It came from outer space...
As a classic Irish sci-fi film is screened, Damian Corless reports on our long relationship with the occupants of inter-planetary craft
This week the Irish Independent revealed that flying saucers once hovered menacingly over the skies of Monaghan. The UFOs, alas, came not from outer space but as props in a low-budget sci-fi movie made by Desmond Leslie, the late proprietor of Castle Leslie, in 1954.
The movie, which included a cameo by veteran TV astronomer Patrick Moore, is being shown today as part of Archive Home Movie Heritage Day in the Irish Film Institute in Dublin's Temple Bar, and will be compered by Ryan Tubridy.
Leslie's amateur flick came a year after he wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel, Flying Saucers Have Landed, and the star of the show was an old Spanish Renaissance shield -- plucked from a wall in the castle -- which doubled as a UFO when hung on a fishing line and made to glow with the reflected light from a mirror.
The news of an Irish aristocrat's fascination with extra-terrestrial visitors comes a week after the British government released declassified files suggesting that former Prime Minister Winston Churchill covered up a report of an alien invasion of Earth.
As a result, the bookmaker William Hill announced it was cutting the odds from 100-1 to 80-1 that either Downing Street or the White House would admit the existence of aliens within the next year.
The newly released material contains claims that, during World War II, a reconnaissance aircraft was shadowed by a UFO over the English coast. The plane's crew reportedly took photos of the strange object as it "hovered noiselessly" before zipping off.
Churchill allegedly consulted with the US General Dwight Eisenhower before ordering that the file should be buried for 50 years, "since it would create mass panic among the general population and destroy one's belief in the church".
Some years later, as the Cold War went into deep freeze, Churchill was still deeply concerned about the threat from space. In 1952 he wrote to the Air Ministry, asking: "What does all this stuff about flying saucers amount to? What can it mean? What is the truth?"
His concerns were shared by British Intelligence, who had set up a Flying Saucer Working Party in 1950 to investigate an epidemic of sightings from the public.
The declassified British files support the theory that UFO sightings and Cold War paranoia were inextricably linked. They show that during the decades of the face-off with the Soviet Union, RAF fighters were scrambled at the rate of three a week to investigate strange objects in the skies.
These incidents virtually dropped to zero after the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. Last September, Britain shut down its Unidentified Flying Objects Unit, saying that monitoring UFO reports was an extravagance in a time of recession, especially when there wasn't a shred of evidence for their existence. During the last major recession, Ireland's Department of Defence came to the same conclusion, closing its UFO files in 1984.
Ireland began monitoring UFO reports at the start of the Cold War in 1947, and one of the earliest, from Cahirciveen in Co Kerry, told of a circular object moving "faster than a motor car" through the sky. A shopkeeper reported: "It was flat and was like a big wheel or large plate."
One of the last entries, from 1984, came from Cashel, Co Tipperary, where a young boy claimed he saw a flying object "the same shape as a fried egg" that gave off a dazzling light and made a buzzing noise like a chainsaw.
The Defence Forces may have decided that investigating UFO sightings is a waste of their time, but Ireland's UFO spotters have found other outlets for their tales. The website ufoinfo.com is one of a number that invite members of the public to post their reports. The site lists scores of sightings for this year, covering almost every county in Ireland.
The first reported sighting of this year occurred on the night of January 1 over Carlow and consisted of "three bright orange lights in a triangle formation". The spotter admits the objects may have been "Chinese lanterns" hung out for New Year's Day, but reflects that this "may not be an adequate explanation".
The most recent UFO sighting on the list is dated August 2. The lone witness said that at 11.30pm they saw "four orange balls" high in the sky over Celbridge, Co Kildare. The balls "seemed to be flickering as if illuminated by fire" and the spotter insisted "they could not be silly balloons because they were moving in different directions very quickly and turned left and right in a strange, lightning-fast sort of way.
After about five minutes two disappeared and the other two moved off very quickly -- toward the wind."
Trawling through the reports of hundreds of Irish UFO sightings, one recurring theme is that the majority took place late at night or in the early hours of the morning. A number of reports link sightings with ancient monuments such as Tara and Newgrange. Beyond these, there are few threads of consistency. UFOs, it seems, come in all shapes and sizes, from hollow doughnuts, to triangles, to blimp-like objects, to flat saucers. Many observers report that their UFO made no sound, while many others remark on a variety of loud noises.
The name Roswell has become synonymous with UFOs worldwide, with conspiracy theorists claiming the US military covered up a true life encounter with extraterrestrials. The allegation is that, in 1947, the military recovered UFO debris and alien corpses from a crash site near the city in New Mexico. An alleged incident in Boyle, Co Roscommon, in 1996 has been dubbed "Ireland's Roswell" by enthusiasts who claim the Irish Government engaged in a similar cover-up.
There are several variations on the "Boyle Crash" story that centres on a mysterious flying object hitting trees and bouncing into a lake in the Curlew Mountains near the town.
Rumours began to circulate that the Irish Defence Forces mobilised ground troops and aircraft to secure the area, after which a number of black limos and jeeps arrived in the area carrying men with foreign accents. One anonymous garda was reported as saying the Irish security forces were told to "keep their noses out of it" by government officials in league with the foreign agents.
Two years later, with stories persisting that surviving aliens had been whisked from the crash site, the Roscommon Herald reported "mysterious lights hovering" over the town under the headline "Flying Saucer In Boyle". In 2000 there were further reports of "a very big craft with beams of light emanating from it" over Boyle.
Shortly after the "Boyle Crash", a group of enthusiasts gave a talk on the incident in a local pub. Such was the reaction that the Western UFO Society was founded, which quickly generated such a broad appeal that it is now The UFO Society Of Ireland.
The Society's founder and Boyle resident Betty Meyler told a conference that she has "discovered" a UFO portal "just off the shore of Church Island in Lough Key in the Forest Park just outside of Boyle".
David Moore of Astronomy Ireland (www.astronomy.ie) has been scanning the skies for many years without glimpsing a single little green man.
He says: "We get lots of reports, and usually they're readily explained, as are over 90pc of sightings around the world.
"The Roswell conspiracy keeps fuelling interest. My opinion is that a pilot thought he saw discs. The military press officer mentioned UFOs in a casual manner. His bosses came down on him like a tonne of bricks and it looked like a cover-up. We've been watching the skies for decades and we've seen nothing like alien life."
Moore spoke in the week after showers of shooting stars were seen in the skies over Ireland. Who knows, maybe one of them was Desmond Leslie's UFO back for a flying visit...