Friday 22 February 2019

I don't have the stereotypical look of a mad scientist - Joanna Donnelly

… but no doubt people think meteorologist Joanna Donnelly is a little bit crazy when she says that Ireland has the "perfect" climate. Now, as she tells Lauren Murphy, she's written a book that explains why.

Joanna Donnelly, who has just published a new book. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Joanna Donnelly, who has just published a new book. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Natural wonders: Joanna Donnely photographed at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Meteorologist Joanna Donnely. Photo: Kyle Tunney

I realise my first mistake within moments of sitting down at an outside table. The sun is shining at the moment, true; but we all know that the average Irish day (this summer's heatwave notwithstanding) entails any or all of the following combination: rain, clouds, hailstones, sleet, a sudden drop in temperature, and yes - possibly even snow.

Really, I should have checked with Joanna Donnelly before choosing this spot at the cafe of Dublin's Botanic Gardens. The meteorologist - known to most of the Irish public as 'the weather woman from RTÉ' - sits down beside me, a tray of tea and scones at the ready, and glances skywards. "No, I think we're safe," she says. "It's not meant to rain at all today." Phew. It's not just me who breathes a sigh of relief as fellow coffee-drinkers who have been surreptitiously glancing our way visibly relax.

Weather is something that Donnelly is more concerned about than most Irish people, given that she spends most of her working day five minutes up the road at Met Éireann HQ. It's just as well, then, that her first children's book is about that very subject. The Great Irish Weather Book examines exactly what the term 'weather' means and how it happens, as well as many other topics including climate change, the use of satellites, how storms are named (yes, even Storm Ophelia gets a shout-out), other big Irish weather events from the history books, and famous figures in weather-related science. Coupled with Dublin-based illustrator Fuschia MacAree's beautiful illustrations, it's both a charming and interesting look at a subject that concerns all of us, but which few of us know much about.

Donnelly, who grew up in nearby Finglas, said that serendipity played a part in her becoming a meteorologist. "My friend tells this story of us walking by the Met Éireann building when it was being built in 1979 - I would have been about eight or nine. She said I pointed at it and said, 'I'm gonna work in there some day'," she chuckles. "I don't remember it, but I believe her."

Meteorologist Joanna Donnely. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Meteorologist Joanna Donnely. Photo: Kyle Tunney

Donnelly says that she never envisaged a career forecasting the weather, but she did love science as a child. "I'm a mad scientist," she nods, deadly serious. "My friends and anybody that knows me always think that I don't really have the stereotypical look of a mad scientist - because I knit and I sew and I'm a real 'Earth mommy' - but I've always been mad about science."

After graduating with her degree in applied maths from DCU in the early 1990s, she was stumped on what direction to take next. "We were in the depths of a fairly significant recession - so there were no jobs when I was graduating from university. Nobody knew what we were gonna do with our maths degree, apart from work in McDonald's," she laughs. "But I was offered an opportunity to do my thesis on the relationship between the weather and air pollution. So I got into the weather then, when I went looking for data in the Met Office. I really loved it straight away; I thought 'this feels like home'."

Donnelly joined Met Éireann in 1995 as a met officer before being promoted to forecaster in 2000. She has been broadcasting as a forecaster (on radio) since 2002 and has been a regular fixture on television since 2016. What's more, her career even led to love; she met her now-husband Harm Luijkx - who was working for the Dutch Met Office - when they crossed paths while training to be meteorologists in Reading, England, in 2001.

"It was a fairly intensive course; you lived on site, ate your meals there, everything," she explains. "It was kind of like being in the Gaeltacht, like time had a different feeling - so when you fell in love there, it was true love forever. We met on a Wednesday evening and by Saturday evening we were best friends. A couple of weeks later at our friend's wedding, someone said, 'You two are like an old divorced couple, bickering all the time' - but we were that close by that stage that we'd gotten to the 'bickering' stage. And," she adds, raising an eyebrow, "we've been bickering ever since."

None of their three children, Nicci (15), Tobias (10) or Casper (8) shows signs of following in their parents' footsteps as yet - but Donnelly did keep them in mind when writing The Great Irish Weather Book.

