How does an 81-year-old with no faith in an afterlife keep his sense of humour?

This winter has fulfilled the dire promises of the climate-change modellers. Hurricane gusts, 20-metre waves, surging tides: it’s all happening

Looking in vain: lesser celandine needs the sun. Illustration: Michael Viney

Looking in vain: lesser celandine needs the sun. Illustration: Michael Viney


In the month of my 81st birthday (please don’t bother, but thanks anyway) it rather seems that the future has arrived without waiting till I’ve gone. How much longer can my polytunnel go on bucking on its arches like a frightened horse without taking to the sky or tearing itself into shreds – this my plastic palace, seat of music and meditation, my place of trust in tomorrow and the springing of green leaves?

How long before the 20-year-old greenhouse (built with concrete pillars, half-sunk into the ground, buttressed against the house and given a sheltering hedge of its own) finally succumbs in a squall of shattering glass? What do we do with all the bits? But that is to anticipate.

Unlike the unfortunate people on the western and southern estuaries, we are lucky to live high on a hillside and can watch with simple awe as the tide sweeps into the freshwater fen behind the dunes. In appropriate lulls, well anoraked, I go for my daily march. The boreen is lined with flailing briars, never so blackly and thornily stripped of leaves. I look in vain among the mosses and ferns for the first bright glint of lesser celandine, but it needs the sun, the sun! And don’t tell me about all your early daffodils: a hungry badger has found my best bulbs and ploughed them up to eat.

Thus my February blues, unleavened, as I write, by any “pet” day of gilded calm. Quite often, given the usual lead time of this column, just discussing the weather is enough to change it by the day my words appear: I sometimes feel I should apologise. But we are now talking about climate, not weather, and this winter has fulfilled – even, indeed, excelled – the dire promises of the modellers. Hurricane gusts, 20-metre waves, surging tides: it’s all happening.

In response from the human world, of course, nothing commensurate is happening. It probably never will until, cataclysm piling on disaster, governments are besieged by a panicked populace – all, by that time, too late and to no purpose.

Most people now, even in the biblically deluded, anti-science strata of the US, accept that climate is changing. But far too many still hold, irrationally, that we had nothing to do with it. In the meantime a warming of two degrees, once felt to be the tolerable limit, has slipped forward half a century. Now the heat is being turned up; four degrees by the end of the century is the outcome advanced in the latest report to the World Bank.

For the slow awakening of popular knowledge, the media have much to regret. News and comment thrive by confrontation, so any assertion with dramatic significance must immediately be matched with someone to deny it. Counterarguments are offered in challenging tones by presenters pleading “balance”.

No need for debate
Thus a world-wide scientific consensus has had to struggle with the appearance of debate where none should now exist. On the dangers of our present path, now rehearsed in one “extreme” weather episode after another, no credible room remains for denial. (For further insight and instruction, go to, a website on the sensible side of science.)

Given all that, how does an 81-year-old with no faith in an afterlife keep his sense of humour? With some desperation at times and perhaps especially in February with another storm due. It is sad to conceive of a west of Ireland whose more exposed coasts could become virtually depopulated, at least in winter, not so much because of storm damage – farms and sheep will adapt – as because of the stress of unrelenting wind and rain. Perhaps the people of Shetland or the Faroes are made of sterner stuff, or don’t have polytunnels and greenhouses.

That thought took me, of course, straight to Google, and discovery of the Shetland invention of the “polycrub”, a polytunnel made by recycling old salmon-cage pipe (of which there now is a lot to spare, apparently), its arches covered with stormproof twin-wall polycarbonate.

The Northmavine community – Shetland is good at community action – made land available and used money from Scotland’s Climate Challenge Fund to build 12 sturdy polytunnels to grow fruit and veg ( Even redundant salmon-cage walkways have been rescued by the tonne to serve between the beds. Connacht, perhaps, please copy.

So it’s not just the jokes that keep me going but a restless curiosity about the natural world and the human role within it, at once so clever and creative, so greedy and self-deceiving. I would love to come back at the end of the century to see how it all works out: whether migrants from Africa have fetched up in Thallabawn, whether the rich have built their new forts in Greenland. But then, when I was small, 2014 belonged on comic-book covers, with everyone in flying cars, zooming between the skyscrapers.

Back, next week, to the world as we thought we knew it.

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