AN IRISHWOMAN'S DIARY
WITCH weather. Not quite thunder and lightning, no sparks from St Elmo's fires, but there has been something quite unseasonal about recent chills and fogs and the easterly gale lashing this side of the coastline late last week. Why, if this newspaper's resident meteorologist were to be believed, these should have been the halcyon days leading up to the winter solstice!
Mild, windless that's the regular forecast for the "placid" fortnight in mid December. The Irish Times Weather Eye, alias Brendan McWilliams, has a story to back it up. Halcyone, daughter of the Greek demi-god Aeolus, lost her husband, Ceyx, at sea. When his body was washed ashore, she threw herself into the waves in grief, and was transformed into a "shrill, unhappy" bird.
By some miracle, the husband became a winged one also. They flew off, and they still mate each year. During these December weeks, when the halcyon a type of Mediterranean kingfisher is broody, Europe is meant to enjoy a brief sunny interlude...
You may have read it here before, but it's worth the telling, again as are all the vignettes anecdotes and interpretations which Mr McWilliams has produced for a daily newspaper deadline, and which are reproduced for his second bound collection. Two years ago, Lilliput Press published his first, Weather Eye, in paperback. The theme this time is that "common of literature" which the assistant director of Met Eireann has "grazed" on periodically, he" says.
He began with the Bible, quoting some salutary advice to meteorologists from Chapter 12 of St Luke. The Elood is, well almost unavoidable Noah's ark was, it seems, built around 1,660 BC. However, scientific research has traced no interruption in tree rings, no inundation of Arctic ice cores and no significant evidence of a global deluge at all.
Science has helped the author to shatter a few more biblical myths. Moses didn't turn the Nile to blood it was a red tide or algal bloom. God probably didn't divide the waters when the Israelites were being chased by Pharaoh and his henchmen it could have been a tidal wave associated with volcanic eruption, like the Japanese tsunami. And as for manna from heaven, it was probably leconora esculenta or lichen, which can be ground into flour and baked for bread.
Tumbling the walls of Jericho? An earthquake. The transfiguration, as depicted by Raphael? It is far more likely to have been the phenomenon known to mountaineers as the Brocken spectre, McWilliams suggests. Quoting a colleague, he says that an observer's shadow cast by a low sun on a bank of cloud or mist assumes a triangular shape. With diffraction, the shadow can appear with several colourful halos around its head ...
Moving into classical territory, the author notes that Homer's Odyssey may have included the first literary reference to a microburst that mercurial sequence of strong winds found beneath a thunderstorm. And among the various academic theories as to why the Romans didn't come to Ireland, few have mentioned the weather factor. Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, suggests that it was just too miserable, gloomy and cold.
Shakespeare is indispensable. Macbeth's "maggot pie" is our magpie, of course, and the superstition attached to "one is for sorrow" is based on practical truth. When cold stormy conditions are anticipated, only one bird leaves the nest to look for food while its mate remains with the young.
And did Hamlet have ME? Perhaps. Or his depression could have been linked to rich positive ions in the Danish air. Such ions can affect some 30 per cent of the population prone to their influence, he suggests, leading to anxiety, irritability, nausea and headaches. Thunderstorms spawn positive ions, while negative ions are created around waterfalls, on the sea shore and up highs mountains. They are even produced in showers which is why these are said to be more invigorating than the old bath.
There's more, much more. But why spoil it for you when you can read it yourself? Illustrated by Anne McWilliams, stalwart partner of the author, A Weather Eye on Literature is now on sale at £19.50 hardback from Irish Times Books.
Master of the waves
In fact, Weather Eye's latest tome could serve as a refreshing antidote to the more serious stuff of meteorology dew points and relative humidity, occlusions, convergence, cold fronts, sea breezes and the like. Such terms will be only too familiar to the yacht master student, taking a short Christmas break from a winter offshore sail training course.
Eamon O'Shaughnessy, a lecturer in Waterford Regional Technical College, has teamed up with Des McSherry of Dolphin Offshore Sailing Group to try and sugar the pill. They have produced a set of videos and CD-ROMs to accompany the yacht master curriculum, for those seeking an Irish Sailing Association qualification. Split up into navigation, meteorology and collision prevention regulations, the series of three uses animation, live video footage and photographs, together with an Irish voice. At £42 plus VAT for each CD-ROM, and £25 plus VAT for each tape, the Dolphin series is available now in most chandlery shops.
A final word on the elements about which there is a stock joke in most newsrooms when someone is expected to write a forecast report. It is not an easy task, as those of us who admire Mr McWilliams know full well. It requires skill, talent, a degree of ingenuity which even distinguished war correspondents can have difficulty in drawing on at times. After all, on such a well worn topic, what can one say?
Perhaps that's why I still have a cartoon hanging above my desk at home, which is very useful for keeping egocentric feet on the ground. "Like most journalists, Miss Charming, you're young and naive," the caption reads. "Unless you want to die that way, I suggest you stick to writing weather stories."