"The commissioning editor of Gill Books came to me, and she had this idea that I could explain the weather well, basically, and in terms that could be understood by lay people - and she thought that I was a good fit to explain this to children," she says. "But although it's an illustrated book and it's marketed towards children, I didn't write it as a 'children's book' - I wrote it for everybody to understand. And I hope everybody will, because when I explain science to my children, I don't explain it as if they were children; I just explain it in straightforward terms using examples from their world, or the real world, that they can understand."

Joanna Donnelly, who has just published a new book. Photo: Kyle Tunney
Joanna Donnelly, who has just published a new book. Photo: Kyle Tunney

It was important, she says, to write in her 'normal' voice and the book - as with the likes of similar Gill Books, Irelandopedia and Historopedia - avoids the patronising tone of many other fact-based children's books. "Apart from anything else, kids are smarter than us, generally; their minds aren't as closed as adults', so they're open to being given new information and to look at things slightly differently or understand things in a way that we're not programmed to do anymore," she says, nodding. "You don't need to go on about the 'magic' of anything and there's no need for nonsense - just tell them what it is, and they understand it and like it."

Even some of her adult friends have been engrossed in its pages, she says, and the information in it is suitable as an educational tool right up to Junior Cert level.

"I have a diverse range of friends that are into anything and everything - and I don't think there's any one of them, ever, who haven't asked me a meteorology question, whether they think they're interested in weather, meteorology or science, or not," she smiles. "All of the answers to all of those questions I've been asked over the past 20 years are in that book. I remember showing a draft of it to one of my friends at a barbecue - and he's a very successful businessman and engineer - and his wife almost had to pull it out of his hands to get him to come to the table. I was really delighted with that, that this grown-up man loved it. Obviously the pictures draw you in and younger kids will read it with their parents or older siblings - but I think every kid can pick it up at some point and grow with it, maybe." Dublin-based Fuschia MacAree's distinctive illustrations are an integral part of the book, Joanna says. "I picked Fuschia because I thought her illustrations were very solid, and serious - because it's a weighty subject - and I thought they were strong colours, strong shapes, well-defined items on the page," she reveals. "They complement the text really well. I think she's amazing; she thinks she needs to thank me for picking her, but I was like 'Are you kidding me?' It was definitely a collaborative thing."

Talk turns to the various weather extreme events that Ireland has seen over the past 12 months, from the aforementioned battening-down-of-hatches that Storm Ophelia brought with her (Donnelly recounts a very sweet story about a young girl from Cork who wrote her a letter of thanks after her fisherman dad and granddad heeded her forecast), the Beast from the East and our recent unusual heatwave. Although scientists predict that global temperatures are set to rise over the next four years, Donnelly dismisses the notion of what she calls Ireland's 'Goldilocks' climate taking a drastic turn.

"We're not too hot, not too cold, it's just perfect here; perfect for living in, perfect for growing food - and we really should appreciate that," she chuckles. "So complain all you like, but appreciate the fact that we have actually got the most temperate of climates. The last 12 months hasn't been a great example of that temperate climate, true - but we're lucky in the grand scheme of things."

She does, however, admit that there is a worrying trend in climate change on a global scale in the long term. "I talk about climate change in the book, and minimising your impact when you can," she nods. "Every choice that we make counts - like, today, for example you chose a glass of water, rather than buying one of those bottles which we so instinctively reach for every time," she says, pointing to my now-empty glass. "Some marketing genius back in the 1990s decided to tell us to buy these plastic bottles of water, and we did; and we never used to. People managed to survive very well drinking tap water for a long, long time - and now there's how many, a billion of those plastic bottles on the planet? It's depressing. But I think David Attenborough did a really good job of highlighting the dangers of plastic over the last year or two and now everybody is starting to be a bit more aware of their actions - at the supermarket, at home, wherever."

Whether The Great Irish Weather Book has a similar impact or not remains to be seen - but there's no doubting both its educational and entertainment value across the age spectrum. "Basically, I think I've explained meteorology and the science around it in a way that relates to the real world; in a way that people can understand," she says, smiling as the sun continues to glint off her teacup. "So although it's a children's book, I wrote it so that everybody can enjoy it - at least, I hope I did."

'The Great Irish Weather Book' by Joanna Donnelly is published by Gill Books, priced at €24.99.

Portraits by Kyle Tunney.

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