The tens of thousands of English Literature students who received their exam results on Wednesday will know the definition of Pathetic Fallacy. It's the attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects or phenomena, especially weather. For example, angry clouds; a cruel wind; a vicious night. The term was coined originally by the great 19th-Century literary critic John Ruskin, who we can tell was not an Irishman because, had he been, he would have added "a f***ing hoor of a summer" to his list of arresting examples.
Pathetic fallacy doesn't get any more pathetic than during this summer in Ireland. But it isn't the first time we've known such a saturation. Remember the brilliant comic misery of Flann O'Brien's satirical novel The Poor Mouth, whose narrator reaches ecstasies of Celtic despair in descriptions of the relentlessly awful weather of his childhood? "Sometimes a little spell of weak whispering was audible but generally no sound except the roar of the water falling outside from the gloomy skies, just as if those on high were emptying buckets of that vile wetness on the world ... New hardships and new calamities were in store for the Gaels."
The wise O'Brien was on to something. For in Ireland, when we talk about the weather, we are always talking about something else. It's a code, a secret language that foreigners don't understand. It's our opera, our constant theme, our ever-changing drama. As such, it's also a way of saying how we feel, what we want, where we see ourselves. It's a barometer of national self-esteem, a sort of meteorological patriotism, and these days, as we know, the needle is pointing to "unsettled". Recession is drifting in like a slow-moving cold front. Unlike Dail Eireann, the heavens open daily. Last Saturday, more rain fell on
Dublin in one 24-hour period than in the entire life's work of Frank McCourt. What can it all mean? Can we weather the storm? Will we ever talk about anything else again?
There is the sense that something preternatural or elementally dark is going on. It's starting to feel biblical, this dampening and dousing, but it isn't washing away our iniquities. We're drenched by the fates, spiritually soused. Our parade is being rained upon, big time. The boom is quenched, our boat is leaking, our houses are worth tuppence, the shops are ripping us off; we await the arrival of the ESB bill as our ancestors once awaited Cromwell and RTE is broadcasting Failte Towers. Good-Times Bertie has gone, the school disco is over, and Brother Cowen is putting the chairs back on the tables as he reaches for his biffer.
Can it get any worse? Is it all a strange nightmare? And then the thunderstorm starts again. And the winds begin to blow. The banshees howl and reach for their wellies. It's raining in our Irish hearts.
What a contrast with the golden light of remembered childhood Augusts, when the sun blazed constantly, Hibernian skies were baby-blue, and summertime childcare consisted of being told to get out of the house and not return before dark so our mothers could get drunk in peace. We roamed the happier streets, getting sunburnt and shoplifting, and by the end of the summer we had lost more peeled skin than a snake loses during hibernation.
Some of us were sent to the Gaeltacht, to learn the Modh Coinníollach and snogging. Indeed, my own first kiss occurred on a sun-drenched Spiddal Beach, a beautiful experience only slightly marred by the fact that the girl involved, a local, was wearing a dental brace, in which the tip of my tongue got stuck at a passionate moment. We tottered around that beach, bonded by something more than love. Indeed, my eyes still water whenever I hear Irish spoken. People sometimes think it's national pride.
But is the weather truly that bad? OK, I know it is. The sou'ester has replaced the Hawaiian shirt as the de rigueur summer garment, and instead of the balmy aroma of coconut-flavoured tanning oil we have the odour of perpetual dampness-not-quite-dried-out. We smell like an old dog. We feel the same way. A soundtrack of coughs and splutters plays all through the land. We are mildewed, moist, waterlogged and windswept, like something the Celtic Tiger dragged in before disappearing into extinction. Sales of electric blankets are said to be rocketing. Benylin is the new champagne.
But it brings us together, this communal wringing-out. It's like the Blitz for Londoners. It unites us. The Gods may be mocking us with weapons of precipitation, conjuring up Old Testament floods and horizontal deluges, but somehow it suits us. We know we can handle it. We're saying, "Bring on the locusts! We're tough!" An older form of Irish stoicism has been watered by the summer, bursting into flowers of philosophical acceptance that what goes up will come down. To all things there is a season, as the Good Book tells us. And August is the season for pneumonia.
The other morning I was walking Dun Laoghaire seafront when the sky went dark. Five seconds later, I was soaked. You couldn't call it "rain" or anything so namby-pamby. It was as though a celestial river had burst its banks and I was standing in the power-shower of Jupiter. I managed to shelter by pressing myself hard against a memorial plinth to Queen Victoria in a way that must have looked disturbingly perverse. A jogger cantered past me, clutching a sodden umbrella. Two nuns hurried by with plastic bags on their heads. Then, from the pier, came a teenage couple, hand in hand, laughing cloudbursts of happiness at the howling downpour, and they paused for a passionate kiss as the lightning flickered mercilessly -- and I have to tell you, I wasn't unhappy.
There's a beauty in watching rain fall into a grey Irish sea or into the eddying gurgle of an Irish river. The sound of it smacking leaves. The smell of rain in the air. And the pleasure of hearing rain against a windowpane at night through the comforting mists of half-sleep. OK, so it isn't Malibu. But would you really want it to be? (Yes, yes. I would too. But gimme a break, all right? I'm doing my best. And there's a hole in my shoe. And I think there are barnacles actually growing on me.)
OK, so we didn't think the Irish summer could ever
be reliable, but we didn't think it would turn out to be a national wet T-shirt competition either. But, as terrible weather goes, we could be a lot worse off. We don't have tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons, twisters, raging droughts, famines.
Perhaps we should dry up and learn to love the downpour. At least there's no VAT on it. Yet.
Joseph O'Connor's novel 'Redemption Falls' is published by Vintage. He will give a reading with Hugo Hamilton at the Sunday Independent Book Festival 2008, Friday, September 5, at 7.30pm at the National Gallery
Gene Kerrigan is on holiday. However, an article by him on the US elections is on Page 17