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Friday 23 February 2018

Life’s a beach just now but records reveal how our ancestors shivered

Fun in the sun and surf on Dollymount Strand yesterday
Fun in the sun and surf on Dollymount Strand yesterday
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

AS the country basks in glorious sunshine, spare a thought for our ancestors who endured the cruellest of conditions winter after winter.

AS the country basks in glorious sunshine, spare a thought for our ancestors who endured the cruellest of conditions winter after winter.

Centuries ago, the River Boyne was frozen so hard a man could walk from one side to the other and remain "dry-footed".

And as hunting parties stalked wild deer across icy Lough Neagh, huge swathes of the country descended into famine.

The year was 1115 and the date was somewhere between "Epiphany and Shrovetide".

And those turbulent events, which "made great havoc of birds and cattle and people; and from which arose great scarcity and want", were faithfully recorded by monks – fastidious journalists of their day, faithfully noting the events including weather.

Now, remarkable new research has linked the meticulous record-keeping of Irish monks over a number of centuries with evidence of volcanic activity, establishing a link between eruptions and subsequent cold snaps.

Ancient ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheets by scientists can reveal a tell-tale chemical fingerprint, through traces of sulphate which can reveal if an eruption took place around the period the ice was laid down. Researchers then cross-referenced the dates around which the eruptions occurred with the "weather reports" written by Irish monks.

The results showed a remarkably clear link, over a period of more than 1,000 years, between cold events noted by the monks and the eruption of volcanoes.

The scientific paper – Medieval Irish chronicles reveal persistent volcanic forcing of severe winter cold events, 431–1649 – was written by academics from Harvard, UCC, UCD, Trinity College and Queens University, Belfast.

But even after they were translated into English, a detailed examination of the annals was still required along with a knowledge of the intricacies of the Julian and Gregorian calender.

Researchers who looked at the writings of 1115, when the Boyne froze over, also had to know that Easter fell early that year so the big freeze that occurred between "Epiphany and Shrovetide" roughly covered the period from January 6 to the last week of that month.

From around the same period, the Annals of Loch reported: "Famine throughout Ireland this year, and much sickness and death among men from various causes: cold, famine and every kind of disease."

There was another devastating famine around 1227 noted in the Annals of Connacht: "Exceeding great frost and snow and stormy weather this year, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St Brendan, but a man, if he were the stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church, even though he had the Sacred Body in his hands and stood clothed in Mass-vestments."

Meanwhile, weather experts say we should make the most of the recent spell of sunshine.

While today will have good spells of hazy sunshine, there will be a little more cloud compared to recent days.

And there may even be a few showers this afternoon and early evening, mostly in the west and north.

Top temperatures will be in the low to mid-20s once again, with moderate southeasterly breezes.

But from tomorrow it will become cooler and more unsettled with rain spreading from the west – though it won't reach east Leinster until late in the evening.

Irish Independent

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