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Achieving The Holy Grail of Ballooning

Balloonist John Dunville had to abandon his wife when he crossed the Irish Sea 100 years ago, says frank hopkins

The sport of ballooning is now more than 220 years old and it enjoyed great popularity in Ireland during its fledgling years. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Holy Grail for Irish balloonists was the crossing of the Irish Sea, and most of these attempts were launched in Dublin.

Belfast balloonist John Dunville made the crossing 100 years ago in a time of four hours and 47 minutes.

Dunville's voyage began at the Dublin Gas Company works at Barrow Street in Ringsend on February 16th, 1910. Dunville and his travelling companion set off from Ringsend at eight minutes past ten in the morning and their ascent was witnessed by a small crowd who cheered the men on their way. The wind was so strong at the time that it took 40 men to hold the inflated balloon down.

Dunville's wife had intended to make the cross- channel trip with her husband but at the last moment it was decided that the trip was too dangerous for three people to undertake in the heavy winds. Mrs Dunville was an experienced balloonist in her own right and had already flown across the English Channel to Belgium with her husband and two others the previous year.

She later expressed her disappointment at not being able to accompany her husband on the trip. "I got into the car, and thought we were fairly off, but to my great disappointment I found that they would have to throw out too much ballast. When I was in the car they threw out seven bags, and then I knew I would have to get out. I knew I displaced three bags of ballast, which they would require to throw out, and you know they could not throw me out!"

When the right moment came, the balloon -- the St Louis -- was untied and it ascended rapidly and headed towards Howth, at the rate of 40 miles per hour, where it disappeared from sight in the sea mists enveloping the east coast.

The balloon was spotted later on flying high over Holyhead in Wales and it finally came to land in Macclesfield at 2.55pm. The maximum altitude achieved by Dunville on the flight was 10,000 feet and he travelled across the channel at an average speed of 34 miles per hour.

Dubliner Richard Crosbie made the first attempt to cross the Irish sea by balloon on July 19th, 1785, when he took off from the lawn at Leinster House. Halfway between Dún Laoghaire and Holyhead the balloon was forced into the sea by thunder and lightning and a severe hailstorm. Crosbie was eventually rescued by the Dún Laoghaire barge and brought safely back to Dublin.

In 1812, the famous balloonist James Sadler launched a balloon from the gardens of Belvedere House, Drumcondra, in another unsuccessful attempt to make the crossing. Almost as soon as he was airborne, Sadler ran into trouble when he noticed a tear in the balloon's valve cord tube and was forced to make a makeshift repair with his scarf.

Sadler was eventually forced to ditch the balloon in the sea and he was rescued by the crew of a herring trawler. Sadler later had the satisfaction of seeing his son, Windham, complete the task on July 22nd, 1817. Windham's balloon took off from Portobello Barracks in Rathmines at 1.30pm that day and he landed safely at Anglesey five and a half hours later.