Keeping the faith for a close encounter
Irish UFO enthusiasts still believe there's alien life out there, and Ireland is a favourite landing spot, writes Fionola Meredith.
'How can we be the only life-forms in the galaxy?" asks Betty Meyler, president of the UFO Society of Ireland. It seems like self-evident truth to Meyler. She's busy organising the Second Irish International UFO Conference, which will convene in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, from August 27th-28th. Meyler's implacable belief in the existence of extra-terrestrial life dates back to 1999.
Early one morning, standing at the bedroom window of her home in Boyle, Co Roscommon, Meyler witnessed a brightly-lit, cigar-shaped object zoom soundlessly across the sky seven times in quick succession. Meyler recalls, "I brought the incident to the attention of a fellow member of the UFO Society of Ireland, who is very psychic. He came back to me later with the following message: 'Tell Betty that the UFOs she saw were there to assist the passage of time in order to ensure the correct sequence of events for the New Millennium'. I couldn't understand what this meant at the time, but upon reflection later in the New Year I realised that this must be referring to the fact that there was absolutely no trouble at the time, as had been forecast: computers did not crash, aircraft did not fall out of the sky and, in spite of the tremendous crowds that were celebrating all around the world, there were no scenes of disorderliness, only joy and happiness all around. What an amazing message to get!"
Meyler's steadfast conviction that these extra-terrestrial visitors are kindly, benevolent beings stands in striking contrast to the popular mythology of aliens as sinister almond-eyed "greys" who abduct human victims and subject them to grotesque experimentation.
"I believe they are coming in love and light to help us," she says. A reiki master and bio-energy therapist, Meyler is convinced that "we have entered an age of enlightenment, an age of upheavals, non-conformism and heightened individual awareness. I believe that extra-terrestrial visitors can sense this good feeling. They will visit us very soon."
Recently it was reported that British UFO-spotting clubs may have to close because of a dearth of sightings of weird phenomena. But it seems that Ireland isn't suffering a similar lack. In fact, the area around Boyle would appear to be something of a UFO hotspot: there have been stories of strange lights in the sky there for many decades. WB Yeats - never a stranger to mystical ideas himself - claimed to have spotted a light source swiftly ascending Knocknarea mountain; he observed, "no human footstep was so speedy".
Meyler thinks the flurry of UFO activity in the area is due to "ley lines" of magnetic energy - one of which runs through Boyle. Apparently, the extra-terrestrial visitors use these paths as cosmological super-highways. In another example of her unorthodox approach, Meyler uses the distinctly unscientific method of crystal dowsing for predicting future alien visitations. By swinging a crystal attached to the end of a silver chain, she claims to psychically divine the time and place of sightings.
"This is typical New Age stuff," says Paul O'Donoghue, psychologist and founder of the Irish Skeptics Society. "What's going on here is the ideo-motor effect - the influence of suggestion on involuntary motor behaviour." First observed by scientist William B. Carpenter in 1852, ideo-motor action happens when the mind unconsciously prompts muscular movement. O'Donoghue says that the same effect is at work when supposedly mysterious energies manipulate ouija boards.
Unsurprisingly, Meyler is dismissive of such pragmatic suggestions. A practising Catholic, she stoutly declares, "UFOs are a matter of fact, not faith". Like many UFO enthusiasts, Meyler is an exuberant amateur. The reaction of the scientific community to the possibility of extra-terrestrial visitations tends to be characterised by a rather lofty, amused dismissal.
So Eamonn Ansbro, an Irish astronomer and "ufologist" with more than 30 years' experience in science and engineering, has quite a challenge convincing his fellow scientists that extra-terrestrial intelligence is indeed "out there".
