Cormac MacConnell: A silage pioneer who took to the skies

I saw Michael O’Ryanair strutting across the TV screens last week after one of his nags won another big race whilst his planes were filling the skies overhead and, quite frankly, I was green with envy for a while.

Cormac MacConnell: A silage pioneer who took to the skies

But then decided that I would ground him for a day or two by relating to all of you here the story of Jumping Johnny Woods of our clan who created world aviation history in Ireland long before the bold Michael was even the hint of a glint in his father’s left eye.

Come back with me to the townland of Tattymacall in my native Fermanagh away back in 1870 when local pressures and tensions around Tattymacall were weighing heavily on Jumping Johnny, a mighty Papish farmer surrounded by envious Protestant and Orange farmers who were jealous of his agricultural skills.

It is a fact, for example, though it is sidelined by Johnny’s aviation achievements the next year, that he was probably the first Irish farmer to make silage.

The summer of 1870 was so wet that it was not possible to save the hay.

Johnny filled an old quarry hole on his farm with wet green grass as the neighbour’s sneered at him and called him mad. He covered the top of the grass with scraws from his bog.

There was a dire smell of course in the weeks that followed but Johnny’s Ayrshires loved the silage, thrived and sold for the best prices locally, and that success by a lowly Papish generated fierce jealousy amongst his neighbours.

They shouted insults at him when he walked down the mountain from Tattymacall every Sunday for Mass but it was after they began to set their dogs on him and one dog tore the backside out of his Sunday suit that Johnny’s reaction the following spring led to him becoming the world’s first ever hang glider. And there again is the pure truth.

Very briefly I will relate this special story from our family’s rich folklore. Jumping Johnny lived with two spinster sisters and an aged mother. He was about fifty years old that spring, a rotund block of a man with short quick legs.

He directed those legs into his bog, cut a stack of thickly strong Sally rods of the type used for thatching, obtained empty flour sacks from his womenfolk fashioned a long supple pair of wings with no difficulty because he was also a basket maker, and attached the straddle of his donkey’s harness to the wings.

Our folklore is so detailed that I can even tell ye that the women had bleached the sacks to make bed sheets, common practice at that time, but they could not bleach out a large red legend for Ulster Champion flour and it remained intact on the day when Jumping Johnny Woods made his virgin flight.

It was the second Sunday of May in 1871, a bright calm day.

Thirty minutes before Mass was due to begin away down below in the Lisbellaw chapel, Jumping Johnny attached himself to the donkey straddle, made a short sharp run downhill, and soared upwards as free as a young lark.

It is recorded that he made two slow circles over Tattymacall and the thwarted Orange sheepdogs before descending slowly and gracefully and actually landing as surefooted as a cat on the chapel avenue in front of his amazed neighbours.

It is also recorded that he propped his wings against the chapel wall before going in to pray his Mass and that, when Mass was over, he tucked his wings under his arms and calmly walked home past silenced Orangemen and their dogs. The pure truth for sure.

I would love to be able to say that this was the beginning of a long career in aviation for Jumping Johnny but, since I am tied to the truth here, I must report that a disaster struck the following Sunday when Johnny went to repeat his amazing feat.

I don’t like to talk about it but this Sunday was breezy and when Johnny took off he was swirled away off his track by one of them thermals they know all about nowadays but not then.

He was blown hundreds of yards into the air, totally off course, the left wing snapped under the strain, and, the Lord between us and all harm, he plummeted to his doom in the Protestant cemetery at the other side of Lisbellaw.

And this was at a time when it was a mortal sin for a Papish to even go inside such cemeteries.

Three were delicate negotiations involving clergy of both denominations and the police before his poor remains were recovered and subsequently laid to rest.

My late mother was raised in Tattymacall and often told us that poor Jumping Johnny was one of the Trimmings of the family Rosary when she was a child. His passing when on the brink of such a brilliant career still hurts our clan.

But I hope somebody brings this historical piece to the attention of the Ryanair boss in the coming days. It should take some of the wind out of his sails, so to speak, that there was another aviation pioneer long before he was heard of.

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