Eugene Daly continues his series on various aspects of Irish folklore and customs
‘Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it’ is a witticism attributed to the American writer Mark Twain.
Irish people certainly talk about the weather a lot.
This is not surprising as we have such a changeable climate; it has been often said that in Ireland one can experience the four seasons in one day.
Weather affects our lives in many different ways – the clothes we wear, the type of houses we build, our recreations, sports and pastimes.
There can be no doubt that the weather is part of what we are. For example, there is sound scientific evidence that the profusion of red hair and freckles in the Irish results from our sun-starved climate.
Farmers and fishermen, particularly, are very dependent on the right weather. This is true even today when most fish are caught by large trawlers. Combine harvesters and other modern machinery make it easier for farmers to sow and harvest their crops.
However, last year farmers were badly affected by a long cold wet spring.
Of course, our fathers and their forbears had it harder, when all of the work was done by hand and later by horse-drawn machinery. For example, ‘saving’ the hay was very difficult when there were unsettled summers.
Our forefathers, particularly farmers and fishermen, were adept at predicting the weather from the signs of nature, animals and birds. My father, who grew up on Cape Clear Island, learned to ‘read’ the weather from the signs of nature and from the lore passed down to him by his ancestors.
Being a fishing community, they were always watching the sea, the sky, their environment. The following are a few examples I learned from him, all in Irish as that was the language of the island. ‘Cosa gaoithe ar maidin, cosa calma um thráthnóna’ – Legs (rays) from the sun in the morning is a portent of windy weather; legs from the sun in the evening is a sign of calm weather. Súil circe na ré (Hen’s eye of the moon): this is a circle around the moon and a certain sign of ‘broken’ weather; Saotrún brothaill – this is when the wind follows the sun all day and calms completely at sunset.This is a sign of very good ‘settled’ weather.
Droch-aimsir má thagann an rón isteach i mbeál an trá – bad weather is coming if the seal comes into the strand; Droch-chomartha ar muir an léargas a bheith go maith – If there is good visibility at sea and places appear to be nearer, bad weather is coming; Glaonn an crotach nuair a bhíonn múrbháin sa spear – the curlew cries when there are rain clouds in the sky.
The following is a selection of weather proverbs derived from the behaviour of animals, birds and insects: Rain is due when a herd of cows lie down together in the middle of a field, reluctant to rise; bad weather is coming when a dog eats grass; when a robin sits on the highest branch, the day will be fine; the cry of the snipe will bring frost at night; when the hen picks her plumage a downpour is coming; when flies gather on the water of a well, good weather is coming; spiders in the crannies of walls signed sweltering days to come.
Donegal postman Michael Gallagher is Ireland’s best known amateur weather forecaster.
As man and boy he has absorbed the weather wisdom of the natives of the Bluestack Mountains.
He says: “All along the western seaboard the people never forget how to read the signs. When I was a child, my mother would always wonder why I took so long going to the shop for messages, but I was stopping to observe nature and to ask older people how they knew what the weather was going to do. “What I learned early on is that animals are more intelligent than people when it comes to reading the weather signs. We can learn a lot from observing them.”
Here are some of the creatures that Michael looks for guidance on the weather to come: When autumn comes, if the badger stockpiles leaves and branches at the mouth of his sett, this can be taken as a sign that winter will arrive early.
If spiders weave their webs in the shelter of doorways and windowsills, expect bad weather; if they spin their web on the tops of bushes in the early spring, good weather is due. When midges gather in large numbers, rain is on the way.
Sensing that the weather is going to stay fair and settled for a spell, hens will stray further than normal from their roosts, foraging in open meadows. If bad weather is due, they stay near their roosts. The horse shares a bad-weather homing instinct with hens. If it’s going to stay fine the horse will venture to higher ground to graze, but if the weather is about to take a turn for the worse, it will stick close to home.