An Unusual Occurrence in Ballygirreen (232 Years Ago)

The reaction of most people who saw it was absolute terror. Some actually ran for their lives, while others cowered behind bushes and trees. There was nothing in the experience of these ordinary country people that would have prepared them, helped them recognise what it was. A huge white ball was moving across the sky and then hovered over Ballygirreen. It got bigger very quickly and then came to ground in Singleton’s field with a bump, lurching sideways and changing shape. Those who dared to come closer began to realise it was a manmade thing. And from within emerged the man who had made it. He was very tall (6’3) and quite overweight but it was his attire that was almost as remarkable as his flying machine. His robe was of oiled silk lined with white fur, his waistcoat and breeches were made of quilted satin, and he wore Moroccan boots and a Montero cap made from leopard skin. The gentleman’s name was Richard Crosbie.

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Richard was born in Wicklow of a well-to-do family and from an early age he was an inventor of mechanical contraptions. He attended Trinity College Dublin but never graduated. Upon reading of the first hot air Balloon invented by the Montgolfier Brothers in France, he vowed to create his own machine. This he duly did and within a year was able to conduct his first experimental flight. There was just one passenger. His cat.

Powered by a mixture of sulphuric acid, water and iron filings, within a few hours his Balloon (and cat) were seen passing over the west coast of Scotland. They descended to the sea near the Isle of Man and the cat was rescued by a passing ship. Only three months later, Richard was ready for his first manned flight and did so with great showmanship watched by a crowd of 20,000 in Dublin. “I shall Ascend or Die!” he said. The distance travelled was short (Ranelagh to Clontarf) but hugely significant and he was carried home shoulder high to a hero’s welcome.

Richard’s goal was to cross the Irish Sea to Britain but although there were two further flights from Dublin he couldn’t quite manage it. The Welsh coast came within sight but he was halted by turbulence. By April 29TH 1786 he was running low on funds and went to Limerick seeking sponsors. His flight that day saw him reach 25,000 feet in altitude over Kerry, Clare and the Estuary. He was relaxed enough to have a meal and a bottle of fine wine before it came to an end over a field in Ballygirreen. He was brought to Dromoland for some O’Brien hospitality.

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Though the Montgolfier’s are rightly recognised as aviation pioneers, Richard Crosbie’s achievement was significant too. Not only did he design and build his machine, he actually took the risk of piloting it too. (The Frenchmen by contrast, stayed on the ground while a barely remembered colleague did the actual flying). Richard never did achieve his goal of crossing the Irish Sea nor even take to the air again. Information about his later years is scanty but it is known he went to America and was a struggling actor in New York in the 1790s. He also sent up an unmanned balloon for public entertainment in Manhattan in 1800. He hoped to follow this with a manned flight, but this does not appear to have taken place. He traveled widely, lost contact with family and friends in Ireland, and was found living in impoverished circumstances in Baltimore in 1819. He eventually returned to Dublin and died there in 1824. There were no obituaries in the main newspapers. This intrepid and ingenious pioneer of flight in Ireland was forgotten in his own time.

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