This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories, and tradition.
What do we know of the world above? Of the stars and planets, of the galaxies far beyond our sight? As strange as it is to think about, there are infinite worlds out there that few of us will ever come close to experiencing – and, though it may never be proven, the possibility of strange new lives far beyond our atmosphere make for enthralling tales. But, if the stories are to be believed, a group of early Irish people came closer than most to contact with the world above our world, and the strange people who inhabit it.
I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
In the middle of the 8th Century, a strange event was recorded in Ireland. Three ships were seen in the sky – sailing through the air just as easily boats can sail on the sea. Looking up from the ground, the people who witnessed it spotted men on board the ships. A crew of people flying far above them – as though they were on waves, and we, the people of earth, were underwater.
This brief account, recorded in several Irish Annals, was purported to have been a true event – not a legend. The people were real, and so, it was written, were the ships they saw. But in manuscripts and in people’s minds, accounts of this wondrous sighting grew, in the centuries that followed, into a longer, more dramatic tale. One that was told throughout Ireland, and much further afield. A story of anchors, spears, and drowning men. A story that remains with us to this day.
Let’s look at the original accounts first, however.
The earliest recording of the ships from the sky was in the year 743 CE, at the Assembly of Tailtiu, seen by king Domnall son of Murchad, with his people. The Tailtiu Assembly is fascinating just by itself – held near what’s now known as Teltown in County Meath, the assembly was a gathering, fair and contest held every year at the beginning of august. It’s traditionally said to date back to ancient times, set up by Lugh of the Long Arms in memory of his foster mother Taillte. And though that is probably an exaggeration, the event was in place for centuries, and was one of the greatest of Ireland’s annual gatherings. In some ways, the Assembly was almost like an early Irish Olympics – there were games, races and water sports showcasing Ireland’s greatest athletes. But it was also a celebration of life and death – according to the stories that are told of the assembly, many people would be married on the day of the fair, and the whole event was held at the burial mounds of some of the great legendary figures and Kings of Ireland of days gone by.
So the Assembly of Tailltiu was a rich, ritual-filled cultural celebration – one of those magical festivals where it seems like miracles really can happen. It was one of the most special events in the Irish calendar, and was certainly a time and place where people looked out for special, miraculous occurrences to record – that often became somewhat exaggerated in their retelling. There are several recordings of the “wonders” that happened at the Assembly at Tailltiu – one miracle told of a man who was beheaded at the Assembly, but went on living without his head for seven years afterward, cared for by monks at Clonmacnoise. Another of the wonders, of course, was the sighting of the ships in the sky.
The first account of the sky ships was very brief – just a passing reference, with almost no detail. As the centuries passed however, the story began to change, as most stories do when they are told, over and over again. Events shift and alter in people’s minds. New details are added. The story grows. People were fascinated by the sky ships, but were even more curious about the sailors on board, and so eventually, this curiosity began to shape the story. In one 12th century version, when the crowd watched, a man from the sky ship cast a spear out at a fish that was flying alongside it, and then leaped out from the ship, swimming through the air to retrieve his prize. In another, as the sky man came down, the people below in Tailtiu caught hold of the other end of his spear, preventing him from swimming back upward. “You are drowning me!” said the man in the air. Finally, the King at Tailtiu ordered his people to let the man go, and he swam upward, skyward, back to his ship. Who can hear such things, wrote the recorder of this story, without praising the Lord of Heaven.
By the 13th century, after the Assembly of Tailltiu had died out in the wake of the Norman invasion of Ireland, stories told about the sky ships moved location from Tailltiu to the monastery of Clonmacnoise. The watching crowd became not a king and his subjects, but a bishop and his congregation. By this time too, the story wasn’t just being told in Ireland, but had reached fame and interest far throughout Europe. In fact, a 13th century Norse book called The King’s Mirror records the story of the sky ships as one of the many miracles and wonders of Ireland. This Norse version of the tale is one of the most embellished and dramatic stories.
There happened something once in the borough called Clonmacnoise which will also seem marvellous. In this town there is a church dedicated to the memory of a saint named Ciarán. One Sunday while the populace was at church hearing mass, an anchor was dropped from the sky as if thrown from a ship. A rope was attached to it, and one of the flukes of the anchor got stuck in the arch above the church door. The people all rushed out of the church and marvelled much as their eyes followed the rope upward. They saw a ship with men on board floating before the anchor cable; and soon they saw a man leap overboard and dive down to the anchor as if to release it. The movements of his hands and feet and all his actions appeared like those of a man swimming in the water. When the man came down to the anchor, he tried to loosen it, but the people immediately rushed up and attempted to seize him. In the church where the anchor was caught there is a bishop’s throne. The bishop was present when this occurred and forbade his people to hold the man; for, said he, it might prove fatal as when one is held under water. As soon as the man was released, he hurried back up to the ship; and when he was up the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed away out of sight. But the anchor has remained in the church ever since.
