Sunday, 17 March 2019

We're Not Roswell, We're Portglenone

Back in December 1958, Portglenone, a village in County Antrim, made the news after a farmer there - Mr Joseph Bennett - had a very close encounter with a UFO. During this encounter, the unidentified object struck and damaged a tree, thereby leaving tangible evidence that something physical was responsible for the sighting.
Anyway, while I’ve known about this case for some time, the preceding paragraph just about sums up what I knew about it. I’d always assumed that it was one of those quirky incidents that had warranted only a few inches of newspaper space the day after it happened.
From Belfast Telegraph of 30 December 1958
Not so.
Turns out that The Belfast Telegraph took a very keen interest in Mr Bennett’s strange tale. The first story appeared on 30 December 1958.

A middle-aged Portglenone farmer is still thinking about a mysterious black object which went over his head on Sunday afternoon - and cut a tree in two.
Mr. Joseph Bennett, of Bracknamuckley, was out walking when he heard a strange noise. He looked up.
“It made a sound like rushing wind,” he said. The thing - it was about seven feet broad - flashed towards me some 18 or 20 feet up.
“It came from the south and was travelling in a north-westerly direction. Next thing I saw was it’s swift passage through a row of trees which divide two farms at Gortfadd.
“It cut one of the trees in half; the trunk was two feet thick. In a matter of seconds it had vanished.
“It was an oak tree, 40 ft high, and it is sliced clean eight feet from the base.”
And the question they were asking in Portglenone to-day was: “What was that thing?”

The people of Portglenone weren’t the only ones asking that question, as the Telegraph reported on 31 December:

THE STRANGE BLACK OBJECT reported to have ripped apart a large oak tree at Portglenone, Co. Antrim, on Sunday, has already entered the files of U.F.O. (unidentified flying object) researchers.
Mr. Terence Nonweiler, lecturer in the aeronautical engineering department of Queen’s University, and a former member of the Council of the British Interplanetary Society, to-day visited the scene.
Before leaving for Portglenone, Mr Nonweiler told me: “This would appear to be the first case in the United Kingdom where such a mysterious happening has been reported and in which some tangible evidence remains in the shape of the damaged tree.”
From Belfast Telegraph of 31 December 1958
The farmer, Mr. Joseph Bennett, of Bracknamuckley, insists that the tree was sliced in two by a huge, black object which passed over his head, and then proceeded on its way.
He says it was moving at a height of 18 to 20 feet.
The tree shows no signs of scorching, which would indicate lightning, and there is no damage to adjoining trees.
Thousands of U.F.O.’s, in many parts of the world, are now on record.
The term is used by scientists who refuse to accept the description “flying saucer,” which came into vogue a few years ago after several pilots had reported circular objects travelling at speeds of thousands of miles an hour.
In Great Britain, U.F.O. enthusiasts are formed into clubs and keep watch at week-ends from mountain tops. They even have their own magazine.
The forestry department of the Ministry of Agriculture are interested in the oak tree, and to-day instructed their forester at Portglenone, Mr. A. McLean, to examine the tree.
An official said: “This is most unusual in an oak tree but not in an elm [1]. We have never had an instance of this before. We will be glad to have full details for the record.”
Mr. Nonweiler spent about 15 minutes at the tree. He found that there were signs of rotting at the point where it had broken off, and there were also four marks on the bark - three on the trunk and one on a large branch, all in a direct line.
He said: “I think that the rotten state of the trunk explains why it broke at that particular point, and the four cuts in the bark may have some significance.”
He was not prepared to say positively, however, that the tree had been brought down by a flying object.
Mr. Bennett told Mr. Nonweiler: “At about 3-30 p.m. on Sunday I saw what looked like a small black cloud giving off a hissing sound and travelling at fantastic speed along the valley from the direction of Lough Neagh at a height of about 20 feet.
“It passed right through the tree which crashed and proceeded on its way at the same speed as if nothing had happened. the tree came down with a terrible crash.
“It was going so fast that that I could not tell whether it was a solid object or not. It was going at many times the speed of a jet plane.”
Mr. Alfred Connolly, who owns the field in which the tree stood, said that the state of the branches made it look as if something solid had torn across the tree as it came down.
He added: “Mr. Bennett is a most reliable witness. If he says he saw a black flying object you can be sure that he saw it.”
The tree was to-day the main object of interest in the Portglenone area and cars stopped every few minutes on the near-by road as the occupants alighted to examine it.

