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Hydrogen Man [ITM, 07/08]

As featured in The Irish Times Magazine, Saturday July 12th 2008.

IN APRIL 2008, a daredevil Brazilian priest took to the skies, armed with a cluster of 1,000 helium balloons and a satellite phone. His balloons were found scattered in the ocean but Fr de Carli is no more.

One wonders if the late priest had ever heard of the portly aeronaut Richard Crosbie, who, in 1785, became the first Irishman to fly. Crosbie had spent much of his childhood devising peculiar contraptions at his family home in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. By 1783, he was a student at Trinity College, listening to the tale of two Frenchmen who had just spent 25 minutes in the sky in a hot air balloon. Crosbie vowed he would one day cross the Irish Sea. His chosen vehicle would be a rubberised silk balloon filled with hydrogen.

To raise funds for his adventure, the six-foot, three-inch Crosbie held an exhibition in Ranelagh Gardens in Dublin. For a small fee, the public was invited to examine both his balloon and the “aeronautic chariot” which would carry himself, his equipment, scientific instruments and ballast. On the last day, he launched the balloon skywards with a cat on board. It travelled north-west, rolled up the Scottish coast and was recovered near the Isle of Man the following day. Crosbie let his fans know that next time, he would be on board.

Ticket sales for the big event went through the roof, with forged tickets adding to the mayhem. At 2.30pm on January 19th, 1785, Richard Crosbie stepped into his aeronautical chariot. Ever the showman, he wore a long, fur-lined robe of oiled silk, a waistcoat and breeches of white quilted satin, Moroccan boots and a leopard skin cap. His balloon was embellished with paintings of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, and Mercury, the messenger of the gods, carrying the coat of arms of Ireland.

He saluted the 20,000 strong crowd, ordered the ropes cut and ascended into the heavens over Dublin. He was visible for three and half minutes, then disappeared into a cloud.

His audience roared with delight. As it happened, he only got as far as Clontarf before loosening the valve and returning to earth.

Crosbie might not have crossed the Irish Sea but the flight was hailed as a pioneering scientific achievement across Europe and considered a great victory for Ireland.

The event is recalled by a small plaque in Ranelagh Gardens.

© 2008 The Irish Times