A brief history of (Irish) time
An Irishman’s Diary on the vagaries of Hibernian chronometry
‘After 1916 in Ireland, depending on where you were, clocks could show four different times: Dunsink, Greenwich, and the summer variations on either, with a maximum difference of an hour and 25 minutes.’ Above, Dunsink Observatory, where ‘Dunsink Time’ was calculated. Photograph: The Irish Times
Still on the subject of Anglo-Irish misunderstandings, cultural and linguistic, reader Eileen Casey makes an interesting point. This one concerns time – of the post-meridian variety, specifically – and the possibility that our understanding of it on this island is influenced by a peculiarity of the mother tongue.
As she explains: “In Irish we have only one word, tráthnóna, for the time after midday. In English there are two words, “afternoon” and “evening”. Thus Irish people sometimes confuse English people by saying “See you this evening!” when they mean around 4.30 or 5pm. In the English mind that is still the afternoon.”
Fair enough. I can see the potential for miscommunication there, certainly, although the example cited would imply that the people of this island have a reputation for turning up unexpectedly early at events in England, which in my experience is not the usual complaint.
Still, the general point – that the ancient language has bequeathed us a more relaxed attitude to time – may be useful. If the waiters at the Ritz ever again try to tell me I’m late for afternoon tea, I must remember to remind them that their petty concepts of chronometry have no place in my culture.
If tráthnóna begins at midday, as it does, most Irish scholars also agree that it continues until nightfall. So presumably, now that we’re facing into what Synge called “the long nights after Samhain”, the scope for confusion on the afternoon-evening dichotomy will be diminished in proportion with the daylight. Good news for organisers of evening classes, or rather night classes, as most of them now are.
I’m reminded, by contrast, of the difficulties that faced a certain Ernie O’Malley when, back in the summer of 1920, he toured rural Ireland, as a teacher of sorts. His general subject was freedom fighting, with modules covering firearms training, ambush techniques, and so on. But the need for synchronicity between his student operatives was a key part of the curriculum.
Unfortunately, as he wrote in his memoir of the period, this was a big challenge: “There was the difficulty of [having] three different times for councils and classes. Summer time was kept by cities, some towns and the railway; new time was an increase of 25 minutes on old Irish time to synchronise with English time; as yet punctual time had not come.”
The “old Irish time” to which O’Malley is referring was Dublin Mean Time, also known as Dunsink Time, after the astronomical observatory where it was calculated. This DMT was in keeping with “apparent time” – as dictated by the relative position of the sun – and so meant that clocks in Dublin were 25 minutes behind London: a situation that had existed from 1880 to 1916.
Yes, ironically, the era of Irish independence from Greenwich Mean Time ended in the year of the Rising, when the British House of Commons passed the Time (Ireland) Bill, uniting the two islands in a common zone. And it’s a double irony, maybe, that among those spreading the new orthodoxy in its early years, at least indirectly, was the great revolutionary himself.
In fact, if anything, O’Malley may have been understating the confusion he encountered, because it was as part of the introduction of Daylight Saving in Britain that Dublin Time was abolished. So after 1916 in Ireland, depending on where you were, clocks could show four different times: Dunsink, Greenwich, and the summer variations on either, with a maximum difference of an hour and 25 minutes.
And of course Dublin Mean Time was itself an imperialist concept, as seen from the provinces. In Ireland’s rebel southwest, locals were entitled – vis-a-vis the sun – to set their body clocks up to 17 minutes later than the city. After all, as farmers had pointed out, in opposition to the 1916 Bill, Irish cows would not consent to be milked before daylight, no matter what time parliament said it was.
But in any case, as O’Malley’s memoirs indicate, four years after the Bill, there was still a high degree of local devolution on the time question. Even the railways may not have been entirely consistent.
There’s a story about the Trinity College professor and wit, John Pentland Mahaffy, missing a train somewhere down the country once because the clock outside the station had a different time to the one inside. When he complained, a railway man defended the arrangement with impeccable logic. If the clocks told the same time, he said, “there’d be no need to have two”.