Hot Air Balloons in Belfast

Ireland has witnessed many experiments to harness the power of flight

Ireland has witnessed many experiments to harness the power of flight. The first Irishman to fly a plane was Harry Ferguson, who achieved his record by flying a monoplane over his father’s farmyard in 1909. A full-scale model of that plane can be seen in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra. In 1932, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, crash landed at Culmore, Co Londonderry.

Belfast features prominently in aviation history, particularly with regards to hot air ballooning. On May 27, 1824, a man called Livingstone made a balloon ascent from the back of the new Infantry Barracks at North Queen Street. This was the first aeronautical flight ever in Belfast. He made three attempts on three successive days, finally succeeding on the third evening. Livingstone’s balloon came down at Fortwilliam and he was carried triumphantly back to the town.

Places such as Dargan’s Island and later Botanic Gardens became regular take off points for balloon ascents. These flights developed to such an extent that cross channel journeys became the goal of the intrepid navigators of the skies. On April 18, 1881, Botanic Gardens was the scene of a double balloon flight. The Champion, owned by a Mr Morton, and the larger Reliance, owned by a Mr Barker of London, were launched within 15 minutes of each other. The events were recorded by a local journalist travelling in the Reliance:

‘Within fifteen minutes the barometer registered 5,000 feet as they passed to the west of Lisburn, some seven miles from Belfast, then on to Lurgan. After Lurgan and at a height of 6,000 feet a different current caught the balloon and directed them towards Portadown when they began a very rapid descent, having lost a considerable quantity of gas. When down to 3,800 feet they could hear shouting as the country people on observing the great balloon in the sky started to pursue them, running from all quarters to where they thought the balloon was going to land. The descent was exceedingly rapid but the navigator began to off load the sand bags and the downward career was moderated. However just as they were about 800 feet from the ground they heard a gunshot and upon looking down they saw a farmer reloading and taking a second aim in their direction!!’

The Reliance finally crash landed in the townland of Drumnakelly, about 5km from Portadown, some 40km from its starting point in Belfast.

Numbering among the most distinguished aeronauts of the time were Mr and Mrs Dunville of Belfast, proprietors of the famous north Belfast whisky business. The Dunvilles owned two balloons, the Banshee and the St Louis, which crossed the English Channel and North Channel respectively.

The first balloon flight across the Irish Sea was accomplished by William Hodsman when he flew from Dublin to Appleby on April 22, 1867. However, his attempts to thrill the Belfast crowds with another flight from Botanic Gardens in Belfast on June 17, 1867, ended in a riot.

The last major ballooning event took place on Easter Monday 1894, when Captain Orton made a successful flight before 10,000 spectators in his balloon the Volunteer.

Little under a century later, Belfast’s fascination for hot air ballooning came to the fore once again. In 1991, a public display of ballooning was put on in Ormeau Park, south Belfast, and a carnival atmosphere was created as people came from all over Ireland to witness the fascinating sight of aeronauts being swept away into the skies.

© The Glenravel Local History Project