Sunday 21 July 2019

The day the rains came - meet Kildare's army of volunteer weather observers

Kildare's small army of volunteer weather observers help forecast global weather trends. They are now the subject of a new work of art at Maynooth University

Artist Martina O’Brien films Catherine O’Connell of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council as she measures rainfall. Picture: Damien Eagers
Artist Martina O’Brien films Catherine O’Connell of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council as she measures rainfall. Picture: Damien Eagers

Celine Naughton

At a time when weather headlines were dominated by dire water shortage warnings, this past summer might not have seemed like the greatest time to undertake an art project focused on measuring rainfall.

But whether it's a drought or a deluge, there's a small army of weather observers who make it their daily business to collect data for Met Éireann from privately installed rainfall stations throughout Ireland.

Brother James O'Hare recording rainfall.
Brother James O'Hare recording rainfall.

Kildare artist Martina O'Brien is so fascinated by the idea that 500 volunteer observers follow the same rainfall measurement routine at the same time every day that she was inspired to make it the focus of her project - working title: 'Quotidian', meaning 'daily'.

She admits that the drought made her work problematic but, undeterred, Martina persevered with her project, which takes a creative look at a small community of data-collecting volunteers in Kildare and how their work fits into the far bigger picture of global climate change.

"In this technological era, where almost everything is computerised, many people might be surprised to learn this daily ritual is performed offline," she says. "The observers painstakingly record the measurements by hand and send their findings monthly by postcard to Met Éireann. Their figures are compiled with other data to provide accurate weather forecasts and, on a larger scale, help inform planetary scale systems of climate observation.

"The value of high quality observations from this tiny, almost hidden community to meteorologists and climatologists cannot be overstated. From an artist's perspective, I want to capture how this human role fits in with the eventual automation of weather observation, and ultimately has a part to play in assessing global climate change that will impact the entire planet."

County Kildare's seven weather observers will meet each other for the first time on November 19th next when Martina brings them together with Masters students of geography and climate change in Maynooth University. It's the first in a series of events, which will culminate in an exhibition at the Illuminations Gallery in the university. This will include multi-screen video portraits of the seven weather observers, accompanied by artworks and a limited edition publication.

"Martina works with groups of people you wouldn't necessarily associate with visual arts," says Kildare Arts Officer Lucinda Russell. "This is an exciting Creative Ireland project, because it brings science and art together by throwing a lens on an age-old tradition that might otherwise get missed."

It's that very intersection between two seemingly disparate disciplines that Creative Ireland Director Tania Banotti describes as the "secret sauce" which makes creative community projects so worthwhile.

"The sheer variety of creative collaborations we're seeing is incredible," she says. "This specific project in Kildare links meteorological matters with the environment and climate change, which is the single biggest challenge facing society today. It's a critical issue for the next generation, which forces us to ask ourselves, how do we discuss this issue with schoolchildren?

"With two State-run weather stations in Athy and Lullymore, it's a subject of great interest in Kildare, but it's got a far broader reach, nationally and globally. Art and science may seem at first to be complete opposites, but by putting them together, one brings something special to the other. The visual artist brings an extra insight to the scientific work, and the science informs the artistic work."

One of the observers taking part in the project, Brother James O'Hare, doesn't know quite what to expect when the routine, methodical work of gathering data about rainfall is expressed as an art form.

"My approach is wait and see," says the 89-year-old.

The former teacher and principal of the Salesian-run agricultural and horticultural college in Warrenstown, Co. Meath, Brother O'Hare has been recording weather conditions for 48 years.

"In the past, these recordings were done in Garda stations, but the information became less reliable as the work of gardaí became more onerous," he says. "As crime levels increased, they had less time for weather observations.

"It's a simple procedure. I taught in Warrenstown for 43 years, and the college was very dependent on weather conditions. Moisture, temperature, wind speed, rainfall… all of these things have a bearing on the growth of plants and the predictability of yields, and in dry weather, you'd need to know whether irrigation were required. I recorded figures from climatological stations, using a range of thermometers."

Three years ago, the Salesians sold the Warrenstown college and Brother O'Hare moved to the order's secondary school in Celbridge.

"All I do now is measure rainfall," says Brother O'Hare. "I do it every day between 9.50 and 10am, and once a month I transcribe the daily recordings on to a chart for the Met Office. It's routine work that has to be done at the same time each day; you can't afford to deviate. I'm a small cog in a big wheel, but if I make a contribution to society, however small, I'm happy to do it.

Irish Independent

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