain so.
Not only have these inexplicable noises been heard by the inmates of the house, but the ghostly din manifested itself so loudly after midnight on two nights of last week that it reached the ears of neighbours dwelling on the opposite side of the street. Disquieting, as these incidents undoubtedly were, it appears that they alone did not determine the family to leave the place. On one of the nights the spectral figure of a woman was seen passing slowly from one apartment to another within the house.
This latter remarkable circumstance was among the particulars made known to the police when a report of the extraordinary affair was conveyed to them. The phantom female figure was described as been clothed in a flowing robe.
Then the question was put – “Of what colour?”
“Of pearl grey colour,” was the reply.
The house was visited on Saturday by Sergeant Quinlivan, Sergeant Morrow, and by other members of the Bishop Street constabulary who, indeed, owing to the information they got, have been pretty constantly in the neighbourhood for the past four or five days engaged in the language of the young lads living in the locality, “Watching for the ghost.”
Indeed the spectacle in the street of nights recently, was wholly uncommon and not without aspects of weirdness. A number of young men who heard the news of the mysterious noises decided to test the truth of the matter for themselves by waiting at a little distance from the house outside on the road till after the midnight hour. They appeared cheerful enough at the outset, but as twelve o’clock drew nigh loud talk gave way to low whispers. The more timid left before the clock chimed, while those who remained after twelve listened with bated breath. Some stated subsequently they heard no sounds from the house. Others asserted positively that they heard the sounds of “heavy footsteps in the cellar,” though at that time it was known that the cellar was absolutely unoccupied.
Each night the listening crowd assumed larger proportions, and towards the end of the week the thoroughfare was quite filled with people discussing the mystery for which no solution has yet been found.
From inquiries made it appears that the house was occupied by a tenant with his wife and three children till Thursday last. On that day they removed to another dwelling, but a good deal of their furniture was left behind until Saturday when it was conveyed to their new abode. The family declare they were quite comfortable in the house they left were it not for the mysterious nocturnal disturbances.
It is said that the family kept a dog in the cellar and on the nights when the strange sounds were heard the animal tore at the floor frantically with his paws so that quite a large hole would be found thus scooped out in the mornings. This incident suggested to some practical reasoners that rats might have been at the bottom of the mischief, but a very careful search since made in the cellar has failed to detect the slightest traces of these rodents.
It is now alleged as a curious coincidence that a previous tenant left the place less than a year ago. His decision was suddenly come to, and he declined to discuss – even with his wife – his reasons for leaving on the very day after he had arrived home late one night.
At present the “ins and outs” of the extraordinary affair form the chief topic of conversation for numerous citizens, especially those living in the vicinity of the place concerned.
One of Hood’s finest poems gives an exceptionally vivid description of an empty habitation, and the pedestrian passing along yesterday by the house under notice was reminded by the silent look of the place of the lines:--
“No dog was at the threshold, great or small,
No pigeon on the roof – no household creature –
No cat demurely dozing on the wall,
Not one domestic feature
No human figure stirr’d, to go or come,
No face looked forth from shut or open casement,
No chimney smoked – there was no sign of Home
From parapet to basement.”
A strange thing in much that is singular in these eerie occurrences, or imaginings plus the occurrences is the conduct of the house dog – a glut with a litter of whelps. The animal, usually gentle and quiet, suddenly develops intense excitement, and sets as if protecting its offspring, whilst there is no visible cause for its disturbed and anxious condition.
We give the case in its details as investigated, leaving our readers to form their own judgement between imagination and manifestation.
The Derry Journal, 10 August 1908

