A Ship and Crew in the Air

Patrick Weston Joyce

On a certain day when Congalach, king of Ireland,[1] was at the fair at Tailltenn [2] with a great assembly of the men of Erin around him, he looked upwards and saw a ship floating about in the air high over his head. While the king and his people were gazing at this strange sight and following it with their eyes in silent wonder, they saw one of the crew come forth and cast a dart at a salmon, which appeared also suspended in the air near the ship. He missed his mark, and the dart fell to the ground in the presence of all: so the man walked out over the side of the ship, and floating gently down towards the spot where his spear was lying, he stretched forth his hand to pick it up.

The people were so bent on watching the ship and the man that they neither spoke nor stirred till the stranger was near the ground; when one of the king's attendants, bolder than the rest, ran forward as the man was about to ascend with the spear, and catching him by the head, held him down. The voyager struggled to get free, shouting out at the same time in the hearing of all "I am drowning! I am drowning!"

The king on hearing this, came forward and commanded the man to let the stranger go. As soon as he was set free he floated upwards, much in the same way as he had come down, moving his hands and feet gently all the time, like a person swimming, and when he had got to the ship he went in over the side and the people saw no more of him. The ship itself then moved slowly away, and they soon lost sight of it among the clouds.

The Norse Kongs Skuggio's account differs somewhat. Here it is related that on a Sunday, while the people were at Mass in Clonmacnoise, there dropped from the air, hanging from a rope, an anchor, the fluke of which caught in an arch at the church door. The astonished people looked upwards along the rope and saw a ship floating on top. One of the crew leaped overboard and dived and swam down to loosen the anchor, when some of the congregation seized and held him while he struggled to free himself; till the bishop, who happened to be just then present, directed them to let him go; for, as he said, if held down he would die as if held under water. They let him go and up he floated, when the crew cut the rope at top and the ship sailed away out of sight. The old Norseman gravely adds, of course as he heard the story:—"And the anchor has since lain in Clonmacnoise church as a witness that the event really occurred."

One can hardly help thinking that the original narrator of this extraordinary occurrence had in his mind an idea something like this:—that the crew of the ship were the inhabitants of the upper air, the region beyond the clouds, who had ventured for once on an unusual voyage of discovery down towards the earth. The air of these elevated regions is extremely thin and ethereal, and the bodies of the people must be correspondingly pure and light; so that the air at the surface of the earth appeared to them as gross and liquid and as unfit to live in as water does to us.

[1] Congalach reigned A.D. 944 to 956—when he was slain in battle by the Danes. This is the same king who figures in the Wonder of the Buried Giant farther on.

[2] Tailltenn, now Teltown on the Blackwater, about midway between Navan and Kells in Meath; where in old times great fairs were held yearly, and games celebrated like the Olympic Games of Greece. (For this fair and others like it, see my "Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland," chap. xxv.)