Tuesday 15 October 2019

Obsession with weather harks back to piseogs of our ancestors

Feathered friends: Davis Leleikaite, from Ontario, Canada, feeding pigeons in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Feathered friends: Davis Leleikaite, from Ontario, Canada, feeding pigeons in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Nicola Anderson

If cats cough, if spiders leave off from spinning their webs, or if a frog's coat looks black, rain is nigh.

When the smoke from the chimney goes straight up into the sky, cows stand on top of the hills or the corncrake is heard, good weather has arrived.

In Kiltartan, Co Galway, local children were told that a cat scratching the leg of a table was the sign of an encroaching storm.

While in Glencairn, Co Waterford, it was said that if the crows had their back to the trees, it was a sign of thunder.

Variations of these traditional 'piseogs' to predict the weather were once on the lips of our forebears as they endeavoured to make sense of the world around them.

Nowadays, we just check the weather apps on our phones - but our fascination with the elements is every bit as absorbing as it was back then.

And though we may be starved of sun so far this summer, Met Éireann has offered a more cheerful outlook for those looking to the skies, with a forecaster saying "it's not all doom and gloom".

Warmer temperatures this week will be followed by a cooler weekend - with the prospect of higher pressures building up again next week.

"Weather is a national sport - and always was," said Johnny Dillon, archivist at the National Folklore Collection.

Weather accounts for over 6,000 stories and another 6,000 transcripts contained in the collection which was compiled in 1935, he said.

He recalled two old sayings that were used as a way of predicting the summer ahead: "A wet and windy May, fills the barn with corn and hay; while another was: A wet May and a dry June, makes the farmer whistle a tune!"

Most of the old stories were rooted in the natural world of this pre-technology era.

"People would look to the clouds and to the stars - it was a naturalistic approach," he said. "There would be the idea of reading the landscape or the behaviour of animals to interpret changes in the weather.

"But the more interesting aspect would be to see the aspect of emotional reasoning - where our forebears would try to interpret the world around them and to find answers to questions," he said.

Folklore collectors were sent out with highly detailed questions from Seán Ó Súilleabháin's 'A Handbook of Irish Folklore' to probe people about the old traditions - down to what names their area had for clouds, such as bearradh caorach or mare's tail or breasal.

They were asked what they called the Milky Way and even the words used for the different types of rainfall.

The collectors came back with a wealth of material.

Meanwhile, Mr Dillon revealed that some old traditional piseogs were of a darker bent, with the idea that the elements could be controlled.

One supernatural story that originated from coastal parts had it that the crew of a boat were cruel to a widow, who then sought vengeance.

"As retribution, she went out onto the hilltop with a bowl of water and eggshells," said Mr Dillon.

"The idea is that she would stir up the water in the bowl and cause a huge storm at sea that would destroy the boat, which was represented by the eggshells."

This account is just one that was found by historians, not just in Ireland but also in Scotland and Iceland and parts of Scandinavia, he said, adding that it is also depicted in a wood cut dating from 1555.

There are other stories of sailors knotting rope which they would then loosen while they were out at sea, with the object of raising the wind, he revealed.

Other ancient methods of improving the weather, however, are better known to us all and still widespread today - with everybody knowing about the tradition of leaving the Child of Prague statue outside on the night before a wedding.

"That's part of folk tradition and the way we understand it is by cultural expressions that are largely communal and informal - you don't get a pamphlet through the door," he quipped.

And with St Swithin's Day fast looming on July 15, another ancient piseog still going strong will be dusted off and utilised.

If it rains that day, it will rain for 40 days, or so the saying goes.

Irish Independent

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