A no-wind situation

An Irishman’s Diary: The politics of Irish weather forecasting

‘Finally came clarification from the Met office in Glasnevin, explaining that it was bound by an international protocol whereby a “Single Official Voice” (SOV) – which, by the way, sounds like a fringe unionist party – issues weather  warnings in each jurisdiction.’

‘Finally came clarification from the Met office in Glasnevin, explaining that it was bound by an international protocol whereby a “Single Official Voice” (SOV) – which, by the way, sounds like a fringe unionist party – issues weather warnings in each jurisdiction.’

Wed, Apr 24, 2013, 06:00

It was no surprise that, even as the main Northern flags row settled down, we should have a new politically-tinged controversy on this page in recent days over another flag-related phenomenon: the wind.

To recap briefly for readers who missed it, it began with a serious point from a man called Brian Coulter, who objected in the name of his Tyrone-born father to Met Éireann’s policy of excluding Northern Ireland from weather warnings.

There followed a comic interlude, in which another Tyrone reader deployed sarcasm to underline the apparent geographic limitations of the gales that swept Ireland last week.

Finally came clarification from the Met office in Glasnevin, explaining that it was bound by an international protocol whereby a “Single Official Voice” (SOV) – which, by the way, sounds like a fringe unionist party – issues warnings in each jurisdiction.

In short, as with many letter controversies, the subject was overcast early on, with sunny spells developing, and a clearance from the south later. But then again, maybe Gerald Fleming’s letter, in which he also cited MÉ’s allegiance to the transnational Meteoalarm system, will not be the last word.

After all, even Meteoalarm’s ostensibly neutral warning maps, which use colour-coding to bypass language differences, have political implications here. Their base colour is green, which means “no severe weather”: a loaded message to which hardline unionists would surely object.

From code green, conditions deteriorate via yellow (“be aware”) and orange (“be prepared”), en route to red (“take action”). And the colour scheme is backed up by a scheme of symbols, including – to indicate stormy conditions – a “windsock”.

Thus, for example, a Meteoalarm map of Northern Ireland in mid-July would almost inevitably have political overtones. Either there would be an orange backdrop and windsocks flying proudly everywhere, or a green one with no socks. Or maybe, in Alliance areas, the map would be yellow, with windsocks only on designated days.

Colours aside, the traditional problem for weather mappers in these parts has always been where to draw lines. BBC Northern Ireland used to present the “province” as an island. Now, it includes bits of the Republic, or at least greater Ulster, and even throws in the odd cross-Border placename to underline the effect.

Depending on your politics, this is either political ecumenism or a threat of invasion. But, as someone with South Ulster origins, I enjoy it. There’s something jaunty about the inclusion of a southern placename. It’s like a decorative feature added to a hat. And there’s a certain frisson too, wondering where it will be tonight. Ballinode, maybe. Or Swanlinbar.

No doubt it’s the influence of mobile telephony, which also relocates such places at random. Maybe the BBC NI weather map is just recognition of the permeability of borders now. And perhaps, in a similar spirit, without infringing SOV protocol, Met Éireann could find a way to share weather warnings with Northerners who want them.

One of our letter writers, for example, cited a GAA match in Croke Park, which he claimed to have foregone rather risk the high winds sweeping the Republic. RTÉ having led him to believe Tyrone was unaffected, he opted for gardening instead, and was shocked to find it just as windy there. I wonder if, on days of big GAA matches, Met Éireann might add a Gael warning to the bulletins, to prevent this kind of incident, at least, recurring.

Theory of wind colour
Fans of Flann O’Brien’s surreal masterpiece The Third Policeman will recall his theory of wind colour, as detailed by Old Mathers. In Mathers’s eyes, the east wind was a deep purple, the south a “fine shining silver”, the west amber, and the north black (yes, even in a novel devoid of politics, the concept of a Black North features, although of course the author was from Tyrone).

These were further divided into eight sub-winds, which mingled in such ineffably beautiful combinations that “in the old days”, according to Mathers, people would sit on hillsides and watch them for hours: “What could be more exquisite than a countryside swept lightly by cool rain reddened by the south-west breeze!”.

Maybe, while they’re at it, RTÉ could broadcast a surreal weather forecast every night, instead of limiting itself to actual meteorology, which is so dreary. In the meantime, I recommend that anyone affected negatively by the Irish weather should consider attending a one-man show of Flann O’Brien’s writings in Dublin this week.

The man in question is actor Val O’Donnell. The venue is the Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan’s, Eden Quay. For tickets contact: 085-7727375 or theatreupstairs@gmail.com.

A gales-of-laughter warning, code yellow, is in effect.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com