Monday, 7 August 2017

James McAnespie and the Fintona Fairies

Back in April 2016, I posted a short piece about the death of James McAnespie. McAnespie had gained infamy in April 1950, at the age of 72, when he failed to return home after leaving to collect firewood in the demesne near his home. A search was organised and McAnespie was eventually found, frozen to the spot where a fairy thorn had recently been destroyed. 
When the Belfast Telegraph reported on McAnespie’s death in January 1954, they recounted this incident.  The Telegraph gave the impression that Mr McAnespie just happened to be passing this spot when something very strange happened. But, according to this story from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post of 21 April 1950, it seems this wasn’t McAnespie’s first visit to the site. And he definitely wasn’t just passing by.
"The Wee Folk" are said to be angry out at Fintona (County Tyrone) because a 300-year-old fairy thorn has been bulldozed out of existence in a field just outside the village.  Villagers have not been surprised at this week’s queer happenings, because many of them forecast reprisals four weeks ago, immediately after the destruction of the fairies’ little sacred tree.
About a month ago, Fintona Golf Club were given permission by Mr. Raymond Browne-Lecky to carry out improvements and extensions to the golf course on his lands. He gave them permission, among other things, to cut down a thorn hedge, because it was in the way. But the men on the job made a mistake. They were using a bulldozer for levelling purposes, and they bulldozed the fairy thorn out by its roots.
This fairy thorn, set in the middle of a field in Mr Browne-Lecky’s Ecclesville Demesne, was planted by his ancestors over 300 years ago. Naturally, he was he was angry when the tree was destroyed. He told the Golf Club so – and so did many villagers.
“The people in the village are in a rage over it,” Mr. Browne-Lecky told a “Northern Whig” reporter last night. “For my part, however, the hatchet is buried, because it was apparently a mistake. I was not angry because because of possible revenge from the fairies – I’m afraid I don’t believe in them. But many people do, and that’s why the villagers are upset about it.”
Anyway, the “wee folk” are said to have begun their reprisals. Old-age pensioner James McAnespie – who is 72, lives by himself in a house opposite Fintona Police Barracks, and is a former hotel hand – bought some of the bulldozed tree to use as firewood.
That was two or three weeks ago. Mr. McAnespie took the wood home and started to use it regularly. And things (according to him) started to happen. He began to hear bells tinkling in his house, and he says he saw little things flying about in the air – little things like wasps, which he could not catch.
Last Sunday James McAnespie used the last of his firewood and decided to go for more. On Sunday night the people next door realized that he had not returned – and that was unusual for Jimmy McAnespie, because he is usually in house by about eight o’clock at night. So the people next door went out to search for him. They couldn’t find him, so they ran across to the Barracks and told the police. And a search party of police and civilians set out to find the missing pensioner. R.U.C. Sergeant Boland was in command.
The searchers called out at intervals, but never got a reply. They made their way through the demesne, still calling, still getting no answer.
Then at 11.30 p.m. – just 30 minutes before the witching hour – they saw James standing motionless at the very spot on which had been the fairy thorn. As they came near he walked towards them, then went back to the village with them.
And what does James McAnespie say about all this? He says he gathered sticks for firewood around the place where the thorn had been cut down. He tied the sticks to a rope, began to go home when it became dusk. And when he got to The Spot he was suddenly unable to move and unable to speak. That was why he could not answer the search party.
For two hours, he says, he stood there with all his powers dispelled. He heard bells ringing around his feet. He saw a sort of ditch all around him, and a big house, or perhaps it was a barn, with lights inside it. He saw two fairies – “wee fellows.” And his hands were absolutely closed tight on the rope.
Sergeant Boland bears out the fact that James McAnespie was found standing on the site of the bulldozed fairy thorn. But the sergeant is a disbeliever. He laughed last night and said: “I must say I heard no bells and I saw no house.”
  • The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 21 April 1950

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Mad Gasser of Mullingar?

