Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Irish Mist: Reflections on Irish Weather
As I sit at the seaside home we have come to on the West Coast of Ireland, I contemplate the fog. It has been thick and gray for the past three days. Before that it was mist. In the weeks we have been here we have spordically seen the sun, and always, it seems a day when we are traveling.
It's not that we weren't forewarned. Friends gently urged us to take all our rain gear. An ardent Ireland traveler told me over drinks in early July to bring a wool dress. Wool, I thought. It is summer. I came with a kind of naive disbelief. Like anyone setting off on a perilous course, I was sure it wouldn't happen to me.
But there were warning signs when we arrived. An illuminated sign, showing a couple, relaxing on a Caribbean beach, said "It's easier from Shannon to take your summer sun holidays in 2002." Only briefly did I ask myself: why would they need summer sun? Then on the Aran Islands as we took a ride, shivering, in a pony cart with a cold mist in our faces, our driver turned to us in the laconic Aran way and said, "Well, at least you got a break in the weather." I was unclear why this was a break until we spotted a souvenir t-shirt. It showed a sheep, dressed for all four seasons. In three he was dressed for rain and in the fourth he wore a snowsuit.
The past few weeks during which it has been too cold to head to the beach, which is why we came here, have given me time to think about the Irish character and its relationship to weather. Descended from the ancient Celts, a loosely organized band, the Irish have maintained a fierce independence, a rugged sense of resignation, a twinkle in the eye, and a strong sense of the here and now.
In America we live by our ten-day weather forecasts. Indeed the language of our weather reports has a kind of poetry to it: Early clouds soon open to bright sun. Cold front moving in will bring crisp, breezy day. We want to know all things before they happen and our weathermen seem to make promises they can actually keep. Many times I have planned my life based on the Yahoo weathermap. Indeed our weathermen are minor celebrities and we all know Storm Field (great name, of course) and Al Rolker. We are sometimes amateur meterologists ourselves. If I call my father in Milwaukee and tell him it's raining, he says, "Oh, you'll get our sunshine tomorrow." And he's always right.
But who's an Irishman or woman to call. Their country is no bigger than Cuba. If the mother from Cork calls her son in Galway and says, "What's it doing up by you," chances are its doing the same as down by her. A waiter in Connemara put it this way as we slipped into a restaurant to escape the driving rain, in Ireland you get all four seasons in one day. An Irish friend offered this up as the Irish forecast. If it's sunny in the morning, it will rain by the evening and vice versa.
My husband calls this the ten-minute forecast. As we sit home on a cold, foggy afternoon, playing a l983 British edition of Trivial Pursuit the question presents itself. What is the name of a person who studies the weather? And we all realize that, unlike how many eyes does a bat have, this is not a trick question. The notion of an Irish weatherman is a bit of a paradox to them. At the very least he seems irrelevant.
My Canadian husband is befuddled by this. Weather is the first thing we discuss with our relatives. It is the major topic, especially when people can't say what's really on their minds. For example we received a letter from a childhood friend who wrote the first page on the weather (How little snow we've had this season) and the second page moved seamlessly into the break-up of his marriage. My husband is perplexed by the Irish seeming indifference to their climate. To him it's like a country whose economy is on the brink of collapse and everyone hides his money under the mattress and goes merrily along.
But even in this fog and chilly air, I think I see. Ireland remains true to its pagan roots and mysticism and superstition abound. As we watch a blazing red sunset, a neighbor joins us and said, "Red sun at night; sailors delight." But in the morning when nothing has changed, we alter it to "Red sun at night in Ireland isn't right."
One night a flock of birds appears. Thousands and thousands soar overheard. As we run out to see, a neighbor's child turn to us and says, "It will be hot tomorrow. We learned this in school. When the birds come in flocks, it will be hot tomorrow." But the next day when it is just as cold as it has been we are left to ponder the efficacy of the Irish public school system.
I ask the mother of a friend who lives in Tralee what an Irish weatherman does for a living and she replies, "Oh, they just cover all the bases. A little wind, a little rain, a little sun, a little fog." Yet no one seems too upset by this. Indeed no one thinks very much about it as they blithely put on their slickers and move their livestock or plough their fields, as they take children for walks or even swim in the sea which we saw people doing several times in rainstorms. There are no predictions here. No "what will come tomorrow." Anything goes.
It is what I have come to admire about the Irish character.
In pubs they sing of shipwrecks and brokenhearts and the heroes of Ireland, but no one sings of the weather. The only person ever to discuss the weather with us in any detail was a despondant Hungarian innkeeper and a neighbor who kept asking cheerily, "So what do you think of our Irish weather." We did once listen to about a dozen takes of Ella Fitzgerald singing "Stormy Weather" and thought the tape was stuck until we realized it was the restaurant's idea of a joke. And it's not lost on us that their number one liqueur is called Irish Mist.
But to me it all goes back to those Celts who cast their lot with an unyielding land, but also believe in fairies in the Liss. To them this land where little grows is magical and they have clung to it fiercely through years of oppression. They aren't going to be bothered by a few drops. They will strike as defiant pose and carry on. They will head to their pubs for a pint and a song.
I know when I will next see the sun. When my plane lifts off in a few days. Meanwhile this fog which sits outside my window is nothing to them. It will come. It will go. And it has a beauty of its own.
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