Small earthquake off Mayo coast moves our world


THE HEADLINE “Small earthquake in Chile; not many dead” is one of the few good jokes about journalism. The views of the Chilean people on the subject of the small earthquake were not recorded, unsurprisingly, as the headline was made up, I think in the 1930s, by Claud Cockburn, who later lived in Youghal, Co Cork. (There is an interesting collection of real headlines concerning Irish connections to distant world events but we haven’t the time to go into that at the moment.)

Perhaps it is parochial of us but we feel that, notwithstanding the apocryphal suffering of the Chilean people in this regard, an earthquake in Mayo is news indeed.

In northern Italy recent earthquakes have caused tragedy, but underneath our sympathies lies the conviction that, really, the Italians are used to it. Earthquakes are something that happen in beautiful foreign countries. Earthquakes are exotic. When reports came in last Wednesday that an earthquake of the magnitude of 4 on the Richter scale had occurred 60km west of Belmullet, at a depth of 3km, rattling windowpanes in Mayo, Galway and Sligo, it was something of a surprise.

At the same time it seemed to many that Ireland had had an earthquake just recently; in fact, off the east coast in 1984. For God’s sake, we said, we had an earthquake only three decades ago; what the hell is happening this country? Both earthquakes occurred about the same time, too. The 1984 quake, at 5.5 on the Richter scale, came at 7.57am on July 19th and the 2012 quake came at 8.58am on June 6th. The 1984 event is our biggest earthquake so far and was felt in Dublin as well as Waterford and Wicklow.

The aftershocks went on for a month; one of them, on Saturday August 19th, 1984, with a magnitude of 4.5, was stronger than last week’s Mayo quake. All of this is recorded in an Irishman’s Diary by Karl Whitney published in 2009. It is here that we learn that there was also an earthquake, of 2.7 magnitude, in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare in May 2010. There were microquakes in Donegal in January and March. I’m telling you, they’re coming thick and fast.

In the same week as the Mayo earthquake we had been shocked and appalled by a two-day rainstorm, as if we had never seen such a thing in our lives. In Ireland the population’s relationship with the weather is a strange romance.

Take the transit of Venus. Don’t talk to me about the transit of Venus. Another astronomical event in Ireland, which is to say time spent shivering with the cold while looking at the clouds through the protective filter of a crisp packet. Why do we bother? In fact, even enthusiasts stayed in bed last week as the clouds obscured the sun for, oh, the billionth time, and hid the transit. The lid of cloud was visible through your bedroom curtains. There is no room in this country for the fair-weather astronomer, or just for your average nosy person who’d like to see a once-in-several-lifetimes event in the heavens.

The sheer drama of the build-up, with those beautiful, clean-cut diagrams on television and the dire warnings about staring at the sun causing irreversible eye damage, is guaranteed to send your ordinary person towards the nearest telescope, or just to the nearest roof.

Remember the eclipse of the sun in 1999, when Irish people travelled to Newgrange, or to mystical spots in the south of England, and trembled at the privilege of being able to witness such a cosmic event? All were shrouded in cloud. Down at the Poolbeg lighthouse, with our special protective glasses, the skies darkened briefly, the seabirds suddenly flew inland (that was good, actually) and we longed for the opportunity of contracting permanent blindness, just that one time.

But no. All the big, well-publicised astronomical milestones seem to end up with optimists in the Phoenix Park in their anoraks, throwing their eyes to heaven in a manner quite different from that which they had anticipated.

On the occasions I attended the Phoenix Park crowd appeared to be liberally sprinkled with little girls wearing glasses, and their dads: this is one of the most seriously underestimated alliances in our society, and a group sighting is a rare event in itself. At The Irish Times we are fervently in favour of little girls wearing glasses, and their dads; no other social subset, with the possible exception of our soccer fans – and I’m writing this before the Croatian game – could absorb such consistent and grinding disappointment with such grace. It is strange to think that the little girls wearing glasses will themselves be dust by the time of the next transit of Venus, which is due in 2117.

We know that apart from the economy, the politicians, the most highly paid public servants in the known universe and the banks, we have a lot to be grateful for. But if there is going to be a change in our natural world we would appreciate clear skies, rather than the novelty of earthquakes.

As it is, all we have to teach our children is that everything is better on television, and they know that already.

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