In the autumn of 1917, a ghostly voyeur was disturbing the sleep of the good people of Mullingar. The Freeman’s Weekly Journal of 8 September 1917 reported:
Our Mullingar correspondent states that the inhabitants of that town are considerably exercised in their minds by stories of a spectral figure which roams the streets after dark. Opinion differs as to who or what he is. Some hold that he is an escaped German from an internment camp; others classify him as a wandering lunatic; and a superstitious section does not hesitate to allude to him as “The Ghost.”
The stranger, who is tall and thin, and dressed in grey, is never seen until darkness has fallen upon the town. Then his pale countenance is seen gazing into ground floor windows, and his gaunt form is to be dimly discerned hovering in the gloomiest corners. A number of unimaginative policemen are now engaged in trying to “lay” this “ghost,” which has annoyed the town for about ten days.
The Dundee Evening Telegraph also carried the story:
A ghost is prowling about the precincts of Mullingar, and the inhabitants thereof have got the shivers. Some think it is a lunatic, and others believe it to be an escaped German prisoner. If it be the latter, and an officer, you have Mr Churchill’s word that you need not salute him.
However, when the Freeman’s Weekly Journal returned to the story a few weeks later, it was because things had taken a sinister turn.
The Mullingar apparition has reappeared, and is no longer content with peering into cottage windows, but has forcibly entered houses, and in one case came to grips with the occupier.
About midnight recently a man named Miller, who resides in a cottage on the road at the corner of Mullingar Fair Green, was awakened by the noise of somebody moving about, and on going to the next room he was confronted by a powerful man, who had an open knife extended in his hand in a threatening attitude. Mr Miller sprang upon him and succeeded in gripping the arm of the man and deflecting the knife. A fierce struggle followed, and the two rolled over in grips on the floor.
Meantime, Mrs Miller rushed out to the door in her night attire and called loudly for help. On hearing her voice the assailant let go of Mr Miller, who, whilst on the floor, was conscious of his opponent using something in either a handkerchief or cotton wool which he believes to have been chloroform, and which, at all events, had a pungent odour and a somewhat stifling effect.
He describes the visitor as clad only in a soldier’s khaki trousers, stockings, and shirt, and the reason he had divested himself of the other portions of his clothing seems fully explained by the discovery subsequently made of his means of effecting an entry. This was through a small window protected by two iron bars, and which would only admit the body of a man with great difficulty. The bars were found to have been torn away, and Mrs Miller, it appears, as the intruder rushed past her in flying from the house, saw him catch up from the ground outside the door a cap, coat, and pair of boots.
On the same night, something later, it appears, the house of a Mrs Rooney, an old woman who resides with her daughter about forty yards from Miller’s – which is at an angle of the Fair Green and not far from the military barracks – was also entered, but on the alarm being raised the intruder made good his escape.
There was a lot going on in Ireland at this time, so it’s highly likely that these events had quite a mundane explanation that never got reported. However, the events in Mullingar do remind me of later events in Mattoon, Illinois [1], but on a very much smaller scale. 
If you can add anything to this story, please get in touch.
  1. See Loren Coleman's Mysterious America
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 September 1917
  • Weekly Freeman’s Journal, 8 & 29 September 1917

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Earl of Erne's Eerie Light Mystery

