Weath­er­ing heights

Me­te­o­rol­o­gist Joanna Don­nelly, who has lived many lives and over­come many chal­lenges, has just pub­lished her first book, with a lit­tle help from her chil­dren. Donal O’Donoghue meets her

RTÉ Guide - - Cover Story - * The Great Ir­ish Weather Book by Joanna Don­nelly (with il­lus­tra­tions by Fuch­sia MacAree) is pub­lished by Gill

“The first time I did the weather fore­cast on the Six One news my hus­band didn’t want to show me the on­line com­ments.” Me­te­o­rol­o­gist, broad­caster and freshly minted au­thor, Joanna Don­nelly, pauses just long enough for the ‘Why?’ “Some­one had writ­ten ‘Great! An­other old woman on the tele­vi­sion!’. I didn’t take those com­ments per­son­ally be­cause I knew where they were com­ing from. There are so many young peo­ple who feel that they look good and have much to of­fer. And yes I am old ( she’s only 48) but I have ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m also a sci­en­tist and prag­matic and the fact that I’m 48 means that I haven’t died yet. So I have no prob­lem with be­ing seen as ‘old’. Any­way, what’s the al­ter­na­tive?”

Even be­fore I switch on my recorder, we’re off: a cut on my fore­head prompt­ing Joanna Don­nelly to re­call an ac­ci­dent from 2012 when she fainted and hit her head dur­ing a rou­tine mam­mo­gram. She lost so much blood she feared for her life and sub­se­quently de­vel­oped post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD). She talks about these things in a com­pletely mat­ter-of-fact way, even though I imag­ine it was any­thing but. “Wait, I have to switch on my recorder,” I say even­tu­ally, hav­ing planned to ask the mother-of-three about, among other things, liv­ing with in­som­nia, un­der­go­ing IVF and grow­ing up in a poorer sub­urb of Dublin in the bleak mid-’80s. “I have so many sto­ries,” says Joanna, as she pours the first of many cups of tea in a con­ver­sa­tion that reels in the years, the life of some­one who is funny, en­gag­ing and very smart. We are meet­ing to talk about Don­nelly’s first pub­li­ca­tion, The Great Ir­ish Weather Book. It is in­deed a great book, phys­i­cally and oth­er­wise: too big to fit into my bag and burst­ing with sci­en­tific facts and fig­ures as well as en­thralling il­lus­tra­tions

(take a bow, Fuch­sia MacAree). In her af­ter­word, or ‘Good­bye’ as Joanna has it, she writes that this is a book with real sci­en­tific facts and is suit­able for all ages and cu­riosi­ties, de­spite be­ing pitched at younger read­ers. At the Ir­ish Book Awards an­nounce­ments last month, it was nom­i­nated for Best Ir­ish Pub­lished Book. “Peo­ple tell me that they can hear my voice when they read it,” says Don­nelly of a warm and el­e­gantly writ­ten work that was a life­time in the mak­ing. “All my life I’ve loved sci­ence and how it ex­plains ev­ery­thing.”

Joanna Don­nelly grew up in Fin­glas South in the 1980s, the sec­ond youngest of four. In The Great Ir­ish Weather Book she likens her­self to Matilda, Roald Dahl’s book-lov­ing hero­ine (al­though she con­fesses that she was never a fan of Dahl). “I grew up in a chaotic house like Matilda’s,” she says. “My dad died when I was three years old and my Mom was preg­nant with Em­mett, the youngest. At that time in the 1980s, Fin­glas South was in a ter­ri­ble state. We lived in the heart of cow­boy coun­try, a hard place to grow up. My Mom, Marie, was a sin­gle mother try­ing to raise four kids, which was not easy. Her mother had died when she was preg­nant with my el­dest brother. So I re­treated to the lo­cal li­brary to es­cape the chaos of all that.”