Ansbro runs his own purpose-built observatory in Kingsland, Co Roscommon where high-powered telescopes and cameras are constantly trained on the sky, poised to track and record any unusual movement. Ansbro calls his research SETV (search for extra-terrestrial visitation). It works from the theory that extra-terrestrial probes, constructed by alien civilisations, may already exist within the solar system. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's viewed with quizzically raised eyebrows by mainstream researchers from the Nasa-run SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) project. Ansbro will give delegates at the UFO conference an update on his work, in a paper titled Communications with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
Ansbro speaks with the quiet but dogged conviction of a man used to being ridiculed. "I didn't know what I was letting myself in for when I became involved in this area in the early 1990s. Other scientists are extremely hostile to anything that smells of UFOs. But I've been at it 14 years now, and - in a nutshell - extra-terrestrial intelligence is a reality. It really is here - but not in the package we've been expecting. It's not in our known physics; it's operating on a multi-dimensional level. It's like showing a laser hologram to someone from the 18th century - although it's science they would call it magic." One can't help recalling The X-Files' Fox Mulder's wry observation - "in most of my work, the laws of physics rarely seem to apply".
It wasn't scientific data but the sheer quantity and similarity of UFO sightings by ordinary people which initially convinced Ansbro of the reality of extra-terrestrial visitations. But the ufologist claims to have had his own close encounter with the unknown. "It was a profound experience. It happened one night, way out in the countryside. I was put to sleep for three hours. When I woke up, my whole body felt hyper-sensitised." How does he account for the experience? "I didn't analyse it on a personal basis - my interest is purely scientific. I didn't go behind the light source," he adds mysteriously.
Again, Paul O'Donoghue has a coolly scientific explanation for Ansbro's "abduction". "This is a kind of sleep paralysis, a very common condition that affects up to 20 per cent of the population. It can occur just before dropping off to sleep (the hypnagogic state) or just before fully awakening from sleep (the hypnopompic state). You're conscious but you can't move your body or speak; you have a buzzing in your ears; you may have a feeling that there is some kind of presence nearby. In the 17th century, this condition used to be interpreted as a visitation by demons. Now it's called alien abduction."
It's true that not a single nut or bolt from an alien spacecraft has ever been recovered. Even so, the glib dismissal "crazy people see crazy things" is insufficient to explain away this global phenomenon. In the 1960s, psychoanalyst Carl Jung put forward the view that UFOs and their inhabitants are projections of our own minds, emerging at times of high public anxiety. Jung observed that the first "flying saucer" stories appeared in 1947, two years after the first atomic bombs were exploded.
In his recent book, Aliens: Why They Are Here, Bryan Appleyard - a self-styled "sceptical believer" - also links the rise in alien sightings in the postwar and cold war phase to the threat of atomic war and environmental destruction. John Gray, author of Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, charts the increase in reported "alien presences" in inverse proportion to Christianity's decline. "There can be no adequate explanation of our encounters that does not recognise them as ultimately religious. The need for a connection with non-human things does not disappear when a secular world-view takes over."
"Ufology" has been described as "the mythology of the space age" - an expression of humanity's hunger for mystery, its hope for transcendental meaning. But whether we interpret them as empirical reality or as pure science fiction, it seems that the aliens aren't going away.
• The Second Irish International UFO Conference at the Bush Hotel, Carrick-on-Shannon, from Aug 27-28th is open to the public. Cost €80; more info from www.ufosocietyireland.com
First contact: the monks' tale
Although UFO sightings have increased in recent years, over the centuries there have been many reports of strange flying objects in the skies above Ireland. The Annals of Ulster record that, in AD 749, "Ships with their crews were seen in the air" above the Celtic monastery Clonmacnoise.
A 15th-century manuscript records that the monks at Clonmacnoise saw a ship sailing over them in the sky. The ship dropped anchor and the priests seized it. A man came out of the ship after the anchor, swimming as if he were in water. The man, fearful of being drowned, begged the monks to let him go. They did so, and he left them, taking the anchor with him. In a poem inspired by the events at Clonmacnoise, Seamus Heaney describes how "the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back/Out of the marvellous as he had known it".