Why we can't get enough of the weather

The Irish are obsessed with the weather — so it’s no surprise RTÉ is devoting a three-part series to the topic, writes Ailin Quinlan.

A FEW years ago — and much to my surprise — I failed to enjoy a long-anticipated stopover in Florida. Instead of chillaxing for a few days in blissful sunshine before catching my flight home, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable; the unrelenting sunshine and bright blue skies rapidly became wearing and the sun felt like a hammer.

Given that I’d been looking forward to it so much, I was taken aback by my reaction to a few days of excellent weather, given that, like most Irish people, I tend to moan about our island’s chilly and unpredictable climate. But we always seem to be talking about it — which is partly why a fascinating new RTÉ television series, which begins tonight, is setting out to teach us, among other things, just how highly-rated the Irish weather is on an international basis.

“Our weather is considered to be one of the best weather systems in the world,” declares Kathryn Thomas, one of the presenters of Weather Live, a new three-part series which sets out to explain the Irish weather — and find out why we’re so fascinated by it. Along with well-known faces from the Met Eireann team — Gerald Fleming, Evelyn Cusack, Gerry Murphy, and Siobhan Ryan — Thomas will be hosting the live shows from the picturesque surrounds of the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin as the country welcomes another summer.

“In terms of climate, temperature rainfall and where we are located on the planet, the Irish weather system is one of the weather systems that people worldwide look to in terms of what is considered to be an ideal weather system, because it’s so conducive to food production survival and lifestyle,” Thomas explains.

This is the second year that the series has run — not surprisingly, it was hugely popular last year, and the 2019 three-parter covers a variety of topics including everything from how the weather works to the growing concern about climate change and how that will affect us.

“It’s a real family show — and as Irish as it comes. It’s a fun Irish subject, but there’s now also a big movement on climate change — so as well as looking at our weather and its impact on Irish society, the weather has become a global conversation,” says Thomas, who promises a fascinating mix of information about Ireland’s local weather along with folklore about the weather, and also the science, or as she terms it “the nerdy bits” about how weather works.

“We have an item about how weather has changed peoples’ lives in terms of the big snow, the drought, the rain; there are human interest stories in the series as well,” she says, adding that Dr Phil Smyth will examine the impact of the more extreme weather events we have experienced in recent years, and will use and also create experiments to demonstrate the impact of these events. “We have three one-hour programmes, but we could have run for a week with the amount of content we have,” she enthuses.

Among those scheduled to appear during the series is Henry Shefflin, the most decorated hurler of all time. He’ll be in the Botanic Gardens studio to talk about how weather conditions have impacted his sporting career. Dancing with the Stars participant Aoibhinn Garrihy, and her Everest-climbing husband John Burke, climb Carrauntoohil for Weather Live — because let’s face it, there’s no better place to face the weather than Ireland’s highest peak.

Aoibhinn discusses how she is a regular climber, and ascended Carrauntoohil while seven months pregnant, while John describes the challenges he faced while summiting Mount Everest.

Former newsreader Aengus Mac Grianna brings his alpaca in to talk about life after the news and his experiences of working closer to the land. Renowned filmmaker Colin Stafford Johnson describes his working life immersed in nature and the elements, while comedian Colm O’Regan turns his thoughts to how the weather impacts on the Irish way with words. Meanwhile Dr Phil Smyth will demonstrate how the Beaufort Scale works along with the impact of rain and greenhouse gases.

Experienced meteorologist Gerry Murphy of Met Eireann — he’s been with the service since 1992 — who will also appear in the series, says he hopes the programmes will help to inform viewers about some of the more interesting aspects of the Irish weather.

“The weather is something Irish people are very interested in and anything that helps to inform them and give them a better understanding of it is always helpful,” he comments.

“The programme covers the influence of the weather on certain aspects of nature and highlights climate change. We’ll be talking about how the weather works, the relationship between weather and the sun and the importance of climate and climate change and telling interesting weather stories. As a meteorological service, we appreciate the importance of the weather to many people and we take the role of weather forecasting and informing the Irish public about weather very seriously.

“Forecasts have improved over the last few years, which is due to the quality of the information that is now being fed into computer programmes — which are also now extremely sophisticated.

“This has all helped to generate information for forecasts over the years and gives the human weather forecaster much more confidence in the weather service.

“Basically the weather is very much part and parcel of Irish life and conversation; both in terms of background as an island country where the sea is very important, and also in terms of the fact that many people make their living from fishing and agriculture, so consequently the weather has a huge impact on our agriculture and fishing.”

There is nothing new about that, as he explains — the Great Famine was directly caused by potato blight which in turn resulted from “weather phenomenon” of wet, humid summer conditions.

Despite the huge advances in agricultural technology, weather is still very important to modern farmers, for example. “Last summer’s fodder shortage was caused by two weather events — the ‘Beast from the East’ at the end of March, when we had an extremely cold spell with snow which delayed the growing season, and then a very hot summer which also shortened the growing season — it dried the ground so the growing season was shortened.”

The good thing about the weather here in Ireland, Murphy says, is its diversity. “We enjoy very varied weather — that means it’s always interesting and it keeps us on our toes.

“I think that, although people talk about the weather and sometimes give out about it, a lot of Irish people appreciate the versatility and the interest of it,” he says, adding that when we do get a fine spell we really appreciate it.

And by the way, he says, despite the popular perception that meteorology is closely linked to the subject of geography, second-level students considering a possible career in weather forecasting should actually be prioritising maths and physics.

“The atmosphere is a mix of gases which move in accordance with the laws of physics; it is fluid, so maths and physics are core subjects in meteorology. To predict the weather you use physics the language of physics is explained in mathematical terms,” he explains.

“Large amounts of information comes from weather observations, satellites and radar, which all feed into very large computer programmes, and which, combined with the laws of physics, are used to produce weather forecast,” says Murphy, who graduated from UCD with a degree in physics before joining Met Eireann.

- Weather Live is on RTÉ One at 7pm from Tuesday to Thursday

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