 By 1 January 1959, the “experts” were already reporting their findings.

Although an element of mystery still surrounds the felling of a tree at Portglenone by a small, black object travelling, according to a local farmer, “at fantastic speed,” an examination of the Meteorological Office records to-day showed that gusts of wind of 52 miles an hour occurred about the time of the incident.
Weather experts inclined to the view that a local whirlwind, similar to that at Kilkeel a few months ago [2], had been responsible.
“It may be,” a Meteorological Office spokesman said, “that it was not severe enough to do any other damage.”
Mr. Terrence Nonweiler, Queen’s University lecturer on aeronautical engineering and a former member of the council of the British Interplanetary Society, who examined the tree yesterday afternoon, said afterwards that the evidence was “too flimsy” to say that the tree had been brought down by a solid flying object.
He thought that the marks on the tree would not fit the theory that it had been brought down by the object.
He was impressed, however, by the testimony of Mr. Joseph Bennett, a local farmer, who told him that he watched the object from its appearance over Lough Neagh until it left the valley after bringing down the tree.
And it is the opinion of the local people that “something very odd” happened on Sunday afternoon.

The final story, which appeared in the Telegraph on 2 January, featured more “experts” and their opinions. On a personal note, if we’re expected to favour those theories that have the least assumptions, then the theory that a saucer from Zeta Reticuli damaged the tree is on a par - kind of, if you stand really far back and squint at it - with all of the other suggestions.

Forestry experts gave their verdict to-day on the Portglenone “flying object” which felled a two-foot-thick tree last Sunday - it was a whirlwind.
Samples of the sheared trunk were examined under a microscope at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Division in Belfast and were found to be decayed.
“The tree just snapped below a dead branch,” an official said to-day. “It was very heavily branched at the top and the strain over the years had damaged the cells. A sudden gust of wind was all it needed.”
Just one thing puzzles the experts - the cleanness of the break.
From Belfast Telegraph 0f 2 January 1959
“It could be that the fungus developed in a regular pattern,” the official said, “but it is unusual. There was certainly no evidence of impact damage on the outside of the tree, or on trees nearby.”
To get the samples local forester Andy McLean had to climb the eight-foot tree stump. Souvenir hunters have been at work on the felled section of the tree.
Dr. E. M. Lindsay, director of Armagh Observatory, today put forward the theory that the tree had been brought down by a waterspout.
He said that the fact that the black object was said to have come from the direction of Lough Neagh, together with many examples in the files of the Observatory of waterspouts near the lough helped to support his theory.
“Oddly enough,” said Dr. Lindsay, “practically all these reports were made in the last century, but they are well authenticated. One official, who lived at Loughall, observed several. There were many such reports in the early 1800s.”
Dr. Lindsay has not seen a waterspout in Northern Ireland, but he has experienced many on visits to South Africa. The water taken up by the whirling current of air accounts for the blackness, he says.

1 Is he suggesting that it’s usually only elm trees that get rear-ended by flying saucers?
2 In the early hours of Tuesday, 30 September 1958, what was described as "probably a minor tornado" ripped through Kilkeel. Though lasting only three minutes, it managed to do quite a lot of damage.