A derelict church on the banks of Lower Lough Erne
In 1912, a mysterious light was appearing on Church Island, on Lough Beg, creating much interest and speculation in the newspapers. However, a similar light had been appearing on Lough Erne for years, and the interest in the Church Island mystery prompted the Earl of Erne to ask, via the Dublin Daily Mail [1], for the public’s help in solving his mystery.
“Sir – On December 17 an account was given of a mysterious light which has lately appeared in the vicinity of Church Island, Lough Beg, County Derry, Ireland. A somewhat similar light has at intervals been seen in this neighbourhood, Lough Erne, County Fermanagh.
“Of course it has been put down to supernatural causes, but I cannot help thinking that a scientific solution to the mystery is to be found if there be anyone capable of unravelling it.
“This light has been seen at intervals several times within the last six or seven years by ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ and women too. It is of a yellow colour, and in size and shape very much the same as a motor car lamp. It travels at a considerable pace along the top of the water – sometimes against the wind, at other times with it. It lights up all objects within a certain radius and disappears as quickly as it appears. It is mostly seen on stormy and wet nights rather than on fine ones.
“Perhaps some of your readers could throw some light on the matter.”
The Earl of Erne’s request generated a lot of responses. Most believed that the light was a will-o’-the-wisp. Others, such as the editor of the Derry Journal, believed that luminous owls were to blame.
The Earl was unimpressed. And while he professed to be seeking a “scientific” explanation, he seemed to despair that the public had hot grasped just how strange this light was. In another letter to the Dublin Daily Mail [2], he included a statement from his wife.
“On Easter Eve,1910, about 4.30pm, I saw a light crossing the lake below the windows of Crom Castle. It was like a large motor car lamp, seemingly quite round, and about 2 ft. across, like the sun when it sets on a winter’s evening. Its colour was a deep yellow. Its peculiarity was that it threw no light behind, but in front there was a blaze: so much so that when it passed a small copse on the borders of the lake it lit up the trees, showing each trunk clear and hard. I saw at once from the pace it was going that it could not be a motor lamp. It disappeared behind the trees as quickly as it appeared.”
Lower Lough Erne
Later that same year, according to the Earl, the head gardener at Crom Castle - aka the Earl's house - saw the light. It came directly towards him – then disappeared. And another gardener, who had the misfortune of being on a boat on the lough during his encounter, rowed for his life to get away from it.
What could it be?
A correspondent for the Northern Whig had one more theory: “… meteors of various sizes which change from yellow to red and blue are responsible.”
To the best of my knowledge, the Earl of Erne never solved the mystery.
  1. I couldn’t get a copy of the relevant issue of the Daily Mail, but the letter was reprinted in a number of newspapers, including the Derry Journal.
  2. As above, I’ve quoted from a reprint of the letter in the Northern Whig.
  • Derry Journal, 24 December 1912, 8 January 1913
  • Dublin Daily Express, 27 December 1912
  • Northern Whig, 2 January 1913

Monday, 26 June 2017

Furl Blast or Flying Saucer?

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s encounter with some pelicans, I’m posting two stories from 1947. Individually, they’re both quite interesting. Together, however, they illustrate how, even in rural Ireland, Arnold’s sighting quickly influenced how we interpret strange things seen in the sky.
The first story appeared in the Leinster Leader on 8 February 1947, a few months before Arnold’s encounter.
The curious appearance of the “Ballingar Light” is a phenomenon in the Ballingar district, near Daingean, which has puzzled local people for years and for which many different explanations have been offered. It concerns the sudden appearance, in the remote district of Ballymoney, of a light of extraordinary brilliance which illuminates the entire area around and which seems to be concentrated on a shallow valley near the roadside. It was seen some time ago by two members of the St. Conleth’s staff, Daingean, one of whom told the writer that the light saved them from a very nasty accident. They were cycling past the spot late at night when the light appeared, and besides revealing the valley, it showed them an animal lying across the road blocking their path. They would have cycled into it and sustained some injuries were it not for the sudden appearance of the light. Visiting the place later to find an explanation for the light, they found, at the bottom of the valley, a large and curiously-shaped stone. According to Mr. Thomas Dunne, a reliable authority on such matters locally, this is a Mass Rock which was used during the Penal days by hunted priests. It is mentioned as such in various histories of the Diocese, including Dr Comerford’s. A more mundane explanation offered is that the light comes from motor cars turning on the road some distance above the valley!
The second story, also from the Leinster Leader, appeared in the 23 August 1947 issue.
A number of people who witnessed a strange phenomenon in the sky over portion of Derries Bog, near Cloncannon, on Thursday evening last, are puzzled as to its origin and significance. Those who witnessed it were first made aware of something unusual by hearing a sort of explosion in the skies and on looking upwards saw countless objects, like large birds, diving and circling at a great height above them. The objects eventually fell in the bog, but so far as can be ascertained, none have been recovered. Some explanations given concern military practice in the Curragh; the “flying saucers;” and that strange “furl blast” or “fairy wind” which strikes downwards at the earth and returns to the sky carrying with it anything movable in its passage. Its visit is regarded by old people as being an infallible sign of fine weather.
  • Leinster Leader, 8 February & 23 August 1947

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