A stormless and flood-free winter and radiant if chilly spring could have fooled us into thinking that climate change was in abeyance, and the human world allowed to suffer one cataclysm at a time. Now, as attention swings back, Ireland's past neglect of climate science is documented in a new book from the Royal Irish Academy.
When, in the 19th century, the Irish-born scientist John Tyndall identified the warming effect of greenhouse gases, few connections were made anywhere in academia. But the lack of climate science in the modern Irish State helped it shrug off the signals of calamity. Even a basic meteorological service had to wait until 1936, when the new Aer Lingus needed it.
Climate and Society in Ireland (RIA, €35) traces an indifference that persisted for years after the alarming reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Prof John Sweeney charts the lack of research upon which to base Irish impacts, primarily of flooding. The "last dissipation of public doubts", he writes, had to wait for the shocking blizzards of Storm Emma in 2018. But now, the " reality of an Ireland that emits more greenhouse gases than the 400 million poorest people on Earth has entered the consciousness of key components of Irish society".
His is the last of 13 research papers collected in the book, edited by historian James Kelly and archaeologist Tomás Ó Carragáin. They found it "vitally important to understand the full spectrum of human responses to past climate change at a time when some find it difficult to respond meaningfully to the current crisis due to the seemingly overwhelming scale of the challenge, while others continue to deny it altogether".
Religious sermons interpreted 'immoderate rains' and failing harvests as expressions of godly anger with licentiousness and drunkenness requiring days of fasting and repentance
Ireland’s medieval annals offer plenty of one-off extreme weather events to compare with those of today. Floods, storms, droughts, a Little Ice Age punctuate their evidence. Much of the history is environmental, recorded in pollens layered in lake beds, volcanic ash in peatland, even changes in the species of midge.
Throughout most of it, as John Sweeney concludes, Irish society was “a prisoner of climate” given the need for a harvest surplus. What people felt about the weather depended on what they had to compare it with and how far they recognised its patterns.
One report of 1787 was grateful that “Ireland, happily. . . does not experience those hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes which terrify the minds of the inhabitants of other countries. Dangerous lightning is seldom seen among us . . .”
The stronger interest in weather reporting and climate variation succeeded the ages in which extreme weather was "not random", says historian Raymond Gillespie, "but seen as part of the matrix of reward and punishment allocated by God". He quotes religious sermons interpreting "immoderate rains" and failing harvests as expressions of godly anger with licentiousness and drunkenness requiring days of fasting and repentance.
Two chapters on poetry, by Lucy Collins and Máire Ní Annracháin, look at changing views of the natural world – the turbulence of weather as reflected in political developments or responding to the fortunes of "rightful leaders" in the Gaelic notion of "the sympathy of nature", comhbhá an dúlra. Both offer fascinating insights, but a limited share of popular social feeling.
A time-travel story
Today's more urgent human response is found in another new book, an anthology of prose and poetry edited by two Irish poets. Empty House (Doire Press, €15) is prefaced by a quote from Greta Thunberg: "I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is."
The authors are Alice Kinsella and Nessa O'Mahony and their substantial collection of poetry and prose draws on the core of concern in a wide range of writing (including one of my own reflections on "the end of nature").
Kinsella admits to a fear and anxiety she now sees as a global experience, generating new passions in a younger generation. Eco-anxiety and climate grief, she says, “have become part of the global lexicon”.
An exceptionally young contributor, 12-year-old Mia Darcy, uses a time-travel story to make her point. For an ideal world she goes back to 1750 and a village market on "an undamaged Earth", happily trading in "handmade clothes, freshly-baked breads and lush vegetables".
That seems to invite John Sweeney’s dour conclusion to the RIA history. He suggests that, from prehistoric almost to contemporary times, the need to pass on weather wisdom and experience from one generation to the next made Irish society a “hostage” to climate.
“With the coming of objective measurement,” he writes,” the realisation has dawned that the relationship is now reversed. In a global context, climate is now the prisoner of people.”
Domination of the atmosphere is not a role we ever sought or warranted. Sweeney’s modest exhortation in the interim is for Irish society to contribute to “mitigating the worst effects”.