The Belfast Telegraph, 30 & 31 December 1958 and 1 & 2 January 1959

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Sputnik in Clonsharragh

Nobody associates Ireland – North or South – with crashed-saucer stories. But on a number of occasions the authorities have been called to incidents that – initially – were suggestive of a crashed craft.
Sputnik 1
In February 1955, the village of Ballincagy, County Westmeath, was awash with rumours of a flying saucer after 15-year-old Leo Penrose saw a strange object come down in a field outside the village. 
And in November 1950, an object that was believed to be a “flying saucer” crashed in a field in Coravilla, County Cavan. 
Then there was that incident in Clonsharragh, County Wexford, in 1962.
The Garda investigated all of these events. They discovered that the Ballincagy object was a weather balloon, while the Coravilla object was a radiosonde – aka the business end of a weather balloon - belonging to the British Meteorological Office.
But when it came to explaining the Clonsharragh incident, they needed a little help from the Army.
The following comes form The New Ross Standard of 14 September 1962.
Army Experts Examine “Mysterious Object”
Local people who first found the shining black object were mystified. They immediately notified Duncannon Garda Station. They, in turn, contacted Supt. W. M. O’Brien, New Ross, who informed the Army authorities whose experts said they would make the one-hundred mile journey from Dublin to inspect the object and were expected to arrive about 4 a.m. some five hours after Mr. Joseph Wallace, Kilbride, saw the flashing light and felt the ground tremble beneath him. 
In the meantime, Garda T. Kerrigan, Duncannon, remained at the scene and was replaced around four o’clock by a force from New Ross.
At nine o’clock in the morning, the area was cordoned off and no one was allowed within a considerable distance of the object which was known to be sitting on top of some yellow clay in a five feet in diameter crater.
People came form a wide area to hear about the mysterious object, but they made no move to go near it even if they could – they were afraid in case it would blast them into eternity. What was it? Various opinions were put forward.
“It is a guided missile,” said one local. “It was probably fired from Cape Canaveral and meant to land in the harbour,” he added.
“I’d say ‘tis a sputnik,” said another, “or one of those yokes the Americans have for testing the upper atmosphere.”
“Whatever it is, ‘tis highly dangerous,” said another. “I wouldn’t like to near it anyhow.”
“It looks awful like a ball-cock to me,” said one of those who braved to go near it before the area was cordoned off.
And that is exactly what it turned out to be – a perfectly harmless cistern ball-cock with four brass rods sticking out of it, three from the top hemisphere.
 The mystery was solved about one o’clock on Saturday when Comdt. P. J. McCourt, Sergt. M. P. Walsh and Cpl. M. J. Cleary, Ordnance Corps, Eastern Command, Dublin, arrived to inspect the object.
Comdt. McCourt’s official description – an ingenious hoax, a cistern ball-cock designed to give a Telstar effect.
Thus ended all the speculation which had been rife from the time Mr. Wallace, who was in the adjoining sportsfield, saw the flashing light and felt the ground tremble beneath him, after a loud explosion. Mr. Wallace related his experience to a few other local people and they decided to explore for themselves before notifying the Gardai.
When our representative called to the scene early on Saturday morning, there was quite a crowd of people gathered, including a number of tourists who were holidaying in Duncannon. A member of the Garda Siochana saw to it that no one entered the field and a lone soldier walked to and fro about a hundred yards from the mysterious object.
Amongst those present was Mr. Andrew Knox, Clonsharragh, who said he was going to bed when he heard the explosion, which was like a discharge from a shotgun or a burst tyre, but three times louder.
The “mystery” object was painted on the outside with black shellac and had four brass rods sticking out of it, each about six inches long and were probably stair rods. The inside was expertly assembled and was obviously the work of someone who knew quite a bit about electronics. It contained transistors and resistors, elaborate wiring and electronic devices probably taken from a wireless set.
The “sputnik” was found on the top of a sauce bottle top laid on top of a hole five feet in diameter which had obviously been dug beforehand.
When asked to explain the explosion which caused the earth to tremble for a considerable distance around, Comdt. McCourt said there was strong evidence to prove it was caused by gunpowder.
Before taking back the “sputnik” to headquarters with him, Comdt. McCourt said he would be able to trace the various items when he got time to examine them in detail. A piece of sponge inside originated Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, he said.
Local people believed that the incident had consequences which were not at all intended by the person or persons responsible. It is thought to have been an experiment by some space-minded person or persons who had hopes of establishing a Cape Canaveral in Ramsgate. The incident, it is believed, would have passed unnoticed were it not for the fact that Mr. Wallace was in the adjoining field. The Gardai, however, may have different ideas, as it was they and the military who were most upset by the hoax.
The Irish Times, 28 November 1950 and 17 February 1955
The New Ross Standard, 14 September 1962 

