By Walter Lawler (Abbeyleix Library)
Red Hugh O’Donnell’s escape 1591
Earlier I gave a brief history of Irish winters that were particularly memorable with regards to cold and snowfall. There have been times when wintry weather has actually affected Irish history. They are actually too numerous to mention but I’ll write about some notable ones that come to mind.
We begin our journey on Christmas Eve 1591. Red Hugh O’Donnell, son of the O’Donnell Chieftain, is imprisoned in Dublin Castle by Queen Elizabeth I’s government as part of her plans to bring the O’Donnell clan to heel. Hugh O’Donnell escapes with brothers Art and Henry of the O’Neill clan from the castle as Dublin is experiencing heavy snowfall. The 3 men make for the Wicklow mountains where they hope to seek refuge with the Gaelic chief Fiach McHugh O’Byrne of Glenmalure. Art O’Neill dies of exposure in the Wicklow mountains. In appalling weather conditions Henry O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell both make it to Glenmalure. Hugh lost both big toes to frostbite and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Red Hugh played a prominent role with Hugh O’Neill in the 9 Years War (1594-1603) when the Gaelic Irish almost overthrew Tudor English rule in Ireland. Had Red Hugh died the course of Irish history may have been different, particularly with decisions made at the Battle of Kinsale, 1601, which the Irish lost. This battle marked an end to Gaelic dominance in Ireland outside the Pale.
Wild Winds and Foreign Fleets
Our wet and windy climate has influenced our history on more than one occasion. In 1588 the Spanish Armada was brought to its knees by violent storms aswell as strong English opposition from the English naval fleet. