An Irishman's Diary


A DUBLINER now living near the borders of New Hampshire and Massachusetts has e-mailed me about the eerie experience this week of being on “tornado watch” for the first time in her life.

It’s not something even the natives there are familiar with, the phenomenon being much more common in “Tornado Alley”, the great plains between Appalachia and the Rockies. Even so, a series of twisters ripped through southern New England on Wednesday and sent Massachusetts into a state of emergency.

Apart from the normal worries you might have in such a situation, my friend had an added concern. Fresh from helping stage the first Bloomsday celebration in Dublin, New Hampshire last year, she has just put the finishing touches to an exhibition of Joyceana in Peterborough town library.

Tornado watch allowing, the show was due to open yesterday. And much as any curator would wish that visitors to her exhibition be blown away by the experience, a less extreme reaction might suffice on this occasion. Ominously, she was woken yesterday “by the strangest thunder storm”. James Joyce would not have enjoyed it: he was terrified of lightning.

The worst of the Massachusetts tornadoes happened in that city made famous by the Simpsons: Springfield. Not that the Simpsons’ Springfield is in Massachusetts, or anywhere else in particular. In fact, as a cipher for Everywhere, USA, the cartoon’s metropolis is no stranger to tornadoes and hurricanes and every natural disaster known to man, just as its hinterland includes everything from deserts to pastureland to glacier-strewn mountains.

Nevertheless, the series does have a Massachusetts accent, in more ways than one. Many of the writing and production team went to college in the state and they chose to make Springfield’s political leader, Mayor Quimby, sound like one of the Kennedys.

That the real-life Springfield is not prone to tornadoes is partly because its hilly terrain prevents them building strength. But when they do happen, it’s not designed to cope well. This week’s weather should, for example, have been a godsend to a scientist at the University of Massachusetts, who makes a habit of chasing tornadoes in the midwest. Like most people, however, he was confined indoors on Wednesday because there are far too many trees in this part of the world to make tornado-chasing viable.

And despite the hills, the twisters that hit Springfield were frighteningly powerful. Among those who had narrow escapes were two furniture removal men who found themselves caught up in the sudden darkness and crashing timber and abandoned their truck just in time to see the 14,000lb vehicle picked up, swept 80 feet away, and dumped on its side like a toy.

HAVING SOME of New England’s finest farmland, Springfield was a magnet for the first European colonists. The earliest arrivals included a number of the Plymouth pilgrims, who had initially set up east of there. But among the 700,000 or so people who inhabit greater Springfield today is a small Irish colony, whose voyage to the new world was epic in its own way.

It happened as recently at the 1950s when they left their former home, the Blasket Islands. Never more than 200-strong, the islanders must by then have produced proportionally the largest body of literature – not including Myles na gCopaleen’s spoof of the genre, An Beal Bocht– of any indigenous population anywhere.

Unfortunately, the attentions of scholars and publishers didn’t make life on the islands any easier. And the locals had already begun abandoning the Blaskets long before the government arranged the final evacuation in 1953. Some moved to mainland Kerry. Others bypassed the island of Ireland altogether and headed for Springfield, where their descendants – and a few of the original emigrants – still live.

Infamously bad as the Blasket weather was, the islanders can hardly have seen any tornadoes there. But of Atlantic storms, there were plenty. The community’s last years saw a series of dramas in which the islands were temporarily cut off by seas too rough even for the most skilled and fearless boatmen to make the crossing.

In April 1947, a group who made the crossing to Dunquin for relief supplies were trapped there for several days before they could make the return trip. During an an even worse storm, in December 1951, the landing pier at Inishtearaght – the most westerly isle – was washed away.

There was concern that Christmas when residents on the Co Kerry coastline reported not seeing the traditional lighted candles in the windows of the Great Blasket’s cottages. And by early January, when the weather’s siege finally lifted, the Blaskets had been cut off for four weeks, with no food except potatoes.

The last straw for some was when a teenager called Sean Kearney died from meningitis during one such period of isolation. In 2008, nearly 60 years later and now living in America, his younger brother Martin recalled the tragedy: “He got sick after Christmas and we couldn’t get him to a doctor. He was . . . suffering for a week and then all of a sudden he died. He stayed three days in the house dead. That turned me against (island life) – I didn’t care about it any more.”

The Kearneys and others are now part of Springfield, Massachusetts. They may even be part of the Simpsons’ Springfield America. I hope they and theirs are well and that they all dodged this week’s windblown trees and trucks.