Farewell to rough month of the cuckoo

WE’RE in the middle of the bountiful month of May, amid hopes of long summer days ahead and the last of the cold, wet weather we had during the traditional Scaraveen (‘scairbhín’) period, which is now coming to an end.

It’s a long time since I heard so much talk about the Scaraveen, no doubt because the elements were very much in line with what many people expect at that time of the year. The name comes from the Irish, ‘garbh mí na gcuach’ (the rough month of the cuckoo), the period between Apr 15 and May 15 when weather patterns are often changeable and temperature extremes common.

There is a strong Scaraveen tradition in the Dingle Peninsula and the belief amongst old-timers there is that nature has its own way of looking after plant life.

You can, for instance, have warm spells for growth, cold spells with hail storms to harden plants and gales of wind to distribute the pollen, all of which were experienced this year. Frost can come at any time in May, as growers of early potatoes are only too well aware for exposure to frost can wreak havoc with emerging stalks.

Long before Met Éireann and nightly TV weather forecasts, people had to rely largely on nature and seasonal patterns. The Scaraveen was right up there with Old Moore’s Almanac in relentless attempts to get a handle on such matters.

There is also some research to support the existence of the Scaraveen and unseasonal weather glitches at certain times of the year, as conducted by Alexander Buchan, a leading 19th century Scottish meteorologist. He became known for the Buchan Spells — predictable changes in weather when temperatures rose, or dropped, from normal levels at roughly the same times each year.

Working on statistics compiled over many years, Buchan found there were six such cold and three such warm spells. Among the cold spells were Apr 11-14 and May 9-14, which coincide with the Scaraveen period.

However, Buchan, sometimes dubbed the Father of Meteorology, also accepted there were no definite rules and always allowed for weather variations. Also, modern meteorologists don’t go along with a hard and fast weather ‘spells’ theory and believe weather patterns are largely random and unpredictable.

All that aside, Irish folklore is full of homespun theories and pisheogs about the weather. And the Scaraveen is still firmly etched in the weather psyche of country people.

Dan Cronin, a historian and folklorist who was brought up in the shadow of the Paps Mountains, on the Cork/Kerry border, notes the Scaraveen is one of the more regular aspects of our climate. He says it is even more regular than the equinoctal gales and he wonders why people are so surprised by it.

Writing in the Sliabh Luachra Journal, a local history publication, he quotes the following diary entry by one Edith Holden, on May 16, 1906:’After a week of warm, growing weather, which has brought out flowers and foliage beautifully, we have returned to the cold north winds and hailstones.’ A resonance with recent weather in Ireland surely!

Dan, who has been astutely observing nature and the world around him for over 80 years, describes the Scaraveen as ‘the last whip from departing Arctic air’ and adds that, as the year advances, Earth is tilting more towards the sun and its welcome rays.

In relation to the cuckoo, in years past parish correspondents for local newspapers vied with each other as to who would be the first to report the arrival of the cuckoo, invariably in April, in their areas each year. However, on May 1, we checked with several people in areas where the cuckoo was formerly heard and none reported hearing that unmistakeable call up to that date.

Finally, some thoughtful observations on the Scaraveen from Dan Cronin: “What is hard to explain is why the Scaraveen is such a regular May guest. Why does the atmosphere repeat some of its annual accomplishments and not others? Some summers are long, hot and dry; others changeable and wet. But, few years go by without a Scaraveen.

“Could it be that we notice certain things and do not observe others? Perhaps we are deceived by the first nine days, thinking that summer has arrived when it is merely at the door. In our longing for the ‘fair face of June’, we jump to conclusions in May when we are still at the threshold and have not yet cast off the last shadows of winter.”

And need we mention that old saying, ‘cast not a clout ’till May is out’.

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