From heatwaves to tornadoes - 9,000 years of Irish weather

THE month began with reports of a tornado in Galway. Or was it extra-strong wind? Within 24 hours, a restaurant owner had admitted that the striking image of the ‘tornado’ was a Photoshop fake.

From heatwaves to tornadoes - 9,000 years of Irish weather

Tornadoes are rare here, as are earthquakes, although a small one was recorded 60km off the Mayo coast in 2012. We haven’t had a tsunami, but Galway’s Spanish Arch was partly demolished by the spent remains of the 60ft wave that flattened Lisbon in 1755.

When the first settlers arrived, 9,000 years ago, they found the mild, damp climate welcoming. The summers weren’t scorchers, but the winters were tolerable. The climate’s lack of viciousness was appreciated by people aware that they were one cruel winter or failed harvest away from starvation, pestilence and death. But our mild climate has hidden dangers, as Oliver Cromwell found to his cost. The brutality of Cromwell’s Irish campaign, in 1649-50, is a matter of record, but the climate took a terrible revenge.

The name ‘Cork’ translates as ‘marsh’ and while campaigning in that boggy terrain Cromwell first caught a fever that returned time and again. Recovering from the first attack, he wrote that it had driven him “crazy in my health”.

He was likely stricken with malaria. The man who proudly shared with his troops now shared in the ‘ague’ or ‘country sickness’ that felled hundreds of them in the marshes, where warm weather and marshland created ideal conditions for mosquitoes to breed. Today, Ireland has 18 species of mosquito, four belonging to the malaria-carrying species, Anopheles.

Cromwell left Ireland in 1650. Just months later, in September, he said to his wife that his lifeforce was drained. He wrote: “I grow an old man, and feel infirmities of age marvellously stealing upon me.” The Irish fever crippled Cromwell’s immune system, exposing him to dysentery, abscesses, boils and other infections that plagued his final years, before killing him aged 59. Three centuries later, a fellow Englishman came to Ireland, full of optimistic purpose.

Film director, David Lean, set up in Dingle intending to cast the Kerry weather as a lead character in Ryan’s Daughter, which chronicled an affair between a married woman and a British officer in a village of squinting windows.

Lean had already subdued the jungles of Sri Lanka, to film Bridge On The River Kwai, and the deserts of Jordan and Morocco, for Lawrence Of Arabia.

Every time Lean wanted sun, he got rain, and, perversely, when his schedule demanded typical, blustery Kerry weather, the elements got all lovey-dovey.

The director planned to have the movie in the can inside three months. Instead, 14 months later the production crew pulled out of Dingle, frayed and ratty. Lean left with a hefty £4m overrun on a £9m budget. When it opened in late 1970, Ryan’s Daughter was mauled by critics.

Ireland has produced several greats in the scientific study of the elements, including Sir Francis Beaufort (wind), Robert Boyle (air pressure) and William Thompson (Kelvin Scale). Then there was Corkman Patrick Murphy, a celebrated chancer.

In 1837, Murphy published his Weather Almanack On Scientific Principles, in London. It purported to forecast the weather for every day of 1838. He became an overnight sensation thanks to one line, for Jan 20: “Fair, and probably the lowest degree in winter temperature.”

By an incredible stroke of luck, temperatures in England plummeted to 20-below-zero on the day. Londoners played skittles on the frozen Thames, while sheep were roasted on spits on the River Medway.

The cold snap was dubbed Murphy’s winter by an impressed public and his almanack ran to 40 reprints, earning him a fortune. But as the year rolled on and the wrong forecasts mounted, he went from hero to laughing stock. His forecasting skills were found out again when he blew his new fortune playing the markets.

The Times of London jibed: When Murphy says ‘frost’ then it will snow, The wind’s fast asleep when he tells us ’twill blow, For his rain we get sunshine, for high we have low. Yet he swears he’s infallible — weather or no!

* Looks Like Rain: 9,000 Years of Irish Weather, by Damian Corless, is published in hardback by the Collins Press, €14.99

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