By Martin Gleeson
The first Irishman to make a manned flight
Richard Crosbie came from Crosbie Park, near Baltinglass in Co. Wicklow. Born in 1755, he grew up to be a big man of six feet three inches. He attended Trinity College and his colleagues described him as ‘a most ingenious mechanic.’ He had an early aptitude for engineering and became interested in using a hydrogen-filled balloon to enable flight through the air.
The Cat and the Balloon
Crosbie’s first experiments involved him attaching a little boat to a balloon and using animals as passengers. In one case, he used a cat, and when the balloon rose into the air, it drifted over the west coast of Scotland and descended at sea near the Isle of Man. Luckily, the cat and balloon were rescued by a passing ship.
The aeronautical Chariot
At the end of 1784, Crosbie showed his “Aeronautical Chariot” at an exhibition in Ranelagh Gardens, in Dublin. Designed and build by himself, Crosbie’s creation was a gondola, with rudder and sails and made of wood and cloth. Attached to it was a large balloon. The boat and balloon were painted with the coat of arms of Ireland.
Crosbie’s ambition was that the balloon would bring him across the Irish sea to London.
First flight in Ireland
On January 19th 1785, thousands of people in Ranelagh came to witness Crosbie’s attempt to cross the Irish Sea by air. There was a long wait while he used Sulphuric Acid, water and iron filings to produce the hydrogen gas. Then, to great cheers, Richard Crosbie ascended into the air. After ten minutes or so, he released a valve and landed safely in Clontarf, having covered a distance of about 5 miles. This was the first flight by an Irishman!
An ecstatic crowd carried him shoulder high in his gondola, with the balloon floating above it to the home of Lord Charlemont in Rutland Square. The next day, he was presented with a gift of £200 from the viceroy to mark his amazing achievement.
Crosbie attempted 3 more flights in Dublin.
In May 1785, a flight from Palatine Square had to be abandoned due to bad weather.
A few days later, the balloon failed to rise due to Crosbie’s sizable weight, so he sent a student instead. The balloon headed towards the coast and eventually came down in the sea about nine miles north-east of Howth. Luckily, the student was rescued.
Crosbie’s last attempt in Dublin was from Leinster Lawn. He himself travelled by balloon. It rose to a great height and travelled out to sea. Crosbie viewed the Welsh coast, but the weather conditions deteriorated, and he came down in the water. A rescue boat had followed his course and rescue him.
Crosbie returned to a rousing welcome in Dublin.
Crosbie’s last ever flight took place in Limerick in April 1786. After producing the hydrogen gas, he took off from Clancy Strand in the city centre on the banks of the Shannon. He spent over three hours in flight over the Shannon estuary and he enjoyed a meal and bottle of wine while he travelled. He landed in a field near Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co. Clare. This was where Shannon Airport lies today.
After his balloon flights, Crosbie travelled widely, mostly in the USA. He returned to Dublin and died there in 1824. People interested in air travel like to view the statue of Richard Crosbie in Ranelagh Gardens, in Dublin. He is portrayed standing on a globe, holding a paper aeroplane in his hand.