Saturday 21 July 2018

'Only the lazy want to be coaxed out of bed by legislation' - how daylight saving caused controversy

As summer time begins for another year, Damian Corless reflects on an era when it was hotly debated as a Brexit issue

Summer time 2016: Enjoying the sunshine in Portmarnock, Co Dublin are Ava, Isabella and Harry. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Summer time 2016: Enjoying the sunshine in Portmarnock, Co Dublin are Ava, Isabella and Harry. Photo: Douglas O’Connor

Tonight the clocks spring forward an hour to summer time. Many of us will barely notice the changeover, until we're pleasantly surprised by the grand stretch in the evening tomorrow. Even the hallowed ritual of resetting the clocks is almost no more. We live in a world of artificial light, to the point where our latest self-inflicted ailment is sleep disruption caused by our bright 24/7 baubles.

Ireland was a different place a century ago when we put the clocks forward for the very first time. Daylight savings was imposed in 1916 to conserve power during the Great War, but the switch had little impact on rural Ireland, unless you had to catch a train running by the new summer timetable.

Following the war's end, the UK, us included, stuck with the exercise, while most of Europe dropped it until World War II made a necessity out of its reinvention.

After the Great War came our split with Britain. After six years where summer time was a matter of great indifference, Ireland was suddenly split on the touchy Brexit issue of whether to stick with daylight savings or go back to what one Senator called "God's time". At issue was the hardness of the coming border with the North.

With that first Brexit it wasn't the British that lowered the customs booms, it was the Free State. When the border was flagged, many dismissed it as a bad April Fool's joke. It was anything but. On April 1, 1923, partition would become a concrete reality, and with summer time and the physical border due to arrive in tandem, the politicians began furiously debating whether to stay in a common time zone with Britain, or realign ourselves to Europe by abandoning British Summer Time.

Calling for sticking with BST, Senator James Douglas argued that if, for example, the pubs and shops in Louth were in a different time zone to the ones 500 yards up the road in Armagh, all manner of chaos would result. This would harden "a partition which most of us do not approve or recognise".

'Violation' of Irish ways

The reality, however, is that having two time zones on this island would have made scant difference to most people's daily lives. Since time immemorial, communities had operated by the circadian rhythms dictated by the sun and the moon. Official time or Dublin Mean Time (DMT), which kept the clocks 25 minutes behind GMT, was only abolished in 1916 as punishment for the Easter Rising.

So, as they pondered the pros and cons of summer time 95 years ago this month, the main issue wasn't down to the difficulties of making the switch - our timekeeping was already a very fluid affair - it was mostly down to how much we'd compromise to keep the border as soft as possible.

Many politicians were for no compromise at all, and they advanced a variety of arguments for going it alone, some of them on the bizarre side. Senator J McLoughlin charged that BST had been a "violation" of Irish ways and Irish laws, and one that promoted sloth.

He told the Seanad: "If people are early risers, it does not require a Summer Time Bill to get them up. It is only the lazy fellows who want to lie in bed until eight o'clock or nine o'clock in the morning, who want to be coaxed out of bed by legislation and want to be deluded into the belief that 6.30 is actually 8 o'clock.

"I think it is a ridiculous bill and a bill that is simply dignifying humbug and make-belief by legislation, and that the proper name of the bill should not be the Summer Time Bill, but should be the Lazy Man's Delusion Bill."

Dáil Deputy Walter Cole agreed, saying: "I think it is generally recognised that the workers in towns are more in favour of summer time than the people in the country."

But it wasn't just an anti-rural conspiracy by lazy townies that Cole feared. Employing a heady mix of gombeenism and deeply dodgy maths, he asserted: "The Deputies from the country will bear me out that no self-respecting cow can expect to be milked at 2.30 in the morning, and that according to this new Summer Time, in the West of Ireland cattle that in the ordinary course would be milked at 4.30am would now be milked at 2.30.

"The milk supply of the country is a very important matter. I represent a constituency that is very much interested in the milk supply, and in the summer time, the people will have to get up practically in the middle of the night in order to milk their cows in time. All these points are deserving of serious consideration."

Or maybe they weren't.

It is, however, only fair to explain that Cole didn't pluck the extra hour for his argument entirely out of fresh air. Real time in Dublin (DMT) had been recently pulled back 25 minutes to chime with GMT, making the west of Ireland, which was a further 20 minutes behind Dublin, three-quarters of an hour out of kilter with GMT. In other words, noon in real time on the western seaboard was (and is) almost an hour behind Greenwich. So Deputy Cole's maths weren't as wonky as they seemed, whatever about his insights into the self-respect of cattle.

Speaking in favour of sticking with Britain, Senator Ernest Blythe insisted that the mental exercise of juggling Standard Time, Summer Time and God's Time would boost the IQ of the nation. He argued that the Irish people had adjusted to the 25 minute switch from Irish Time to GMT, even if during the transition you were "continually meeting people in the country who, if it was nine o'clock were scratching their heads and wondering whether it was eight o'clock or 10 o'clock.

"They had great difficulties in making that calculation because of the mental strain it imposes, and they are against the summer time for this reason. I do not think it is a sort of mental strain we should shrink from putting on the people. If they had to think along mathematical lines, it would perhaps be good for them."

Largely in the interests of a softer border, summer time was adopted as a temporary measure for 1923, and again for 1924, before being made permanent in 1925. In 1968, Britain began observing Standard Time (GMT + 1) all year, with no winter change. It was thought that synchronising with the continent would ease entry into the Common Market (EU) in 1973. Ireland again followed suit, and then again when the Brits called time on the experiment after three years.

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