A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Ships That Sail the Air

Every writer of fantasy and science fiction is either Irish or ought to be, as there is something SFnal about the Irish imagination. In the Annals of Ulster, Annals of Tigernach, Annals of Clonmacnoise, and the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as in some manuscripts of the Lebar Gábala there is an odd story about ships sailing in the sky in (depending on which annal) the year 743, 744, or 748.  The Annals of Ulster, for example, state laconically that “Ships with their crews were seen in the air.” (The entry is for 749, but the annals were one year ahead at that point.) This is replicated in the Four Masters at 743 as "Ships with their crews, were plainly seen in the sky this year." It's listed right after "Congal, son of Eigneach, lord of the Airtheara, was slain at Rath Esclair, by Donnboo, son of Cubreatan." One of those two notes was more of a stop-the-presses man-bites-dog kind of thing, and TOF does not mean the Fell Deed of Donnboo, which TOF cannot even write without giggling. What a name for a barbarian hero. Donnboo. But we digress.

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 assembly
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?
Later, the story was transferred to Clonmacnoise. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem of this version:

"The Annals Say" -- Seamus Heaney
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
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.
Throughout 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.

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.


  1. There is that aspect of Irish yarns (the few I've heard, anyway) wherein the extremely unlikely to impossible is simply laid out, matter of fact, as a sort of challenge: you want to dispute this?

    There's a Bradbury story or two that play off this feature, the titles of which I of course cannot now recall.

    1. There's an Irish ghost story about a road through a village. People who walk down that road, if they are distracted, will subconsciously walk around a particular spot in the road. Asked about it, they would report an odd feeling that they were about to walk into someone, though there was no one there. Apparently, a young woman of the village had killed herself on that spot.

      But that's all there was to it. No gruesome apparitions, no howling voices. Nothing you could make into a movie. Just that odd turning-aside spot in the road. If you were watching where you were going, you'd just walk straight through it.

      I've sometimes thought that if ghost stories were true, they would be stories like that.

  2. Fata Morgana, perhaps, embellished?

  3. Would weather conditions in Ireland even allow a Fata Morgana?

    It is not as if it were the Sahara!

    Now, supposing it is not a Fata Morgana, also a reasonable supposition, what about hell demons making an early try at the deception type known now as extraterrestrials and UFOs?

    Or, for that matter, angels from God warning the Irish that Vikings might come to punish them for worldliness, schism from Rome and various sins?

  4. Where can I learn more about the milky rain that killed the cows and the people who drank the cow's milk? Google found the manchineel tree which has a poisonous milky sap that falls to the ground during a rainstorm, but that's a New World plant. I also found this page ( ) on medieval disasters, but only lists that cattle died. Can you recommend a book or other source on the subject, please?

    1. It was either in the Annala Connaught or in the Four Masters, entry for the years 1223-1225, since I don't entirely recollect. It was just before the Sons of Rory left the hospitality of the O Neil and came back into Connaught at the instigation of O Flaherty and others opposed to the sons of Cathal.

    2. Thank you, it was in the Annala, entry 1224.2

    3. Can you post the entry here, or otherwise where one might find the story online.

    4. In the Annals of Connacht, here:
      at 1224.2
      and in the Four Masters here
      at 1224.7
      And in the Annals of Lough Ce
      at 1224.1

      The next year at 1225.5 also has interest:
      and here in Lough Ce at 1225.8


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