Monday, 18 February 2019

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Cousin Scorned

In my last post, The Potato Pinching Poltergeist on Old Town Hill, the people of Cookstown – and beyond – were mystified by the goings on at a house in the town. A number of theories – none of which involved acknowledging that a magician lived in the house – and precedents were proposed. This one, which appeared in The Belfast News-Letter on 23 November 1874, is my favourite.
Greencastle Street, Kilkeel in 1936

SIR – In your impression of Wednesday last there appeared a lengthened report of a ghost story from Cookstown, which seems rather inexplicable; but, perhaps, the following may help to be the means of unravelling the mystery.
Some years ago, in the neighbourhood of Kilkeel, an occurrence of a similar kind perplexed the inhabitants for many months. In a house there a series of depredations were committed exactly like those which are at present being perpetrated on Mr. Allen, of Cookstown. The windows were smashed among their hands, and, as in the present case, the broken glass was generally found outside, and a stone with which it appeared to have been broken inside. Clothes were destroyed, cows’ tails and pigs’ ears were cut off, and no clue whatever could be got to explain the matter. Often the minister would go and remain for a time with the afflicted family, and just among their hands a pane of glass would be smashed or some like deed done. The police were resorted to, as if their presence would frighten whatever demon haunted the scene. But all was no use. For months a guard was kept about the house night and day; but the unseen agent of the infernal regions (as many thought it to be) was able to prosecute his work of destruction without detection. Every morning when the police arrived in town the inquiring inhabitants were furnished with some additional turn of the ghost story. Some blamed the evil one, and others thought it might be the work of some ill-disposed neighbour. Few, however, were of the latter opinion, as it was utterly impossible that any neighbour could have done it without being taken by the police. However, the ghost was at last discovered, and he whom Burns styles “Old Clootie,” was set scot free. It appeared that there lived in the house a girl - a niece of the proprietor – and that she was in love with her cousin, who preferred some neighbour, and was not accustomed to stop at home with her. Either in revenge for this indignity, or in some mania, she became the agent of the above depredations, and she carried on the work so cunningly as to defy detection for months. However, one of the policemen at length caught her in the act of breaking a window, and she was taken prisoner, and afterwards confessed the whole thing. She broke the glass with a hammer, or something else, and then deposited a stone inside in order to shroud it in mystery. In short, she acted the part of a supernatural agent for a time quite as cleverly as that which your reporter represents to be at present in Cookstown.
 – Yours, &c., 
H. J
Cloverhill, Belturbet, 20thNov., 1874

The Belfast News-Letter, 23 November 1874

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Potato Pinching Poltergeist on Old Town Hill

