The end of an era in Irish meteorology


Patrick Kilian Rohan turned climatology in Ireland on its head, and reigned supreme over Irish meteorology itself as the fourth director of the organisation that we now know as Met Eireann.

In the early years of this century, as meteorology developed from being the pastime of a few dedicated but eccentric dilettantes into a science for professionals, it gained a new and exciting customer in the guise of aviation. To say that this new activity was weather sensitive is very much an understatement: in the early 1920s, the average life expectancy of a pilot's working life was a mere four years, and a great many of the fatal accidents were related to bad weather.

It was the clear need to provide accurate weather information for transatlantic flying that led to the establishment of an Irish Meteorological Service in 1936. One of its earliest recruits, and one who was to dominate aviation meteorology for nearly a quarter of a century, not just in Ireland but even to a large extent throughout Europe and North America as well, was Kilian Rohan.

Patrick Kilian Rohan was born in Ballina, Co Tipperary, on July 31st, 1916. He attended the local national school in Ballina, and advanced through the CBS in Sexton St in Limerick to UCD, where he graduated in 1938 with an honours BA in mathematical sciences, duly followed by an MA the following year. He joined the Meteorological Service in March, 1940, and experienced first-hand the exciting era of the flying-boats at Foynes.

During the years that followed there were a few short postings away from aviation, but, in 1948, Mr Rohan was appointed Officer in Charge of the Meteorological Office at the then relatively new Shannon Airport at Rineanna. He was to continue in this capacity until 1970.

For much of his tenure, Shannon Airport was the main European terminal for North Atlantic civil aviation, and many European and American airlines located their dispatch offices at the airport - not least, it was said, to avail of what was widely regarded as the best weather service available in these islands under Mr Rohan's able stewardship.

But during these years also, Mr Rohan played a central role in the international co-ordination of aviation meteorology. He was an active member of the Commission for Aeronautical Meteorology of the World Meteorological Organisation, and served as its vice-president from 1964-67.

More importantly, perhaps, Mr Rohan played a particularly key role in organising the rapid exchange of meteorological information for aviation purposes in Europe. As aviation expanded rapidly during the 1950s, and the demand for, and the availability of, vast quantities of weather information increased dramatically, getting it from one place to another with the technology then available became a major problem; it was evident that the whole telecommunications network system needed to be overhauled. In 1958, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) set up a special body to undertake this task and P.K. Rohan became the first chairman of the so-called MOTNE Panel. The Panel, MOTNE standing for Meteorological Telecommunications Network for Europe, organised a new rational system of communications, arranged the schedules and programmes, co-ordinated the new plan, and monitored its implementation and subsequent operation. Mr Rohan masterminded its activities for 14 years.

And meanwhile, lest he was not occupied enough in Europe, ICAO in 1964 asked if he would come and live in Montreal for half a year to rewrite the world-wide bible of services to civil aviation, the Meteorological Annex to the Chicago Convention of ICAO. And of course he did.

We can only speculate as to how great a shock it may have been to Mr Rohan to be told in 1970 that he must move to Dublin. It was obvious to all, however, even if not to Mr Rohan himself, that the man was destined for much higher things. In any event he suddenly found himself a climatologist, and thereby was to hang another tale that occupied the remainder of his life.

As Head of Climatology, the statistics of the weather, Mr Rohan applied himself to a new discipline with characteristic zeal. He was quick to see the potential of the computer as an ideal tool for analysing the weather data in Ireland collected over many decades. But he was also aware that this data was of little use unless made readily accessible. It was this which led him to write, first The Climate of Dublin and then, in 1976, The Climate of Ireland. The latter was the first comprehensive and authoritative description of our Irish climate. Its second edition, on which he worked for several years after he had formally retired, is the definitive work upon the subject.

Mr Rohan's formal brief in climatology was short, a mere five years. In 1975, he became Assistant Director of the Meteorological Service and, finally, at the mature age of 62, he succeeded Mr Austin Bourke as Director. In this capacity, along with revitalising the organisation with his customary vigour, he continued to take an interest in international affairs, and, in 1980, almost on the eve of his retirement, he became president of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts.

At a personal level, Mr Rohan was a jolly, kindly man, even if to younger forecasters, and indeed even to many of the older ones, he was a figure who inspired some awe. Yet no Irish meteorologist has been respected more. He was a man of the deepest Christian faith, and such time as he had left from climatology after he retired was devoted to the St Joseph's Young Priests' Society, with which he had been closely associated for very many years.

Patrick Kilian Rohan died on Monday, April 26th, 1999. Had he lived a little longer, he would have been married for 53 years to Eileen, herself a figure held in great affection by the meteorological community for her quiet style and dignity and quintessential niceness. Mr Rohan's passing marks the end of a memorable era, indeed some might say a golden age, of Irish meteorology.

Patrick Kilian Rohan: born 1916; died April, 1999