Saturday 21 September 2019

A hard rain: how grim days made us saints and scholars

Horrible weather is nothing new for Ireland with a new account of our past highlighting how frequently gales and sunless summers changed the course of our history. Damian Corless reports

Calm before the storm: A weather forecast from a postmaster in Co Mayo had warned of rough seas due on June 5, 1944, so the D-day landings in France were delayed by 24 hours.
Calm before the storm: A weather forecast from a postmaster in Co Mayo had warned of rough seas due on June 5, 1944, so the D-day landings in France were delayed by 24 hours.
An illustration depicts the capture of Theobald Wolfe Tone, whose plans to utilise French forces against the British was thwarted by stormy seas during the worst winter in a century

Damian Corless

President Michael D Higgins last week registered his "deep and profound concern" that history has been dropped as a core Junior Cert subject. Knowing where we come from, he argued, "is intrinsic to our shared citizenship". Without it we are "burdened with a lack of perspective, empathy and wisdom", and "desperately ill-equipped" to unmask and confront fake news.

The President was launching the new Cambridge History Of Ireland, which eschews straight timelines and the 'great (wo)men' model in favour of themes and clusters of circumstance. One theme is how extreme weather events have profoundly altered the course of Irish history. With some changes in the weather, Michael D might have been delivering his speech in Spanish or French.

Predictably, there's not one recorded case where the tide of Irish history was turned by an outbreak of sunstroke, or an army heading to the seaside on a sunny day. A lack of sun may have made us the island of saints and scholars. The annals record ten sunless summers around 540 AD causing "a shortage of bread", and "a plague that swept away the noblest third part of the human race".

This nuclear winter, probably caused by the spewings of distant supervolcanoes, coincided with a massive monastery construction boom as we abandoned our Celtic gods, rebranding them as Christian saints.

In 1315 we almost became part of Scotland. The Gaelic chieftains flocked to Edward de Bruce's invading army, and after demolishing the English at Kells it seemed nothing could stop him becoming High King. Then came a spell of foul, cold, wet weather that lasted two years. Seed yield ratios fell to 2:1, meaning that for every two planted, only one grew for eating, while the other had to be saved to plant for next year's food. Mud, starvation and disease brought De Bruce's cakewalk to a standstill in a climactic catastrophe which reduced Europe to anarchy and even cannibalism, giving us the grisly German folk tale of Hansel and Gretel. Edward's defeat ended any real chance of ousting English colonial rule and making Ireland a Gaelic nation once again. The war against the English was effectively lost, though not over.

Nearly 300 years later, Elizabeth I's efforts to complete the conquest was repeatedly foiled by our dismal weather. It's said there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. The natives' secret weapon was the all-purpose Irish Mantle. As poet Edmund Spenser grudgingly conceded: "It is their house, their tent, their couch, their target [shield]. In summer they wear it loose, in winter wrap it close." In 1599 one English quartermaster begged in vain for Irish Mantles for his wretched troops, insisting it was far superior to anything the English had.

Elizabeth's reversals of fortune lasted until the weather dealt a death blow to Gaelic Ireland at the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. Irish storms had done more damage to the retreating Spanish Armada in 1588 than Walter Raleigh's fleet, but now they were back to oust Protestant English rule with Spanish Catholic overlordship. Except they landed on the wrong end of the island. Hugh O'Neill argued it would be suicidal to march 300 miles in the depths of a savage winter, but Hugh O'Donnell's blood was up. They force-marched the length of Ireland across frozen bogs on starvation rations, only for the crusade to end in betrayal and defeat. It spelled the end for the last strongholds of autonomous Gaelic Ireland. The Flight of the Earls which followed left a power vacuum swiftly filled by the plantations of Scots and English colonists.

The coup that put Dutchman William of Orange on the English throne in 1688 was a piece of history written on the wind by the winners. While a God-sent 'Protestant Wind' blew William's invasion fleet effortlessly from the Low Countries to England, the same gale force wind kept the Irish reinforcements of Catholic King James stuck in port in Ireland and unable to intervene.

Just over a century later, Theobald Wolfe Tone attempted to export the French Revolution to Ireland. The French Republic assembled an invasion force of 33 ships at Brest, aiming to land 15,000 troops at Bantry Bay and ignite an insurrection and make Ireland a stepping stone to conquer Britain. The weather that winter would turn out to be the worst on record in a century. From the time it left France the fleet was lashed by storms, with many ships scattered and sunk. Suddenly the storms abated and a Christmas Day invasion was on, until the Cork weather threw a freak spanner in the works, leaving the fleet suddenly becalmed and helpless. Wolfe Tone seethed impotently in his ship's log: "Damn it to hell for a calm, and in the middle of December. This calm! This calm! It is most terribly vexatious."

When strong winds ended the calm, they blew straight out from the land, thwarting the attempted invasion. Tone wrote: "England has not had such an escape since the Spanish Armada; and that expedition, like ours, was defeated by the weather. The elements fight against us and courage is of no avail." Freak weather had doomed the last ever attempt by a continental power to liberate Ireland from English rule.

Perhaps the most important weather forecast in world history was transmitted in June 1944 from Blacksod Bay, Co Mayo. Filed by postmaster Ted Sweeney, it delayed the D-Day Normandy by 24 hours. Had the Normandy landings gone ahead as planned on June 5 rather than June 6, the outcome may have been disastrous. Sweeney's report to London showed a cold front speeding across Ireland. His information suggested that heavy rain and force seven gales would hit the English Channel on June 5, playing havoc with the invasion force. But he detected a short window of calm in the wake of the storms. General Eisenhower delayed D-Day by 24 hours and the rest is history.

Knowing our history is knowing ourselves, and the stories are far better than the ones you get in Junior Cert Business Studies.

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