I thought I’d begin 2019 with a poltergeist story from 1874, which took place on Old Town Hill, in Cookstown, the home of the sausage, and was reported in the Irish Times of 18 November 1874. [1] While many will dismiss the story based on how one of Mr Allen’s sons spent his free time, I love it for its range of poltergeist phenomena - from hovering hats to stolen spuds.
Cookstown has lately been singled out for the attention of a visitor whose freaks and doings have caused no little wonderment and curiosity. Were the time a little further advanced the narrative of the manifestations which have so completely upset the ordinary tranquillity of this community might be embodied in a fairly exciting Christmas story. 
Vincent van Gogh's 'Basket of Potatoes'
The haunted house is situated on Old Town Hill, and is occupied by a Mr. Allen, who carries on a respectable business as a grocer. The manifestations of something unusual, and untoward, first became noticeable some eighteen months ago. The phenomena were then mainly confined to breaking the windows. It may be thought there was nothing very extraordinary nor ghostlike in such a procedure; but there was. When several panes were broken, and the how and means escaped attention, a strict watch was put upon the windows, but all was useless: the cause was still undiscoverable. 
Sometimes stones were used as the media, but by whom or what nobody could see; and more frequently again the glass broke, apparently of its own accord. Even the frames began at last to get abused, more especially at the rere of the house, and the strictest and most constant guard could make nothing of it. 
The house, by the way, is a small two-storey building, with three windows behind, and the ordinary shop and front windows before. The yard is small, and surrounded by a wall ten feet high, from whence extend the open fields. 
All the glass at the back of the premises having been repeatedly broken and every effort at protection avoided, one of the windows was barricaded with a shutter, to which was affixed a bell in such a position that if the shutter were removed the bell must ring. Men were also placed at each window with loaded guns, so that it was impossible for any individual to approach without being at once observed and in their power. Notwithstanding this, the shutter was taken down, the bell simply noting the fact when it was accomplished, and that in such a gentle tinkling monotone as to be almost unheard. 
In the front of the premises glass was broken with the same security and freedom from observation. 
Fear now commenced to grow into serious alarm, which in no way decreased, as other incidents, equally, if not more, bewildering in their character, became of daily occurrence. 
Bowls took a fancy to rotate, with various degrees of swiftness, upon the tables, and then, as if smitten with the same idea of self-martyrdom, shot off at a tangent, ending sharply and forever their symmetrical usefulness upon the floor. 
Coats, which formerly hung with all staidness and propriety upon their respective pins, now shivered and fluttered, as if seized with an ague, and again expanded in all their proportions, as if each were enveloping an invisible Falstaff or an aspiring Claimant. Hats took unto themselves wings, and bodily flew away. 
In sooth, the natural order of affairs in the house was completely deranged, and the more agitated became the inanimate articles, the more excited became, naturally enough, the members of the family. Every conceivable project that could be devised for elucidating these mysteries failed utterly in pointing out a cause which could be understood. 
Even the potatoes boiling in a pot on the fire became mashed, and leaped behind the fire. And when ten or twelve were entered for boiling, a tot up in a few minutes revealed the startling fact that several had altogether and unaccountably disappeared, though many pairs of straining eyes were watching with almost painful eagerness every motion of the immovable pot. 
Latterly, also, large stones, weighing on an average about three pounds or three pounds and a half, have rolled slowly down the stairs, bobbing with leisurely ease from step to step. These have been sometimes damp and wet with clay, as if just removed from a ditch or roadway, and at other times, dry and clean, as if preserved from the weather for a considerable space of time. No persons have been in the upper portion of the house where such events have happened, and not the vaguest shadow upon which to found a belief in the collusion or complicity of any parties in the causing of them has been at all afforded. 
These manifestations will serve to show the cruel and persistent manner in which Mr Allen and his family have been afflicted, though they are from exhausting the minor details of a system of persecution as vexations and hard to be borne as it is strange and unexplainable both in cause and result. 
The family consist of Mr and Mrs Allen, two sons, and a daughter. One of the male branches, a young man of twenty-two or thereabouts, resides constantly with his father, and is said to be an apt student of the art of legerdemain.  Rumour will insist on mixing him up with the occurrences, but they have been known to take place when he was away working on the farm. 
Mr. Allen has ceased to accept, or even listen to any interpretation or explanation of the facts. He is not by any means a nervous man, nor superstitious in his way of thinking, but having seen these things occur, and being utterly unable to assert a reason for them, he would at the present moment be an easily manipulated disciple of the most ardent spiritualist. The whole affair in its recital might seem quite a ludicrous matter, were it not for the very great pain suffered by those most concerned.
  1. The Irish Times lifted the story from the Belfast News-Letter.

  • The Irish Times, 18 November 1874