Pre­dictably, there’s not one recorded case where the tide of Ir­ish his­tory was turned by an out­break of sun­stroke, or an army head­ing to the sea­side on a sunny day

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins last week reg­is­tered his “deep and pro­found con­cern” that his­tory has been dropped as a core Ju­nior Cert sub­ject. Know­ing where we come from, he ar­gued, “is in­trin­sic to our shared cit­i­zen­ship”. Without it we are “bur­dened with a lack of per­spec­tive, em­pa­thy and wis­dom”, and “des­per­ately ill-equipped” to un­mask and con­front fake news.

The Pres­i­dent was launch­ing the new Cam­bridge His­tory Of Ire­land, which es­chews straight time­lines and the ‘great (wo)men’ model in favour of themes and clus­ters of cir­cum­stance. One theme is how ex­treme weather events have pro­foundly al­tered the course of Ir­ish his­tory. With some changes in the weather, Michael D might have been de­liv­er­ing his speech in Span­ish or French.

Pre­dictably, there’s not one recorded case where the tide of Ir­ish his­tory was turned by an out­break of sun­stroke, or an army head­ing to the sea­side on a sunny day. A lack of sun may have made us the is­land of saints and schol­ars. The an­nals record ten sun­less sum­mers around 540 AD caus­ing “a short­age of bread”, and “a plague that swept away the no­blest third part of the hu­man race”.

This nu­clear win­ter, prob­a­bly caused by the spew­ings of dis­tant su­per­vol­ca­noes, co­in­cided with a mas­sive monastery con­struc­tion boom as we aban­doned our Celtic gods, re­brand­ing them as Chris­tian saints.

In 1315 we al­most be­came part of Scot­land. The Gaelic chief­tains flocked to Ed­ward de Bruce’s in­vad­ing army, and af­ter de­mol­ish­ing the English at Kells it seemed noth­ing could stop him be­com­ing High King. Then came a spell of foul, cold, wet weather that lasted two years. Seed yield ra­tios fell to 2:1, mean­ing that for every two planted, only one grew for eat­ing, while the other had to be saved to plant for next year’s food. Mud, star­va­tion and dis­ease brought De Bruce’s cake­walk to a stand­still in a cli­mac­tic catas­tro­phe which re­duced Europe to an­ar­chy and even can­ni­bal­ism, giv­ing us the grisly Ger­man folk tale of Hansel and Gre­tel. Ed­ward’s de­feat ended any real chance of oust­ing English colo­nial rule and mak­ing Ire­land a Gaelic na­tion once again. The war against the English was ef­fec­tively lost, though not over.

Nearly 300 years later, El­iz­a­beth I’s ef­forts to com­plete the con­quest was re­peat­edly foiled by our dis­mal weather. It’s said there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad cloth­ing. The na­tives’ se­cret weapon was the all-pur­pose Ir­ish Man­tle. As poet Ed­mund Spenser grudg­ingly con­ceded: “It is their house, their tent, their couch, their tar­get [shield]. In sum­mer they wear it loose, in win­ter wrap it close.” In 1599 one English quar­ter­mas­ter begged in vain for Ir­ish Man­tles for his wretched troops, in­sist­ing it was far su­pe­rior to any­thing the English had.

El­iz­a­beth’s re­ver­sals of for­tune lasted un­til the weather dealt a death blow to Gaelic Ire­land at the 1601 Bat­tle of Kin­sale. Ir­ish storms had done more dam­age to the re­treat­ing Span­ish Ar­mada in 1588 than Wal­ter Raleigh’s fleet, but now they were back to oust Protes­tant English rule with Span­ish Catholic over­lord­ship. Ex­cept they landed on the wrong end of the is­land. Hugh O’Neill ar­gued it would be sui­ci­dal to march 300 miles in the depths of a sav­age win­ter, but Hugh O’Don­nell’s blood was up. They force-marched the length of Ire­land across frozen bogs on star- va­tion ra­tions, only for the cru­sade to end in be­trayal and de­feat. It spelled the end for the last strongholds of au­ton­o­mous Gaelic Ire­land. The Flight of the Earls which fol­lowed left a power vac­uum swiftly filled by the plan­ta­tions of Scots and English colonists.

The coup that put Dutch­man Wil­liam of Or­ange on the English throne in 1688 was a piece of his­tory writ­ten on the wind by the win­ners. While a God-sent ‘Protes­tant Wind’ blew Wil­liam’s in­va­sion fleet ef­fort­lessly from the Low Coun­tries to Eng­land, the same gale force wind kept the Ir­ish re­in­force­ments of Catholic King James stuck in port in Ire­land and un­able to in­ter­vene.

Just over a cen­tury later, Theobald Wolfe Tone at­tempted to ex­port the French Rev­o­lu­tion to Ire­land. The French Repub­lic as­sem­bled an in­va­sion force of 33 ships at Brest, aim­ing to land 15,000 troops at Bantry Bay and ig­nite an in­sur­rec­tion and make Ire­land a step­ping stone to con­quer Bri­tain. The weather that win­ter would turn out to be the worst on record in a cen­tury. From the time it left France the fleet was lashed by storms, with many ships scat­tered and sunk. Sud­denly the storms abated and a Christ­mas Day in­va­sion was on, un­til the Cork weather threw a freak span­ner in the works, leav­ing the fleet sud­denly be­calmed and help­less. Wolfe Tone seethed im­po­tently in his ship’s log: “Damn it to hell for a calm, and in the mid­dle of De­cem­ber. This calm! This calm! It is most ter­ri­bly vex­a­tious.”

When strong winds ended the calm, they blew straight out from the land, thwart­ing the at­tempted in­va­sion. Tone wrote: “Eng­land has not had such an es­cape since the Span­ish Ar­mada; and that ex­pe­di­tion, like ours, was de­feated by the weather. The el­e­ments fight against us and courage is of no avail.” Freak weather had doomed the last ever at­tempt by a con­ti­nen­tal power to lib­er­ate Ire­land from English rule.

Per­haps the most im­por­tant weather fore­cast in world his­tory was trans­mit­ted in June 1944 from Black­sod Bay, Co Mayo. Filed by post­mas­ter Ted Sweeney, it de­layed the D-Day Nor­mandy by 24 hours. Had the Nor­mandy land­ings gone ahead as planned on June 5 rather than June 6, the out­come may have been dis­as­trous. Sweeney’s re­port to Lon­don showed a cold front speed­ing across Ire­land. His in­for­ma­tion sug­gested that heavy rain and force seven gales would hit the English Chan­nel on June 5, play­ing havoc with the in­va­sion force. But he de­tected a short win­dow of calm in the wake of the storms. Gen­eral Eisen­hower de­layed D-Day by 24 hours and the rest is his­tory.

Know­ing our his­tory is know­ing our­selves, and the sto­ries are far bet­ter than the ones you get in Ju­nior Cert Busi­ness Stud­ies.

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