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Involuntary Icaruses

Maurice Earls writes: The Ranelagh Gardens was a commercial enterprise opened as pleasure gardens in 1775. They quickly became fashionable among Dublin’s gay set, with firework displays, balls and regular excitements. Even the young Daniel Murray, the future Catholic archbishop of Dublin felt he had to check them out. Today the gardens are best remembered as the site of Richard Crosbie’s hot air balloon ascent in 1785, when an excited crowd, estimated at 20,000 (one newspaper actually put the number at 150,000) watched the historic event. As others have observed, the public interest excited was similar to that sparked by space travel in the 1950s and 1960s.

Prior to his historic ascent, Crosbie had tested his apparatus by launching a balloon and basket from the gardens with a cat on board. As he released the basket bearing the aeronautical Miss Moppet, Crosbie declared to the crowd that he himself would be on board the next flight. Some may wonder how the cat in the basket felt about the honour. As felines are in the main risk-adverse, it is probably fair to say the Ranelagh pussycat had greatness thrust upon it. Dogs, in general, are a better bet when it comes to pluck or, if not pluck, then an unquestioning acceptance of their owners’ instructions, an impulse which does not always play out to their advantage. As one who holds the feline tribe in some affection, the present writer is reluctant to contemplate the measures Mr Crosbie employed to prevent the Ranelagh cat from making a pre-take-off exit from the basket. Possibly restraints were used or laudanum administered.


In any event the balloon took off and, sometime later was seen passing over the west coast of Scotland. The winds must have changed because it finally came down near the Isle of Man, where both balloon and cat were rescued by a passing ship. One hopes she was returned to Ranelagh where, having used up one of her lives, she had learned caution and would have moved rapidly in the opposite direction if ever approached again by an odd-looking professorial type offering a saucer of milk.

The Ranelagh kitty was, of course, luckier than Laika, the Soviet dog who in November 1957 was the first animal to orbit the earth. Laika was a Moscow stray, a mongrel with a bit of husky and some other bits and by all accounts a happy mutt. She was going about her business on the streets of the Soviet capital when she was uplifted, along with quite a number of other female strays, by agents of the state working on behalf of the Soviet space programme. The collection was a hastily organised event. As Sputnik I had orbited the earth successfully in October 1957, the space engineers might reasonably have expected a bit of down time before they were under pressure again. But this was not to be. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decreed that in November 1957 there should be a spectacular space event to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. It was decided that to satisfy the Soviet leader’s demand, a dog would be sent into orbit. And so Laika and her friends were abducted from the streets of Moscow.

Various suitability tests were performed. Some dogs failed to make the grade for medical reasons and others for downright refusal to defecate while wearing the specially designed astronaut nappy. Laika made it to the final cut and, it is said, actually came in as second choice, but she was soon bumped up to top position. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but according to one report a female physician formed a particular affection for the first dog, who was called Albina, and in some still unknown way – possibly with the collaboration of certain colleagues ‑ manipulated things to ensure that Albina was demoted, leaving Laika to take the “laurels”. Laurels or no laurels, everyone knew this was a one-way trip.

When the big day came, Laika was strapped in wearing her space suit and high-tech space nappy; she was provided with one meal and oxygen for seven days. Sputnik II took off and flew for six months orbiting the earth 2,570 times until it burned up re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. Instruments back in Sputnik headquarters recorded that Laika’s “heartbeat rocketed to triple the normal rate, and her breath rate quadrupled”. It is believed that she survived for four to six orbits, the temperature within the craft having risen considerably to a lethal ninety degrees on orbit four. Laika died and I think we can be fairly sure the on-board meal was untouched.

For reasons of state and geopolitical advantage the Soviet commanders were economic with the truth regarding Laika’s condition, still maintaining that the animal was alive as late as November 12th. Indeed, some people, like the hero of My Life as a Dog, published in Sweden in the 1950s, did not absorb the detail of Laika’s fate and worried that she might be still endlessly circling the earth.

When Crosbie ascended in the first human airborne journey undertaken in Ireland, he had an advantage over the previous passenger in that he knew how to operate the controls. (Yuri Gagarin in his time had a similar advantage.) Thus when Crosbie travelled as far as Clontarf, he felt he had done enough for the day and decided he did not wish to continue out over the sea. Wisely, he released the valves on his “aeronautic chariot” to descend safely and to wide acclaim with shouts of hurrah and hats thrown aloft. He was carried aloft in his basket back to Dublin where he had a slap-up meal and celebration in what is now the Hugh Lane Gallery. His future life, unfortunately, was troubled ‑ as indeed was that Yuri Gagarin, who in the end was prevented from having any connection with the Soviet space programme.

The downturn in Crosbie’s life may have been connected with the history of his older brother. Sir Edward Crosbie ended his days aloft, being hanged for treason after the1798 Rebellion. Edward perished by the rope in Carlow town and was then beheaded, his head being later displayed on a spike in the town, presumably to the great distress of his family.

It would seem, however, that Edward had not in fact been a United Irishman at all and that he was executed in a case of mistaken identity. As to whether or not this error added to the pain and trauma experienced by his family, we can only speculate but it’s likely that it contributed to Richard’s decision, shortly thereafter, to abandon his aeronautical career in Ireland and emigrate to America. There he went into the balloon business, but without much success. He also tried his hand at acting, but again without success. In the end it would appear, to use an unfortunate phrase, that he fell on hard times. He eventually managed to return to Ireland, dying in relative obscurity and without obituaries in 1824.

5/2/2019

Image from Histoire des Ballons et des Aeronautes (1887)