Thursday 16 August 2018

White Desert: The week a Beast from the East came to stay

It was dubbed Snowmageddon and some of us doubted it was real. When the country awoke to blankets of white and the blizzards came, the dire forecasts seemed justified

Five year old Jane Argue from Maynooth plays in the snow with her dog Daisey at St Mary's quadrangle at Maynooth University. Photo:Frank Mc Grath
Five year old Jane Argue from Maynooth plays in the snow with her dog Daisey at St Mary's quadrangle at Maynooth University. Photo:Frank Mc Grath
Denis Hogan from Kildare County Council spreads some grit on the footpaths in Maynooth. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Fiadh Conway (3), and sister Maisie, from Swords, pictured at the empty bread shelves in Tesco Airside, Kinsealy, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Mia Johnson and Abby Mc Evoy from Clonsilla enjoying the Snow at the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

We do big weather events differently nowadays. It is not like the past when we looked out our windows with an element of surprise and the storm or the blizzard was happening before our eyes.

As sheep farmer Andrew Kinsella told me on his Wicklow farm after bringing his sheep into the shed in preparation for the great white out: "When I was younger we never heard about snow before it happened.

"But then we might go outside one morning and, Jesus Christ, there might have been a foot of snow on the ground - and we just got on with it."

Now grave looking meteorologists, ministers, civil servants and members of the defence forces gather at the National Emergency Coordination Committee.

They make startling public announcements, as if we were preparing for the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Pointing at impending storms crossing computer screens, the normally smiling Evelyn Cusack looked sombre as she flagged the blizzard scarlet red.

When army men in battle fatigues appeared live on TV screens to give stern advice this week, it almost felt as if there had been a coup.

Earlier in the week, some felt it was alarmist scaremongering when we were warned repeatedly of the impending snowmageddon.

But when the country woke up on Wednesday morning to blankets of white snow, blocked driveways, city roads blending into pavements in a carpet of pristine white, and a patchwork of glistening fields that were barely distinguishable from the roads, the emergency planners probably felt well justified.

We did not have much excuse if we were not prepared for all of this.

We were warned that the Beast from the East was about to clash with Storm Emma above Ireland - a contest that was billed as the meteorological equivalent of Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali.

Like Gabriel, the character in James Joyce's story The Dead, we watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.

As it was in Joyce's time, snow was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, "falling softly upon the Bog of Allen".

And then the wind picked up and it came down in a blizzard, those who were out felt like Tom Crean trudging wearily across the mountains of South Georgia.

According to the RTÉ newsreaders, roads were as "treacherous" as Judas Iscariot taking his thirty pieces of silver.

Once his sheep were safely rounded up from the hills around Ballinaclash, the hardy and unflappable Wicklow sheep farmer Andrew Kinsella was content enough.

His only concern was that the water might freeze in the pipes and cut off the supply to his animals.

For some sheep farmers, the lambing season had come too soon. But Wicklow farmers are canny enough to leave the lambing season until some time around St Patrick's Day, when the young ones are less likely to freeze.

Euphoria in an era of global warming

Children, many of whom had hardly seen a decent snowfall in the era of global warming, were naturally besides themselves with euphoria as the flakes fell.

When the rough Beast from the East arrived, they no longer had to slouch reluctantly to school. The classrooms were shut down - and so the children came out to play.

They might not see another significant accumulation of snow for a decade, by which time they may have grown up, with global temperatures that bit warmer.

Christmas FM came back on air for the days that were in it, and Ryan Tubridy put on his festive jumper.

It was really the suburban adults who were the snowflakes, as they panicked at the mere mention of snow before the first flake had even fallen.

Geoff Byrne, chief operations officer of Tesco Ireland, is used to seeing spikes in demand for certain goods when the weather gets extremely cold or hot.

But he told Review he had never seen the kind of bread-mania that gripped the country early in the week, as shoppers panicked and bought every available loaf.

"Demand for bread increased by 100pc during the week, and we could have sold double the amount that we had, even though the bakeries were delivering twice or three times a day," he said.

Bakers worked around the clock to keep up with demand, and there was also a surge in demand for milk, cheese, ham, meat and vegetables as consumers planned their meals days ahead.

As the snow continued to fall, some householders were just as concerned about the plight of the birds in their gardens as their family and neighbours. There was a surge in sales for wild bird seed.

Out in the garden, bewildered blue tits hopped around wondering what on earth happened to the grass. Supermarkets also noticed a surprising increase in sales of cat litter, which is now used by innovative householders to grit driveways.

While the predictions for the mega-blizzard were more dire than for previous big freezes, this snowstorm followed a familiar pattern, at least in its initial stages.

First there was the novelty of it all, and the excitement as children turned a carrot into the nose of their first snowman.

Then there was the slipping and sliding, as motorists vainly try to drive up ice-packed hills with their wheels spinning.

And after that came the recriminations, with passengers camped out at airports or waiting at bus stops for buses that were stuck somewhere else.

Who to blame for the white powder dump?

Frustrated by the fact that we cannot get around or our pipes have frozen, we tend to look for someone to blame for dumping this white powder upon us - and bemoan that there are not more gritting lorries in the back lanes of Ballydehob.

They may have had the snow ploughs out at Dublin Airport, but the snow fell faster than they could clear it. Some might have complained, but amid the snowy desert it was time to thank those who somehow kept the country moving.

Soldiers played a vital role helping out in the emergency. They ferried nurses and doctors to hospitals across the country in Jeeps, so that patients needing emergency care could be looked after.

While many of us could take one look at the snow, and simply pull the duvet up over our heads, there were no snow days for ambulance drivers.

Bus drivers and truckers had to hazard the roads for as long as possible. The drivers of the bread vans were working extra hours, and sometimes struggling up hills.

Verona Murphy, who runs a Wexford-based transport company and is President of the Irish Road Haulage Association, said many lorries had braved the elements, but had to abandon their routes and return home.

Lorries delivered groceries to supermarkets, and often they were venturing to the less accessible places in hilly parts of rural Ireland. But Murphy believes they were right to stop when the warnings turned red.

The Taoiseach warned us that when snowmageddon arrived we should be home by Thursday afternoon. Even if we were out and about, at least there had been plenty of experts on hand to give us guidance on how to walk through snow.

In James Joyce's time there was nobody to advise him how to avoid falling in a blizzard - by walking like a penguin.

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