The weather thrown at us by the latest ‘big storm’ may not have set records but the help of neighbours was still very heartening, writes Margaret Hickey.
The day after Hurricane Ophelia was clear blue serenity in Cork, perfect for clearing up and tackling repairs.
We woke to the clatter of a nearby chainsaw. An ill wind, but it blew business somebody’s way.
A typical calm after the storm, one might say. How very different from the calm that came before? That was heavy and ominous and not just because we were all filled with fearful expectancy by doomsday meteorological pronouncements for most of the previous week.
It helped for sure but there was a palpable sense of unease in the advancing, thickening vaporous clouds that massed silently from the south and west as darkness fell on Sunday night.
Towards midnight, the view from the back garden was like a cosmic stage-set, with a floodlit Blarney Castle looking unusually gothic against a creeping mass of cloud.
Magnificent and fearful. Magnificent like a bright brooch pinned on a softly billowing oversized scarf. Fearful like an army massing silently into position before a mighty battle.
The drama had been building for days. Friends and family abroad as well as the besieged at home were riveted by the weather graphics that showed a giant coloured spinning top hurtling in our direction.
Sure it was big enough to engulf the whole country. With our native love of drama and the sensational we hunkered down, emptied supermarket shelves, sent counselling texts to neighbours and friends, and waited.
But Ophelia, like her Shakespearean incarnation, proved somewhat vapid when she finally took the stage.
It turned out that the “unprecedented weather event” of weather pundits set no records after all.
We must have had hurricanes before, only we did not call them that and our weather graphics were less sophisticated and less accurate.
For some, and most especially families of the three victims the storm claimed, Ophelia will be the most significant storm of all time.
Also the fishermen who lost thousands of euro worth of equipment and businesses and households in rural areas of Munster and parts of Connacht left without power for days will
remember Ophelia as a significant, if not unprecedented life event.
However, this was no Night of the Big Wind (Oíche Na Gaoithe Móire) like the legendary storm of 1839. Its date will not be etched on the memories of most of us unless perhaps for the hype that paralysed the country into a state of fear and hiding for 48 hours.
The all-time wind record for the country still stands at 200km/h, recorded in Kilkeel, Co Down during the storm of January 11/12, 1974. The fatality record goes back to 1961 when what was described as a “tropical storm” claimed 18 lives.
Nothing new, then, about freak weather. In Shakespeare’s day, a storm like the one we experienced would have been described as a tempest and his plays abound with them.
Chimney knocking storms in Macbeth, sky reaching seas in The Tempest, and in King Lear, one is actually called a hurricane. The demented Lear stands on a storm ravaged heath commanding ”the cataracts and hurricanes” to “spout”.
So was Ophelia then a signifier that the winds of change, of climate change are here to stay in a way never before experienced in human history? Is it part of a more complicated global pattern of climate disturbance and anomaly or is it, as plain talking Danny Healy Rae wouldhold, simply part of an ongoing pattern of weather flux that goes back to the earliest pages of history?
History hasn’t yet rhymed with hope according to poet Heaney, but it doesn’t rhyme with hype either for Healey Rae and others who cast a weather eye back over the statistics of past decades and centuries.
Most people don’t challenge climate theory when it comes from scientists. However, when politicians start sounding off, and that includes those on both side of the climate debate, it is well to keep an open mind. There is no argument against taxing vice if it can be shown to be vice.
Carbon is just another expedient, soft target for politicians to join tobacco and alcohol and more recently sugar. If the science suits, politicians will declare it dogma or heresy depending on the demographic they want to reach.
One of the oddest things about the storm which didn’t make any headlines was the failure of certain windmills on the Cork Kerry border to shut off as they are designed to do in very high winds.
Perhaps the winds weren’t very high after all or perhaps it was system
failure? It must have been spectacular to have seen them whirring around like desk fans.
Terrifying, too, if your property was in the track of the storm. Thankfully, they held. However, in the less spectacular storm of March 2013, one of them snapped in Co Donegal causing serious questions about their safety at the time.
The “what if” stories of the storms, the narrowly missed disasters would fill volumes if they were recorded but they often remain the most enduring memories of those who witnessed them.
The windmills could have been the big story of the storm rather than just a whimsical reflection on the waste of all that energy amid widespread local power outages.
For me a particular “what if” moment is a more enduring memory than the thousand or so euro we are down for slates because we live on an exposed hill.
It was watching the neighbour, who insisted on collecting my husband from hospital earlier in the morning, walk past my house against the wind to bring a terrified neighbour, who had just witnessed a large tree fall across her front garden and bury her car, to the safety of his home.
Flying debris at the wrong time and place could make a hero or a martyr of a mere good neighbour. But then it is from the ranks of such people that the heros come.
Gives me new respect for the neighbours who notice the car window open and take the trouble to come out on a wet night to alert you to the fact that you forgot to put out your bin.
They are the people who, when the occasion prompts it, will take risks for others and in some cases far more.
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