Joanna never knew her fa­ther, Frank. “All I heard from peo­ple was how great and mar­vel­lous he was but that didn’t re­ally tell me any­thing about him,” she says. “My Mom never talked about him prob­a­bly be­cause she too was sad. So I spent my grow­ing-up years too em­bar­rassed to ask any­thing about him. I re­mem­ber once ask­ing what colour his eyes were and my el­der brother Wil­liam got re­ally an­noyed that I didn’t know. But how could I know? Then when I was at DCU, I started play­ing poker and got so good I fig­ured I’d bet­ter stop be­fore it be­came a prob­lem. Then when I was 21, and my Mom told me that my dad was a gam­bler. It was the first hu­man thing I’d ever heard about my fa­ther. The best thing, too, as now I could con­nect to him.”

At school, Don­nelly was a bit of a know-it-all, con­stantly ques­tion­ing her teach­ers. “Maths was my sub­ject and I re­mem­ber in pri­mary school cor­rect­ing the teacher by telling her that she was get­ting the ques­tion wrong. I was a re­ally dif­fi­cult child. When that teacher came back af­ter her break she said, ‘Sorry Joanna, you were right’. I was only ten or so and re­mem­ber think­ing ‘Fair play to her.’ But I was quite smart like that in school, al­ways caus­ing trou­ble and I did get sus­pended once. I don’t re­call if that was with Miss Mul­li­gan, who I ter­rorised or Miss Dou­glas my French teacher. I met her years later in DCU and she told me that I was the only stu­dent that she had ever to leave the class­room for be­cause I was so bold.” >>

Bold but bright, Joanna went on to study ap­plied maths at Dublin City Univer­sity (DCU): her achieve­ments per­haps partly ex­plained by a mother who wanted her daugh­ter to be the best she could be. “My mother grew up in a very pa­tri­ar­chal house, raised to get mar­ried and have kids. That was her fu­ture. Then when she had the four chil­dren, her hus­band died. So she had to work re­ally hard and sub­se­quently raised me in a ‘that’s-not-go­ingto-hap­pen-to-you’ way. I’d come home with my school re­ports say­ing that I was first in my class but that I “could do bet­ter”. And my mother would only see the ‘could do bet­ter’ line. She was strict with me but that was al­right. We’re very close now.”

Don­nelly joined Met Éire­ann in 1995 as a met of­fi­cer and was pro­moted to me­te­o­rol­o­gist five years later. It was at Met Éire­ann that she met her fu­ture hus­band and fel­low me­te­o­rol­o­gist, the Dutch na­tive Harm Lui­jkx. They got to know each other dur­ing a work­ing trip to the British Met Of­fice in 2001 in the week fol­low­ing 9-11. “We were in lock­down, for se­cu­rity rea­sons, spend­ing all that time to­gether and very quickly a re­la­tion­ship de­vel­oped.”

The fol­low­ing year she did her first ra­dio broad­cast for RTÉ Ra­dio but it wouldn’t be un­til De­cem­ber 2015 that she ap­peared on TV. “It had never been on my radar be­cause I had kids. Nicci was born in 2003, then To­bias (11) and Casper (9) and then I had my ac­ci­dent in 2012. But in 2014 I thought, ‘What now?’. I had been do­ing ra­dio for so long and was look­ing for an­other chal­lenge.”

In her per­sonal life, there were other chal­lenges. Since pu­berty, Don­nelly suf­fered with in­som­nia. “When you are a teenager you just go back to bed,” she says, but that all changed with the birth of her first child, Nicci. “At one point I thought ‘God is hi­lar­i­ous! He has sent an in­som­niac a child who sleeps through the night.” De­spite an ac­tive life­style (cy­cling, swim­ming, run­ning), she still strug­gles with sleep­less­ness. “In 2016, which was a su­per year for me as I had done the marathon and triathlons, I re­mem­ber think­ing ‘I’m such a fail­ure and dis­as­ter’ be­cause I couldn’t sleep. You get so down, you start think­ing ridicu­lous thoughts. But you even­tu­ally get to sleep and ev­ery­thing rights it­self again. Now I put my phone out of the bed­room. And it has worked.”

Joanna also un­der­went three years of IVF be­fore be­com­ing preg­nant with To­bias. “I was a sci­en­tist so I wanted the sci­en­tific an­swers,” she says, “but as all the tests were com­ing back as clear and nor­mal, there was noth­ing we could fix. Even­tu­ally, they threw the kitchen sink at it and I did a full IVF cy­cle.” Then a few years later, Casper ar­rived nat­u­rally. “That is not that un­usual be­cause preg­nancy can cor­rect some of the prob­lems that cause in­fer­til­ity, which is ironic,” she says.

