As a New Englander, I have a little bit of an instinctive condescending reaction to the way the Irish view weather. I have experienced both hurricanes and nor’easters when living in the US, which means I have dealt with rain, wind, and snow. The first two are synonymous with Ireland weather. When it comes to snow however, the response here is very much to what I experienced in Washington DC when I was a college student there – a few inches of snow on the ground and the whole city shuts downs. Thanks to the vagaries of climate change, Dublin gets almost no snow nowadays, rendering the city less and less able to deal with the occasional rough winter. People don’t know how to drive safely in snow. Companies and city councils don’t clear the sidewalks. During the winter of 2010-2011 updates on the national supply of rock salt displaced the global recession from the headlines of all major media outlets (this happens in a small country). A&E units were full of people with broken wrists and ankles. Cars were being abandoned everywhere.
Admittedly, I did not have a difficult commute to work. At all. I did not have to put up with disrupted transport or poorly maintained roads. But for me it was still all par for the course. I spent much of heavy snow fall bemused, delighted, and entertained, to the consternation of many friends and colleagues.
Wind and rain is different. We don’t get many hurricanes that come this way, but Ireland gets plenty of wind and rain. Orange weather alerts are fairly common. Red? Now those are uncommon. We’ve had a handful since I’ve moved to Ireland almost fourteen years ago. To give you an idea of their frequency, if this storm had first been tracked and named by the UK Met Office, which now operates its own joint naming system for storms affecting the UK and Ireland, this hurricane would have been called Brian. The second letter of the alphabet. Instead it is called Ophelia, as it was first named by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, having spent some time spinning away down south in the other hemisphere before making its way across the Atlantic. The fifteenth letter of the alphabet. In fact, since records began back in 1851, only fifteen hurricanes have passed within 200 nautical miles of the Azores.
None of these Irish hurricanes or tropical storms ever affected me in the manner of US hurricanes, though again, I must admit I do not spend a lot of time on the southwestern coasts which often bear the brunt of these storms. Memes abound in the aftermath of tropical storms making fun of the impact relative to the usual amount of rain the Irish get.
It’s not all fun and games however. The worst weather I have ever encountered in Ireland was in October 2011, when Ireland was at the centre of a very slow moving weather front that dumped more rain on the eastern seaboard than the rivers and drainage systems could cope with. I anxiously watched the rushing waters of the Dodder flowing just twenty feet away from our living room windows, mentally thinking of what I would need to pack if we actually had to evacuate with our cat. In the end, the river never burst its banks.
Where we live.
It burst its banks further down the river, flooding homes, businesses and car parks. The streets around my office, just eight minutes’ walk away, were under several inches of water. Millions of euro worth of damage was left behind.
The emergency flood management plan for our area was updated in the aftermath of that event. Floodgates on the Dodder were not closed in time because the gate pins couldn’t be accessed promptly. A local TD (member of the Irish parliament) had to show up with bolt cutters to provide his constituents with sandbags because the guy with the key to the padlock couldn’t be located promptly. Flood walls and defenses were shored up in the aftermath.
From all the reports, Ireland is taking Ophelia very seriously. The red weather warning which was initially broadcast for the western counties has now been extended to cover all of Ireland, followed by the complete closure of all schools and colleges tomorrow. Met Eireann has announced that this is going to be the most severe storm since the 1961 Hurricane Debbie. The red alert was issued an unprecedented 48 hours in advance. The Dodder flood gates have already been closed before any rain has even started to fall. The army is on stand-by and some units have already been deployed to distribute sandbags to the areas most likely to see damage. Companies across the country are advising employees to work from home where possible. The sound bite from Met Eireann is simple: “this is not the remnants of a hurricane – this IS a hurricane.”
That doesn’t stop the Irish from being, well… Irish:
All the dire warnings feel especially dissonant in light of the unseasonably warm weather that has preceded the storm. Friday and Saturday saw the return of summer temperatures, and this morning the brilliant sunshine warred with with threatening clouds, resulting in some spectacular skyline views and illumination.
The fact of the matter is that we personally are likely to not be affected by anything more than heavy rainfall and wind. We will watch out for rising floodwaters, but most of the flooding on the Dodder usually occurs further up the river. Hawkeye’s creche is closed, so our planned day off tomorrow for me and The Mister has turned into an uninvited extended weekend with a toddler that is a bit under the weather and will not appreciate being cooped up inside. We have candles in case the power goes out.
There’s something about this storm keeping its name of Ophelia that also resonates with me. It’s a name to take seriously. “Hurricane Brian” makes me want to snigger a little bit and then shrug my shoulders and get on with my day. Hurricane Ophelia calls up in my mind the mindless destructive force of combined grief and madness. It is the name of lost souls and murky depths. It is a proper storm name.
Storm’s a comin, and we’re battening down the hatches. But we will be ok.
Images of Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham-Carter are from the Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson cinematic productions of Hamlet.