Ireland wasn’t the only place where sky ships were seen in these centuries. France, London and Bristol, among other places, all recorded similar sightings. In Lyon, France, the people had a very different opinion of what they saw however. The recorder, Agobard of Lyon, was pretty sceptical, and left us in no doubt as to his view of the people who believed in the boats and their sailors:
But we have seen and heard of many people overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity, that they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds.
And the French believers did not look on these ship sightings with curiosity and wonder, but with anger and fear. They believed that the sky ships stole their crops and grains during the terrible storms in the area, and offered them up to the wizards or deities that had made the storms. And so, the people of Lyon hated these sky people – seeing them as heathen thieves who stole away the fruits of their hard-earned labour. One time, Agobard of Lyon records, four people were taken captive – three men and a woman – and it was said by the people in the area that these were four of the sky sailors, who had fallen from the ships above. When Agobard saw the four captives, they had already been held in chains for several days, and the people were so angry and fearful of them that they were preparing to stone them to death. We don’t know exactly what happened to these four nameless captives, but Agobard tells us that “the truth prevailed,” – so hopefully they escaped this terrible fate. After all, if witch trials and other historical events have taught us anything, it’s that people accused of being supernatural rarely actually are.
The question you might be asking at this stage is – could there be a non-miraculous, non-wicked, but still no less out-of-this-world explanation for the strange sight that these people saw? Could what the people have seen in Ireland all those centuries ago have been not a magical flying ship, but a spaceship? Could this have been an early visitation, from a planet or galaxy far far away?
Ever since the mid 20th Century, there has been an explosion of interest in space and the possibility of alien visitations, when terms like “UFO” became widely used. And people have often looked backwards through time, to try to find signs that beings from other worlds have visited us in the past. Indeed, believers have often pointed to a similar record, from Rome in 215 BC, of “phantom ships” that were seen “gleaming in the sky” above the watchers, or to a strange “airship” sighting reported at the turn of the last century, in Maine in 1896. The record of the Irish sky ships has certainly been used, along with many of these other historical reports and stories, by people looking for proof that there are other lives out there in the world beyond our sky – that they have visited us before, and will return to us again. And of course, anything is possible. But as to whether it’s likely, that’s another story.
Because after all, when we think of spaceships today, the image in our minds is pretty different to what people 1200 years ago would have meant when they said they had seen a ship in the sky. Our ideas of space ships are sleek, and futuristic, and nothing at all like the ships of ancient medieval times. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the sailors on board were said to swim through the sky, or hunted fish that swam in the air alongside the boat. These don’t seem like obvious parallels to a high-tech, space-worthy ship. They seem more like metaphors and symbols, allowing medieval people to understand their own world, rather than proof of a visit from the next.
The 9th century and even up to the 13th century, when the story of the ships was shared in Ireland, was a time long before thinkers like Galileo and Copernicus revolutionised and solidified European understanding of the universe, and the planets and worlds beyond our own world. With true scientific understanding still centuries away, and a belief in heaven and hell as real, tangible places still strong, people had to come up with their own ideas to explain the universe and how it all might work and fit together.
One such idea was that there was a sea far above us, that separated our world from the next. “If our fathers have not lied,” the peasants of La Vendée in France used to say, “there are birds that know the way of the upper sea, and may no doubt carry a message to the blessed in Paradise.” A 12th Century English writer and cleric, Gervase of Tilbury, was completely convinced of this upper sea theory, and shared several stories illustrating it.
One of Gervase of Tilbury’s tales he said happened in London, but was remarkably similar to the tale told of Clonmacnoise. A sky ship appeared, an anchor was lowered, and a man swam down through the air to retrieve it, only to be grabbed by the watching crowd. But in this English version of the story, the man does not escape back to his ship above. He gasped and struggled in the hands of his captors, and then, like a man lost in a shipwreck, he drowned, suffocated by the damp, thick atmosphere. After waiting for an hour for their lost ship mate, the sailors in the sky ship above them eventually cut loose the anchor, and sailed away, never to be seen again.
Gervase of Tilbury also told another story that he felt proved conclusively the sky ocean theory. A man from Bristol set sail for Ireland, leaving his wife and family at home. When storms and currents blew the man’s ship off course, he ended up in a remote part of the ocean, far away from his home and his Irish destination. Worse still, one evening as he washed up after eating, he lost his knife, dropping it out of the boat and into the deep ocean below. At that very moment, far away in Bristol, the man’s wife and children were sitting down for supper – when lo and behold, a knife dropped through the open skylight above them, and plunged into the table where they sat. When the husband finally found his way back home, he and his wife compared stories, and realised it was in fact the very same knife, and was lost and appeared at exactly the same moment in both places. “Who then,” Gervase of Tilbury proclaimed, “after such evidence as this, will doubt the existence of a sea above this earth of ours, situated in the air or over it?”
