An Irishman's Diary
Driving up to Armagh during Saturday night’s storm, I was reminded of that city’s historic contribution to the science of wind measurement. It dates from 1846, when the “rotating cup anemometer”, a device for measuring wind-speed still used today, was invented by the then director of Armagh Observatory.
A Dubliner by birth, Thomas Romney Robinson pursued a professional career that involved star-gazing and soul-saving in about equal parts. He spent almost 60 years in the aforesaid observatory, while also serving as Church of Ireland rector in Carrickmacross, my home town.
But in between astronomy and religion, he concerned himself with wind too. And, better to measure it, he constructed a rotating horizontal cross mechanism with a semi-spherical cup at the end of each arm.
Although Ireland was and is generally rich in the raw material needed for his experiments, he may have been especially blessed in Armagh. The infamous Big Wind of 1839 had wreaked its most spectacular result in that county: destroying a whole Catholic church in the village of Derrytrasna, on the shores of Lough Neagh.
Even so, Robinson didn’t wait around for the right conditions. Instead, he took to mounting his anemometer on a carriage. And it was while belting along the roads of Armagh and Monaghan that he calculated the relationship between the rate at which his cups were turning and the actual wind speed.
His findings were a little off, subsequent experiments showed. Nevertheless, the design was fundamentally sound and is still with us today.
I was in Armagh, incidentally, to cheer on the Monaghan Gaelic football team in its latest bid for silverware, against Tyrone. It was only the McKenna Cup, Ulster’s traditional season opener. And it was atrocious weather in which to be making an unforced journey from Dublin. Despite which, I thought it important to be there.
In Monaghan GAA circles, optimism is a bit like the wind. It’s often at its most violent in January and February. And sure enough, after a couple of years in the Doldrums, it has been surging again lately. Thanks to a new manager and four straight wins, it was at Force 6 by last weekend, gusting to Force 7 in places.
During the game itself, unfortunately, and not for the first time, I noticed a strange meteorological phenomenon. Namely that when it’s behind our team, as it was in the second half on Saturday night, the wind never seems to blow as hard as it did for the opposition. There must a natural law here waiting to be discovered.
In any case, we lost, badly. So for now, the 2003 win in the same competition and the 2005 League Division Division 2 title remain our only competition successes this century. I hate to sound defeatist. But at this rate, it’ll be a long time before we have enough cups for an anemometer.
A Biblical rain was falling
Fifteen hours later, back in Dublin, the gale was still howling. And I was studying it even more ruefully than the night before. In another triumph of optimism over experience, I had submitted an advance entry to the Raheny Five Mile road race: one of the more popular annual fixtures in the running calendar. Now I was severely tempted to forfeit the fee.
It wasn’t just the wind. Ninety minutes before the event, a Biblical rain was falling. Or trying to fall. Where I lived, the best it could do was move sideways, parallel with the ground.
On the radio, to further lighten my mood, racing trainer Willie Mullins was being asked just how bad conditions were at Leopardstown. He mentioned an earlier race where a horse – a particularly large animal – had been blown off the course. “He’s like a big sail, the size of him,” sympathised Mullins, with the turn of phrase for which horsey men are famous.
Feeling a bit large myself suddenly, I set out for Raheny with a sinking heart and the faint hope that there would be a text along the way to announce cancellation. No such luck. Arriving at the start, I was astonished to find that not only had the entire field of 2,500 actually turned up, but they all seemed to be insanely cheerful.
On the plus side it had stopped raining. The sun had even made an appearance, albeit to sneer. But the anemometers were still whirring. And as the race got underway, with my mainsail flapped noisily, I wondered again at the wisdom of the organisers in arranging that part of the course would be along the seafront at Clontarf.