Last of meteorology's magnificent seven


When the Meteorological Service was established in 1936 to meet the growing demands of transatlantic aviation, it placed its operational headquarters in the little Co Limerick town of Foynes. Temporary forecasters from the British Meteorological Office helped to get the organisation under way, but one of its first tasks was to recruit a team that it could call its own. There were seven - "the magnificent seven" they sometimes called themselves in later years - in that first batch of honours graduates who assumed their posts in 1939.

The seven experienced perhaps the most exciting era in Irish meteorology, where predictions of wind, weather and temperature across the whole expanse of the Atlantic Ocean were matters of life and death. With a war in progress, the information on which these forecasts might be based was meagre, but the seven rose to the occasion in their magnificent way.

As the years went by, the allotted time ran out for each in turn. Paul Brown and Arthur Morgan died both relatively young; for several decades Sean McWilliams directed Valentia Observatory, and he died in 1984; Shane Tierney became assistant director, retired in 1977 and died a decade later; Fred Dixon headed the Central Forecast Office in Dublin, and passed away in 1988; and Austin Bourke became director of the Meteorological Service and an expert on potato blight, and survived until 1995.

Leslie Leech was the youngest of the seven, being only 21 in 1938. He went on to head the Meteorological Office at Dublin Airport, and ultimately to end his career as head of climatology before he retired in 1982. Leslie, the last of the original seven and a little like Oisin i ndiaidh na Fianna, passed quietly away last week.

Leslie was a gentle soul, a worrier who strove to get everything exactly right, but often found the world did not quite play according to his rules. But an aura of unmitigated niceness trailed in Leslie's wake. And if meteorology was his metier, horticulture was his passion; it could have been for him that Horace wrote:

Hoc erat in votis: modus non ita magnus, Hortus ubi et tecto vicinus aquae fons Et paulum silvae super his foret.

"This was my prayer: for a plot of ground not particularly large, but which would have a garden and a spring of everflowing water near the house - and a little woodland, too." In Leslie's case, the prayer was answered, more or less, in Howth; it would nice to think that he is just as lucky now.