The wind that caused a parley – An Irishman’s Diary about Storm Fionn

Kevin Street Garda station weathervane. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Kevin Street Garda station weathervane. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

You probably don’t remember Storm Frank much. It was two years ago now, and I recall it only it because we shared a name, which made it personal. I was emotionally invested, as they say. I think I may even have felt a bit of performance pressure as the weather system approached landfall.

Not that I needed it to be spectacularly violent, but I didn’t want a non-event either. In the end, it proved a respectable effort as disturbed weather goes. There was widespread flooding, a mudslide in Kilkenny, and part of a bridge collapsed in Waterford. The usual few thousand homes were left without power.

I was reminded of Frank again this week by the underperformance of Storm Fionn: so-named by Met Éireann under the now three-year-old system by which it and the UK’s Met Office take it in turns to identify each new weather-baby.

Among other things, this meant that we had been through the entire alphabet (minus the big-score Scrabble letters, which are not used) not once but twice since my namesake, although I struggled to recall most of the other storms now, including last year’s F – Fleur – whoever she was.

But even while it was still with us, Fionn was a non-event, apart from provoking a diplomatic incident. The blowiest things got this week was when a British meteorologist, Liam Dutton of Channel 4, questioned Met Éireann’s wisdom in promoting a mere “squeeze in the isobars” so far beyond its station.

“What next?” he tweeted. “Naming raindrops? It’s ridiculous.” A short-lived Twitterstorm resulted, gusting to Force 8 in places. Not untypical of the responses was one from a Liz Heffernan who, defending the Irish storm’s honour, commented: “UK arrogance is alive and well.”

Behind the rhetoric, the kernel of Dutton’s point is that Ireland and Britain have different criteria for deciding what constitutes a storm. The British go on expected impact, the Irish on statistical wind values. In practice, he suggested, this means that the Irish threshold is “lower”.

Perhaps, scientifically driven as they are, Met Éireann’s criteria are also a reflection of the tendency on this island to romanticise weather, making it sound more extreme than it is. This is a harmless enough pastime when kept to ourselves, but when shared with the understated English, it does sometimes leave us open to ridicule.

We on this side of the Irish Sea just have to be mature about it and hope that the next, British-named storm, Georgina, makes an even bigger fool of itself

It was doubly unfortunate that our worst performing storm of recent times should have been named after our greatest mythological hero, Fionn MacCumhall, a figure of awe-inspiring strength. In case you’ve forgotten your legends, here’s Flann O’Brien’s (somewhat warped) mini-biography, when introducing Fionn as a character At Swim-Two-Birds: “Finn MacCool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain pass.”

Clearly, a storm named after Fionn should have felled a few forests, inundated whole counties, and blown roofs off half of England: including, ideally, the one on the Channel 4 weather studio. At the very least, it should have made redundant such advice as the Sun newspaper’s, which had to tell its readers recently that the name was pronounced “F-Yunn”.

But it was what it was. We on this side of the Irish Sea just have to be mature about it and hope that the next, British-named storm, Georgina, makes an even bigger fool of itself.

It’s ironic, by the way, that as late as the 21st century, there should be Anglo-Irish differences about wind, because all of 213 years now an Irishman – and another Frank at that – devised a famous system to standardise values.

Sir Francis Beaufort was his name, and his scale was designed to replace the old, subjective system whereby one ship captain’s blustery conditions were another man’s breeze. Henceforth, wind-strengths were assigned a number based on the perceived effects on both sea and land, ranging from Force 0 (“sea like a mirror“/“smoke rises vertically“) to Force 12 (hurricane).

Beaufort was of course a Navan man. Speaking of which, I am already concerned that this year’s storm-after-next, which again falls to Met Éireann to identify, will also fail to justify its billing.

I’m not sure the reference to Navan was intended. Either way, I see from the list, it is to be called “Hector”.

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