Another Life: Leaned on from the ocean, hammered through the hills
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate forecast for the end of September is a very strange tangle of frayed and tentative red lines
Stormy weather: a gale can be enough to lure you down to the sea. Illustration: Michael Viney
The first gale of autumn had branches writhing on the ash tree outside the window and hillside gulls learning to fly backwards again. But its gusts were also oddly reassuring: this much of the seasons, at least, was turning up on cue. The sun still crosses the equator on or about September 22nd, heading south, and a cooling northern hemisphere with equal day and night still brings what we have come to call the equinoctial gales.
I just missed one such that the island could well have done without – or did Hurricane Debbie, indeed, even belong in such a category? It’s 52 years since, arriving in Ireland for a year’s time out from Fleet Street, I found myself cycling west into an autumnal and battered Connemara, arrestingly silent, as if still in shock from the tail end of the hurricane.
Debbie was born over Africa in August 1961 and travelled out into the Atlantic as a tropical storm heading westwards. It could have joined the annual gathering of Caribbean hurricanes but instead was swung around by the westerly winds and accelerated northeast towards Ireland, deepening as it came. It brushed the west coast around Achill on the morning of September 16th at a sustained 130km/h (80mph), stripping roofs and whirling haystacks into the sky. Its island-wide havoc was credited with 11 deaths.
So, moving west again with family, some decades ago and for good, I knew enough to accept the sea wind as a lively and bracing companion but one I might not like when it was angry. There have been times when it was very stirred up. In the early years of a flat-roofed extension the sight of the dark crack opening and closing where the walls met the ceiling (such was the upwards suction of the wind), or of our single-glassed windows billowing ever so gently inwards, bred a certain tense stoicism at the fireside.
Slowly, however, we learned that being leaned on from the ocean was far preferable to being hammered through the hills. A southeast gale, funnelling through Doolough Pass (where it raised whirling waterspouts on the lake) and rushing like an express train down the side of Mweelrea Mountain to slam into our gable, eventually lifted half the slates off the roof.
There was a time when the right kind of gale could lure me down to the sea, feeling its strength quicken as I passed the last field banks, fences, bumps and hollows in the pastures, the stolid rumps of sheep and cattle. Step out on to smooth sand and wind speed begins to climb rapidly.You lean a bit, then quite a lot, eyes watering, breath shallowing. Long skeins of flying sand rattle and hiss around your boots. Stones and shells are left balanced on little pedestals of sand, like mushrooms. Sometimes, if the breakers are high enough, they can offer pockets of strange shelter at the edge of the foam.