Gervase of Tilbury seems to have believed in sky seas and sky ships as a literal truth of the universe. But for many others in this time, stories of ships in the sky and other strange happenings were just that – stories and symbols, designed to open your mind to new possibilities, and widen the scope of your thinking. And medieval people were much more complex thinkers than we often give them credit for. They dwelt in a world that was permeated by symbolism, where the natural and the supernatural mingled and overlapped, and reality and imagination combined into a totally different way of making sense of the world.
There are many stories in Irish and other manuscripts where land, sea and sky are not the distinct categories we think of today. One example is this 11th Century story of two Irish saints, Scoithín and Barra.
When Scoithín met Barra of Cork, he walking on the sea and Barra was in a ship. “How is it that you are walking on the sea?” said Barra. “It is not the sea at all, but a flowery blossomy field, ” said Scoithin, and he took up in his hand a crimson flower and threw it to Barra in the ship. Then Scoithin said, “How is it that a ship is floating on the field?” At those words, Barra stretched his hand down into the sea and took a salmon out of it, and threw it to Scoithin.
Stories like this encouraged their readers and listeners to open their minds to new ways of perceiving the world. Medieval writers used everyday objects and settings that everybody could instantly understand – but in making them unfamiliar and filling them with wonder, they were able to impart complex lessons in symbolism, faith and perception. Ships and seas were some of the most potent and popular symbols used in stories like this. And although the story may not have been taken by those who heard it as being literally true, the lesson behind the story would be real and tangible enough. Perhaps that explains this final 13th Century account of a sky ship visit in St Alban’s monastery in England:
About midnight, the moon being eight days old, and the firmament studded with stars, and the air completely calm, there appeared in the sky, wonderful to relate, the form of a large ship, well-shaped, and of remarkable design and colour. This apparition was seen by some monks of St. Alban’s … and they at once called together all their friends and followers who were in the house, to see the wonderful apparition. The vessel appeared for a long time, as if it were painted, and really built with planks; but at length it began by degrees to dissolve and disappear. Wherefore, it was believed to have been a cloud, but a wonderful and extraordinary one.
Although in the wake of the vision, the monks agreed that they had seen a cloud, rather than a ship in the sky, they were just as fascinated and awestruck as if what they had seen had been real. It was not the truth of the vision that made it miraculous – rather, it was the lesson it imparted, and the chance, for a moment, to see something extraordinary in the ordinary world.
So, we can see as we track the sky ship story across countries and through the centuries, the marks of a tale taking shape – growing and changing in detail, scale and meaning, from the seed of an event once remembered, hundreds of years ago. Maybe it will continue to grow and change, when you or I tell it today. But what about that true beginning? How did that first sighting of the ship from the sky come to be told? What really was seen in the air at the assembly of Tailltiu? Was it an illusion, a mirage, or a fiction to educate people on a point we can now only guess at? Or could it, truly, have been a miracle of science or magic? The truth is, we will never know.
And maybe that’s ok. Because for me, that’s not really the point of this tale. What makes this story so wonderful is not what it teaches us about the possibility of other worlds, but about the strangeness and magic of our own, when we view it through new eyes. I’ve talked in other episodes about The Land of Promise, The Land of Youth, and other magical places that holy men and legendary figures alike set their sights on in days gone by. In this story of the sky ships, though, we see that, to the people who came from the world above, Ireland itself could also be a legendary destination, and could be just as fascinating, mysterious and as dangerous as their fabled lands appeared to us. For a moment in this story, when we think of the ship and its people, we get a rare chance to glimpse our own world through the eyes of a stranger, and see it for all the wonder it holds. Above or below, human or visitor, air, land or sea – perhaps wonder is all just a matter of your perspective.
As Seamus Heaney put it, more eloquently, in his poem about the sky ship in Clonmacnoise:
“…the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.”
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. I am glad to be back, and sorry it’s been such a long time between seasons this time! I am overwhelmed by how many new people have listened and followed in the time I’ve been away – you are all welcome. I am glad to be back at long last, and can’t wait to start sharing more folklore-filled episodes with you in the weeks to come.
You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode, as well as the podcast script, on my website, Unrealpodcast.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please tell a friend or leave a review on apple podcasts or elsewhere. And get in touch if you have any ideas for stories and folklore you would like me to explore in the future – I love hearing from you!
I will be back – hopefully in two week’s time although I am moving house so it could be a little longer! – with another story to share. And until then, go neiri an bothar leat.