Like all good writers, the annalist leaves the reader wanting to know more. Ships in the air? And their crews? WTF? Early medieval zeppelins? UFOs?
An account in the Book of Ballymote states regarding Congalach, a tenth-century high king of Ireland:
Congalach son of Mael Mithig was at the assembly of Tailtiu one day when he saw a ship moving through the air. Then one of them [i.e. the ship's crew] cast a spear at a salmon, so that it came down in front of the assembly. A man from the ship came after it. When he seized one end of it from above, a man seized it from below. "You are drowning me!" said the man aloft. "Let him go," said Congalach. Then he is released, and swims upward away from them.
There is a marvelous invention here: That the atmosphere is an ocean and the ground is the bottom of a sea, and all earthly things are like reefs and fish. Then aliens come along for the fishing and one of them is almost drowned by a curious earthling holding on to the end of a fishing spear, until the wise ard ri bids him let go to save the alien's life. A brief, but satisfying story of first contact.
This version was recounted in the poem De mirabilibus Hibernie (On the Wonders of Ireland), by Bishop Patrick of Dublin (1074-84) as the nineteenth marvel De naui que uisa est in aere, “Of a ship glimpsed in the air.” The bishop writes:
A king of the Irish once attended an assemblyLater, the story was transferred to Clonmacnoise. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem of this version:
With quite a crowd, a thousand in beautiful order.
They see a sudden ship sail the sky,
And someone who casts a spear after fish:
It struck the ground, and swimming he retrieved it.
Who can hear of this without praising the Lord above?
"The Annals Say" -- Seamus Heaney
The annals say: when the monks of ClonmacnoiseThroughout all these versions, from the brief one-liner in the Annals of Ulster through the fuller account in the Book of Ballymote to the transfer of location to Clonmacnoise, TOF is struck by the sheer matter-of-factness of the accounts. Oh, by the way, ships with their crews were plainly seen in the sky this year... There's no gosh-wow who'd-believe-this! as if ships that sail the air were two-a-penny.
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shimmied and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
People always make up stories. But why would they make up this particular story? It seems pointless. No great deeds are done, no hair-raising adventures. Ships were seen in the air and... moving right along an abbot died and a king was slain in battle and... so on. As far as TOF can tell (which is not very far) this was a single event told and retold. It's first telling was not precise as to year, but it's not as if we find it repeated in the 800s or the 900s or earlier in the 600s or 500s. If ships were seen in the air, it's not as if they kept coming back. It's on a par with the strange milky rain that settled on the grass in the 1220s and killed the cows that ate the grass and the people who drank the milk the cows gave.