Sunday 20 January 2019

You know it's serious when Ryanair is feeling the chill

Willie Kealy's Snow Diary

Beast from the east hits meath: Local people do their best to keep warm as they pass the portrait of World War I poet Francis Ledwidge in his home town of Slane. Photo: David Conachy
Beast from the east hits meath: Local people do their best to keep warm as they pass the portrait of World War I poet Francis Ledwidge in his home town of Slane. Photo: David Conachy

Willie Kealy

Monday: A day like any other. The non-news is about Brexit, or "Breakfast", as Marian Finucane twice referred to it yesterday. And there was some mention of an expected "significant weather event".

Apparently it is going to get a bit chilly over the rest of the week with the probability of snow. The Taoiseach says we need to take precautions just in case it turns into something worse, like the big freeze of 2010 or even the big snow of 1982. But it's all a bit tentative. The schools might have to close, for a day or two, but sure we'll leave it to the teachers. On the nation's favourite topic, we all get carried away from time to time, and anyway, hasn't it been bloody freezing for weeks now.

Just because it's got a tabloid title - "The Beast From The East" - doesn't mean we are going to panic.

Tuesday

Up to the shop at the usual time - about 10.30 in the morning to pick up the papers, and maybe a sliced pan or two and some extra milk.

Still not panicking. But the "significant weather event" is now a "significant snow event" and it looks like the schools may have to close after all and maybe public transport could be hit too.

But when I get to the shop there isn't a sliced pan to be had. The locusts - sorry, locals - have been in and cleared the lot.

Maybe I should panic a little. Especially with yellow and orange weather warnings for ice and snow throughout the east of the country (which includes my rural townland in Meath) coming from Met Eireann. Because we are now in a pincer movement caught between "The Beast From The East" and "Storm Emma".

In the afternoon, a neighbour, a sensible and practical man, calls in to say he has the tractor warmed up and on stand-by in case anyone needs a dig out - literally. The local text alert service starts circulating helpful advice and information. Then we get the first sign of the snow.

Wednesday

There aren't that many precautions you can take in the face of a storm. A precaution I might have taken (but didn't) was to find out what time the bread man arrives. Never mind, I thought, as I hit the road around 9am.

But it was in vain, and I arrived home with the healthiest looking nutty brown loaves I had never previously purchased, and probably never will again.

Still, it was something for the larder and it was going to be needed, because as we were all digesting the warning that the wind and snow from Siberia should land sometime on Thursday, it happened. The first real snow fell ahead of time and it was clear it was not going to be just a flurry.

It came thick and fast - the advance party, here to stay. As the sky grew grey, the animals were fed and watered and locked away again; some bread and meal put out for the birds; the heating turned up high and the fire lit as the adults settled down to wait it all out.

Not so the youngsters. Hour after impossible hour they played in the snow, their hands and faces red and raw and numb as they made memories that will last a lifetime - longer possibly as this week goes into the folk memory. For some it was just the best of fun. But for the younger ones who had never seen real snow before, it was more than that. It was a wonder.

By now the pending storm had taken over the media - social and otherwise - and we got to watch Sean O'Rourke and Joe Duffy at their radio desks trying to remember they were on television as they told us about trains and boats and planes that would be out of action for a while.

Hearing Ryanair was the first to down tools brought it home that this was serious. From time to time, the station went over to the National Emergency Co-Ordination Centre where Evelyn Cusack from Met Eireann has now replaced Mary O'Rourke as the country's Mammy. ("Tell us everything is going to be all right, Mammy".)

Thursday

Off to the shop again, this time even earlier. Listening to the official advice to stay at home except in case of emergency, I wonder just how important it was to get the papers and a sliced pan. Turned out the breadman wasn't working and the shop wasn't open.

Back home and RTE is now fully on a war-time footing with even Ryan Tubridy's morning radio show simulcasted. Obviously someone decided that while Dr Phil is a top man in a family crisis, he is feck all use in a snow storm.

What was needed to cheer us up was Ryan - our very own Vera Lynn. By now the official warning colour has been altered and we are now in the red, as I notice the heating I turned on is having no effect. The boiler is banjaxed.

Pressing buttons and twisting knobs and nozzles doesn't work. I call the plumber but of course nobody is going to come out in this weather. Try heating the pipes, he suggests, and I do, and slowly the oil is unfrozen and we are saved. Phew!

So we settle down to await the appointed hour - four o'clock in the afternoon. It's not quite like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but there is a sense of foreboding, maybe more like the Three Dark Days that were supposed to have been predicted in the Sixties as one of the Secrets of Fatima. Or if you are a hyper-Christian, like three o'clock on Good Friday afternoon.

And, while we wait, we wonder is this as bad as it gets or is the worst yet to come?

Friday

And so it came to pass. Throughout the night, the snow fell and the wind whipped it into drifts against walls and windows and doors and ditches, like cream on the side of a bowl.

During the night there was a power cut too, but it has been restored. But now the warning about staying indoors out of the blizzard has been withdrawn and red is reduced to orange.

The snow stops falling for a few hours and it actually looks like there might be the start of a thaw. But it's a false start and soon the snow is as biting and blinding as ever. The Met Man proposes, the weather disposes. Once again the warning is red - at least till nine in the morning. Even getting as far as the tractor shed now would be an achievement, and the spirits are flagging.

The bread and milk are running low but we have good neighbours if we can't get out ourselves. We may go a little stir crazy for a while, and even though climate change is at hand with its symptomatic extremes of weather, we take comfort from that happiest and saddest of aphorisms - all things must pass.

Saturday

Oh, happy day. How odd that we are cheered to be told that rain and sleet are on the way, but this presages the thaw. Of course that will lead to inevitable flooding, but like the weather veterans we have become, we will cope.

We have seen the best of us, the heroic gardai and firefighters and ambulance personnel, and the council staff and journalists and civil defence members and the volunteers with the homeless.

There was no further snow overnight so the weather alert has been downgraded from red to orange. But we are not there yet.

The roads are still treacherous and dangerous and it's emergency travel only, but businesses are opening again, and some public transport, and the schools could be back on Monday. And Brexit is back on the news agenda. Breakfast is high on my agenda. Now if only I could procure the necessaries - especially that elusive sliced pan!

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