‘It’s a bit of a mystery’: what’s causing Omagh’s hum?
As twilight settled over Omagh this week, factories gradually fell silent, the rumble of traffic ebbed and a half moon glowed in an inky sky, setting the stage for a nightly mystery: the hum.
Those who hear it describe a continuous, low-frequency drone, or buzz, and say that once heard it cannot be unheard, merely endured.
The relief of those spared the irritation is tinged with curiosity and regret at missing out on a phenomenon that has baffled scientists and given this Tyrone market town in the middle of Northern Ireland an enigma that has made headlines around the world.
“It’s a bit of a mystery, like the Loch Ness monster really,” said Barry McElduff, a Sinn Féin councillor.
Residents started reporting the hum in September, with some saying it was sabotaging sleep and equanimity, prompting an investigation by Fermanagh and Omagh district council’s environmental health department.
“Due to the wide area where the sound has been reported, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact source(s),” the department said. “Officers are currently investigating the use of specialist equipment or procurement of a specialist company to assist in detecting the source of the noise.”
John Boyle, the director of community and wellbeing, told the council there would be no quick fix. “We have never had this issue before and in all the time I have been working in this field I have never come across a problem like this,” he said.
Omagh residents are filling the information vacuum with theories ranging from mechanical to elemental to psychological.
“You hear it when everything quiets down around 10 or 11pm,” said Joe, 62, who preferred to not supply a surname. “It’s hard to describe. It’s a low hum, like an engine. It wouldn’t keep me awake, I’ve got enough noise in my head.” He suspected the cause was industrial.
Lisa Brannigan, 49, reckoned it might come from a goldmine that operates outside Omagh. “We’re in a valley, so sound travels.” A friend,, who declined to be named, said she was “100% certain” it was not aliens.
Sian Sheils, 23, said her mother, who lives just outside the town, initially thought the source was inside the house. “It’s driven her insane,” she said. “She was going to call an electrician. My grandparents were joking that it was her hormones.”
Caolan Arkinson, 30, a cafe worker, said customer debates about the hum had piqued his curiosity but not to the point of wanting to hear it himself. “I don’t need more annoyance in my life,” he said.
Standing on a dark, deserted, humless high street, Killian Murray, 23, wondered if the source might be wind whistling through housing estates. His friend Cathaoir McCullagh, 24, speculated about streetlamp bulbs acting up. His other theory was over-sensitive teenagers. “That generation has lost the plot,” he said.
In the Cat and Fiddle pub, a classic rock soundtrack smothered any unwanted sounds, leaving Jackie Beattie, 75, a retired psychiatric nurse, to sip a pint and mull possibilities. “With the storms we had, it might come from water getting into transformers,” he said. He ruled out a gas leak. “It would be smelled.”
Gabrielle Doherty, a pensioner, punted the possibility of subsidence. “There’s a housing estate that’s sinking. Weird stuff can happen.”
Gerard Casey, 37, a manager at The Aviary pub, was a hum sceptic. “I’ve heard of it. I’ve not heard it. I’m beginning to think it’s a myth, a figment of people’s imagination.”
McElduff, the councillor, did not doubt it was real: he has heard it. “Once you do, you can’t unhear it, it’s like a clock ticking.”
The phenomenon was disrupting and infiltrating sleep, with one constituent confiding to McElduff that he had dreamed of triumphantly identifying the cause. “Isn’t this wild craic? He’s dreaming he can become a hero by unearthing the source.”