Spurred by her own ex­pe­ri­ence, Don­nelly and the nov­el­ist, Fiona McPhillips, set up Pome­gran­ate in 2010, a char­ity of­fer­ing fund­ing to peo­ple in the pub­lic health sys­tem deal­ing with in­fer­til­ity. “Now we’re hop­ing to go out of busi­ness be­cause peo­ple should be able to get ac­cess to the treat­ments with­out a char­ity be­ing in­volved. Hope­fully, the leg­is­la­tion will go through soon.”

Her life has also been punc­tu­ated with panic at­tacks, fired by a trau­matic ac­ci­dent in her col­lege days. “I was in a sta­tionery shop get­ting my the­sis bound when I fainted and crashed into a glass case,” she says. “I smashed up my face, broke my teeth and the rest. Af­ter that, I started to get panic at­tacks. Fol­low­ing my ac­ci­dent in 2012, I was eat­ing a bagel when it got lodged in my throat and I thought I would suf­fo­cate. I was run­ning around my house, scream­ing and cry­ing, and then re­alised that what was hap­pen­ing was that I was hav­ing a panic at­tack. But I knew that if I con­tin­ued to be­have like this I would do some­thing stupid and se­ri­ous.” She went to a coun­sel­lor who rec­om­mended EMDR (Eye Move­ment De­sen­si­ti­sa­tion and Re­pro­cess­ing), a form of psy­chother­apy that helps al­le­vi­ate dis­tress as­so­ci­ated with trau­matic mem­o­ries.

Sci­ence is knit­ted into her life and that of her fam­ily. Her three chil­dren were the first read­ers of The Great Ir­ish Weather Book. “They are the first test sub­jects of ev­ery­thing I do,” she says. “They al­ways ask the ques­tions. At home, we al­ways talk about sci­ence as a mat­ter of fact. Sci­ence is just part of the way we talk. In fact, Nicci asked my mother one day what the word nerd meant and my mother an­swered her: ‘Your Mammy and your Daddy!’” Pre­fer­ring ‘re­al­ist’ to ‘op­ti­mist’ to de­scribe her dis­po­si­tion, she is hope­ful about the fu­ture if not quite op­ti­mistic for hu­man­ity. “Cli­mate change is un­der­way, tem­per­a­tures are ris­ing and the im­pacts will be dra­matic and sig­nif­i­cant across the globe,” she says. “It will mean a whole new so­cio-eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion for ev­ery­one. We are de­stroy­ing the planet and thus de­stroy­ing our­selves, rapidly and ef­fi­ciently.”

Ask Joanna for the best piece of ad­vice she ever got and she of­fers an­other story, how af­ter win­ning a ju­nior tro­phy in karate the judge said to her that she was the only one smil­ing when col­lect­ing her prize. A cou­ple of years later, work­ing at the check-out in a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket, a woman ap­proached her ask­ing if she wanted a job. Turns out the woman made her choice by watch­ing all the peo­ple work­ing at the tills and the girl with the fair hair was the only one smil­ing. “Dolly Par­ton says that if she’s walk­ing down the street and she meets some­one who’s not smil­ing she gives them one of hers,” she says and smiles. “Smil­ing makes you feel bet­ter.”

We con­tinue talk­ing long af­ter the ma­chine is switched off. “You could write a book with all this,” says Don­nelly more than once, adding we’d have to split the roy­al­ties. She still reads vo­ra­ciously, fic­tion and non­fic­tion ( Milk­man by Anna Burns and From a Clear Blue Sky by Ti­mothy Knatch­bull both get a thumbs-up), is a huge fan of mu­si­cal theatre and once painted a room in her house pur­ple be­cause she loves Cad­bury’s Twirl so much. For a laugh I ask her if we will get a White Christ­mas (“You’re not go­ing to ask me that!?” she wails) and then she checks her phone for the name of an au­thor. “If I don’t find out I won’t be able to sleep, she says and laughs, a sci­en­tist in a uni­verse where God might very well play dice.

I spent my grow­ing-up years too em­bar­rassed to ask any­thing about my fa­ther

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