An Irishman's Diary


IN HIS MEMOIR of the War of Independence, Ernie O’Malley recalled the time he spent as an IRA organiser, travelling around Ireland during 1919 and 1920, training rural units. He faced many logistical challenges in the process, not least of which was confusion about time.

“There was the difficulty of three different times for councils and classes,” he wrote. “Summer time was kept by cities, some towns and the railway [while] new time was an increase of 25 minutes on old Irish time to synchronise with [London].” O’Malley added laconically that there was also often a fourth dimension to the problem: “As yet punctual time had not come.” In fact, officially at least, Ireland and Britain were fully synchronised from 1916 onwards. It’s a quirk of history that the year of the Rising also brought belated unification of the islands’ time-zones. Thus, on October 1st, when Britain’s clocks went back an hour for winter, Ireland’s went back only 35 minutes to bring them into line with Greenwich.

The move ended something called Dublin Mean Time, which had existed formally since 1880, recognising the fact that the sun rose and set 25 minutes (and 21 seconds) later in Dublin than in London. Its abolition had been widely campaigned for, at least by chambers of commerce, and was ostensibly apolitical. But of course nothing was apolitical in the Ireland of 1916.

Limerick town council was among those opposed, passing a resolution against the Time (Ireland) Bill. Farmers protested that their cows would not yield milk before daylight, whatever time parliament said it was. And in the House of Commons, the veteran nationalist and MP for East Mayo John Dillon mocked the home secretary’s claim that the change was in response to popular demand.

Admitting ignorance as to when accurate time-keeping had been invented, he nevertheless claimed Ireland had managed well for “six or seven hundred years” without assimilating to England’s ideas on the subject. To laughter, he suggested that even under a unionist administration, his compatriots were surely entitled to hold onto their clocks.

The Irish Timesin turn mocked “Mr Dillon’s foolish speech”, saying that even if the Bill was passed, “Mr Dillon and his 50 or more colleagues will still be free to keep their private clocks and watches to Dublin time, and be 25 minutes late for train and boat”.

Dillon had also claimed he would need to consult the migrant labourers of East Mayo – many of whom travelled between the time-zones every year for seasonal farm work – before deciding how to vote. To which the ITresponded, “If he wishes to emphasise still further his faithfulness to his constituency, he can invent a new time for Ballaghadereen (sic) and be Athanasius contra mundum.” The Latin phrase (“Athanasius against the world“) refers to an early-Christian bishop who was a fierce defender of his beliefs, no matter how unpopular. And it was not an inapt comparison. In differing from Greenwich, Ireland was unique, if not in the world, then in western Europe, where Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal all shared a time-zone with Britain.

Even so, Dublin Mean Time had science on its side. It was also known as “Dunsink Time”, after the astronomical observatory in Finglas where the measurements were made. And as such it had gained a place in literature, via the inevitable James Joyce and Ulysses.

Dunsink Time is arguably one of the novel’s subsidiary characters, earning several mentions including a passage in which Leopold Bloom deduces that it is “after one” because the timeball on the Ballast Office, overlooking O’Connell Bridge, has fallen. Timeballs were an aid to mariners, dropping (in the part of the world) at 1pm Greenwich time to allow ships check their chronometers.

So the fall of the Ballast House ball meant only that it was after 1pm in London, and after 12.35pm here. But Joyce knew this very well. From the angle Bloom is looking, he can see only the ball and not the Ballast House clock, which would have shown Dublin time and which, being wired to Dunsink, was reputed as the most reliable time-piece in the city.

The Ascot Gold Cup, run at 3pm in England, is a key off-stage event of the day on which Ulyssesis set. Later in the book, Joyce has his characters speculating on the result and still in a position to place bets even though it’s nearing 4pm in Dublin. The discrepancy is explained by a combination of the local time-lag and the communications delay before news of the race arrives. The “wire” is not due until 4, and bets can still be laid until then.

Despite the opposition of John Dillon and others, the Time Bill of 1916 was duly passed into law that autumn. And although Ernie O’Malley’s experiences suggest it took longer to pass into fact, the newly independent Ireland did fall into formal compliance with Greenwich, eventually.

Which said, the lack of punctuality O’Malley lamented continues to be a big part of life here. So it may be that Dunsink time has not died out completely, even now. This would also explain further local variations as you travel west from Dublin.

In Ballaghaderreen and beyond, many people may still be subconsciously setting their watches according to the exact position of the sun.