Ballooning in Kilkenny
Edward J Law (2015)
The crowds which assemble in Kilkenny’s Castle Park whenever it is the venue for the launch of gaily-coloured hot-air balloons, show the strong attraction which this antiquated and impractical mode of aerial transport holds for many people. Watching the stately progress of balloons from a distance, out of earshot of the periodic roar of their burners, is a delightful and soothing spectacle.
Probably few who come to such a display in the twenty-first century would be aware that the same entertainment was on offer to the citizens of Kilkenny in 1784, nearly 230 years ago. This was pioneering aviation: the Montgolfier brothers had only discovered the principle behind hot-air ballooning at the end of 1782. And a mere nine months earlier they had demonstrated their invention before Louis the 16th of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, when the basket carried the first living creatures into the air, a sheep, a duck and a rooster.
So the excitement in June 1784 when Scotsman James Dinwiddie announced that he would be launching a balloon from the barrack yard can be imagined. The entry charge of one shilling probably ensured that the gentry and middle classes had plenty of space to observe the charging and raising of the balloon inside the yard, whilst the surrounding streets and eminences would have provided vantage points for the more thrifty. The circumference of the balloon was only sixteen feet, so that whilst it would provide a spectacle, it was unlikely that there was any intention to attempt a manned flight and it was probably intended as a tethered rather than a free flight.
Perhaps some of those who paid their shilling were hoping to benefit from the full explanation which, it was promised, would enable any gentleman to construct and fill balloons at pleasure. No further report of the proceedings has survived, but ballooning was, and continues to be, dependent upon good weather, and adverse conditions may have led to the cancellation of the event. Later that week Dinwiddie was to lecture at the Tholsel, with a small balloon being filled and floated in the room, before proceeding to Carlow for another launch.
Dinwiddie was a scientist; he styled himself a lecturer in experimental philosophy, and lectured throughout Ireland on pyrotechnics, aerostatics and the diving bell. He had a great rivalry in ballooning with Richard Crosbie of Baltinglass, but his announced intention in 1783 to make a manned flight did not materialise and Crosbie became the first Irish aeronaut in January 1785, taking off from Ranelagh Gardens, Dublin, and landing safely near Clontarf. Dinwiddie was more successful with his diving bell, making a descent off the Dublin coast in 1783. Such early experiments, however, were truly dangerous, and the owner of the diving bell, and his assistant, whose intent had been to recover treasure from a ship-wreck, both died when their air supply failed.
In 1844, sixty years after Dinwiddie’s display, the people of Kilkenny were again promised a balloon ascent, on that occasion from the College lawn. Mr Bruce, of Portobello Gardens in Dublin, finding that his visit coincided with the christening of the infant Earl of Ossory, linked the two events in his publicity, no doubt seeking to benefit from the implied patronage of the Marquis of Ormonde. Whilst the balloon was being inflated the crowd were entertained by the sending up of small balloons. When the main balloon was airborne and floating above the spectators, a parachute was detached from it and dropped slowly and regularly, but that was the highpoint of the display and there was much disappointment that “the aeronaut” remained firmly on the ground.