Some commentators seemed irritated with Met Éireann for their failure to deliver, writes Terry Prone.
THE prisoner goes to his knees. Puts his neck on the block. The hulking executioner raises his axe and beheads him in one thunderous blow that plunges everything into darkness.
The audience sits, stunned. After a moment, a single light picks out a character who’s popped up now and again throughout the play. He doesn’t have a name.
He’s just called The Common Man. After the execution, he looks at the heartstruck people in front of him.
“I’m still breathing,” he observes. “Are you still breathing? It’s nice, isn’t it?” That response might have been anticipated when Hurricane Lorenzo turned into a damp squib last week.
While we must acknowledge that it didn’t do parts of Donegal any good, the fact is that nobody died. Nobody was crushed by a tree falling on top of their car. Nobody got swept out to sea taking photographs of the house-high waves.
The aftermath to Lorenzo’s passage was like what happens after the departure of a messy house guest.
We were all still breathing. It was nice. But were we grateful? Were we, hell.
Judging by the coverage on national and local radio on Friday morning, what we were was good and mad at Met Éireann.
Some commentators seemed irritated with Met Éireann for their failure to deliver, as if they were in the customer care business and had run ads that raised expectations they then didn’t meet, akin to an online seller sending a dress a size too small.
Others felt the event spoke of Met Éireann’s incompetence, and went from the specific to the general: “Met Éireann never get it right.”
A few media interviewers bought into this scenario and built upon it, asking aloud if Met Éireann had endangered future generations by inculcating mistrust in the general public by overstating the risks on this occasion.
The forecasters must have been carpet-chewing up in Glasnevin.
(Met Éireann are not clients of mine, so I cannot confirm putative tooth marks in their carpets.)
In common with all meteorologists dealing with Lorenzo, they had repeatedly told us that it was going to weaken as it progressed. It did.
They told us that it was an unstable weather system and was likely to change. It did.
The coastguard repeatedly said we were to stay high and dry, which is an appealing suggestion, and a windsurfer who didn’t do it broke his leg in two places.
The annoyance was partly media-driven. Media loves a disaster. Good news doesn’t sell this or any other newspaper. Or gather listeners to radio programmes.
However, it is at least arguable that radio and TV production teams, even though they’d lined up experts and reporters right across Ireland to provide exciting live coverage, should have had a Plan B in place to deal with an anti-climax, whereas at least some broadcasters sounded resentful about the story dying and projected that resentment onto individuals and groups responsible for preparing us for Lorenzo.
What was frustrated was our inherently hopeless search for certainty.
The same search for certainty undoubtedly played a part in the whole CervicalCheck issue of the last couple of years, where doctors talking about population screening affronted individual patients who had the expectation that screening would save their lives.
Indeed, the sad search for certainty surfaces frequently in the healthcare area. A consultant says the patient is unlikely to live longer than six months. If they die in three months, family members feel cheated.
But sometimes if they live beyond six months, the need for certainty gets frustrated by that good news; remember Charles II apologising to those around his deathbed for a less than speedy demise: “You must pardon me, gentlemen, for taking an unconscionable time a-dying.”
Now, the privileged courtiers watching the sick monarch didn’t necessarily want him dead. His reign had provided them with great benefits.
But if he was going to die anyway, they wanted certainty around it and the dying man was sensitive to their needs.
From our earliest days, the yearning for certainty is frequently assuaged by activity which gives a sense of purpose. From preschool we get the message: Study hard, get a good degree and Bob’s your uncle.
The reality is that you can study hard, get a good degree, only to find that Bob’s your aunt.
Or that Bob left the building a while back leaving a final present to you called the gig economy.
Look to the present generation’s grandparents or great grandparents, and you find that, after the grim years of economic isolation, everybody with a Leaving Cert wanted to get into the civil service, because it provided the quintessential definition of certainty: You couldn’t be fired even if you tried.
You were permanent and pensionable. Certain. Oh, how we laughed when that era passed — and then went to work for massive multinationals providing a comfy upgrade of those old certainties.
Those who depend on the certainties of their time find themselves spun free and fearful when it becomes clear that they were leaning heavily on a myth.
American Democrats and international commentators who share the Democrat world view have been baffled by the constant destruction of the reasonable certainties of the US presidency by Donald Trump. The feeling is that he just cannot behave the way he does.
That’s the ruling certainty. But, of course. he can. And does. Ditto with Boris Johnson. He cannot, we think, disregard the majority in Northern Ireland, the UK’s judicial system and the Republic of Ireland. But he can. And does.
All of which adds up to us living, according to Daphne Halkias, a professor at the ISM International School of Management, in “a frightfully uncertain world cloaked with anxiety, stress, with no room for long-term planning, knowing our life as we have tirelessly built and imagined can fall apart with the next bell in the New York Stock Exchange”.
HUMANITY copes in different ways with uncertainty. Some of those ways are more benign than others.
The serenity prayer — also known as the alcoholics’ prayer — is a blunt but comforting lesson about what can be controlled and what cannot be controlled.
More frightening is the eternal truth that for those who cannot find serenity in the face of uncertainty, hate will serve as a substitute.
Hatred of strangers, of elites, of immigrants, of Jews, of journalists, of Greta Thunberg.
Not only does the specificity of hate reinforce a fragmented sense of identity, but it often leads to the brief sweet bond of collective protest — whether that be the gilets jaunes in France or the anti-water-charge marchers we had here.
In that wider context, irritation with Met Éireann for not delivering on a guarantee they couldn’t make is small potatoes.
If they could only follow it — and they can’t — they would be well served by the advice delivered by Robert Bolt’s Common Man: “It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends — just don’t make trouble.
Or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that’s expected.”