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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

As Soft Day Thank God.

Richard Inwards, author of Weather Lore, said, in the nineteenth century, ” . . .the senses of men are coarse and dull, and void of energy. But animals, which retain their natural instincts, which have their organs better constituted and their senses in a more perfect state, unchanged by vicious and depraved habits, perceive sooner, and are more susceptible to, the impressions produced in them by variations in the atmosphere, and sooner exhibit signs of them.”

One of our great meteorologists was buried, in Murrintown, Co.Wexford, on Thursday 25th October. His passing set me thinking about weather matters.

We had our weather prophets in Ireland too. A keen observer of climatic conditions, the late Paddy Doherty, wrote the following. It was given to me by his son Paddy (who happens to be one of my many bosses.)



I’ve heard it said that if two New Zealanders met in Ireland they would talk about sheep, if two Chinese met in Alaska they would talk about rice and everyone knows that if two Irishman met in Tralee, Tahiti or Timbuktu the first topic would be the weather.

I well remember when I was a schoolboy many decades ago when friendship and neighbourliness were still in vogue, people went “ag áireal” or "céili-ing”: the first few minutes of conversation was always about the weather. My grandfather house was a well-known “teach-áirneáil.” In the twenties of the last century he was in his eighties, still a very knowledgeable and chatty old man.

Limag Tom would arrive early every night around nine o’clock, and the three or four minuets would be taken up by a discussion on the weather - today’s and yesterday’s and the prospect of tomorrow’s. John Liam might arrive half an hour later and the previous discussion would be repeated - this time with John’s opinions and contribution. If anyone else arrived before bedtime the weather point of the conversation was re-visited again. Then the chat rounded to crops, turf, fairs, and deaths, etc.

Why I wonder do we Irish have this obsession with the weather and its lore, commenting on it, and trying to forecast its changes? I can’t image the veterans of Southern Europe having very interesting conversations about contrasting blue sky’s or those of Northern Europe or Canada having anything very interesting to say about external snow. It has to be the constant changeability of our Irish weather that gives us this infatuation.

Very wisely, I think, the word weather wear appears in Irish holiday brochures, chiefly, I image because it can change so quickly. I well remember going to the Galway races on the first of July 1995 - the middle of the hottest summer in two hundred years. Last before the second race thunder and lighting struck and the rain came down. The race had to be delayed for nearly an hour. I’ve never been to South East Asia in the monsoon season but if it could beat Galway that day I’m glad I missed the monsoon. How many times have I (and you) left home on a sunny Sunday afternoon, kids packed into the car, goodies for a picnic overflowing in the boot and arrive at the beach - maybe only ten miles away - to find it empty of people, the sun gone, to be replaced by fog, mist and drizzle? I wonder if this happens to the Spaniards, Brazilians, or even the Eskimos in their summer season.

Painters love Ireland for its land and seascapes. One can stop anywhere in the country, especially in the mountainy west, set up an easel and paint away. But change can come very quickly. A painter was telling me once that he started a picture in the morning and having it about half finished went for lunch. On returning to the scene a little over an hour later he thought he had been transported to another country. The clouds and the sky had changed hence the colouring of fields; mountains etc were completely different to what he was painting in the morning.

With this background and all these experiences of changing climate its no wonder that Ireland always did and continues to produce lots of amateur weather forecasters. I count myself as one; I couldn’t escape. My grandfather, with whom I spent my childhood and teenage years, was a small farmer and fisherman. He and his neighbour were totally dependent on their own ability to foresee the weather over the next week, month and even year. In the early years of the twentieth century weather forecasting was not a phone call away as it is today. If I have to go to Bangor, Ennis, Dungloe, or Gorey tomorrow I ring the Met office and find out what the driving conditions will be every mile of the journey. If my grandfather Shéamus was planning on a days fishing tomorrow or going to the bog to foot turf, he went out at bedtime tonight, looked at the moon and stars, if visible, and noted the direction and strength of the wind and there and then he knew if tomorrow’s expedition was viable. He learned it all from his father and others of previous generations and luckily passed his knowledge and experiences on to me and others of my generation.

Shéamus and people of his time had a long term forecast for the whole of a year. The called it the “Twelve Days of Christmas”. We look at these twelve days - from Christmas day till Epiphany- as days for eating, drinking and sleeping. But Shéamus took careful stock of the weather on each of these twelve days, because he and all his generation believed that the weather in each of the following months would roughly correspond to that of these twelve days. In other words if December 26 were a wet rainy day, then January would bring lots of rain. If December 28 were dry, frosty and cold so would the following March. It was funny to hear people say “It’ll be a bad year for turf,” a few days after Christmas - because December 29, 30, 31 were very wet - then April May, June - the months for saving the turf would be similar. I’ve kept a fairly accurate account of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” over many decades, and am glad to say that my forecasts have always been pretty near to the actual. Try it.

I spent many years in County Cavan and found the people very weather-conscious also. In fact if a number of people were sitting round the fire in a house and a neighbour came in, the first question he or she would be asked was “what is it doing outside now?” I often recall a night a number of young men and myself were in a country house playing cards. It had been a bad winter’s day but we were very comfortable, with a big turf, fire in the kitchen. Towards midnight a young neighbour came in. His coat was very wet and there were some snowflakes on his cap. He was asked the usual question “What’s is it doing outside now, Terry,” That night is around sixty years ago and in those six decade I’ve had many dark days, as all mortals do. But I recall Terry’s answer that night and suddenly the skies turn blue again. He said, “Be Jaysus, it is doing everything except throwing stones.”

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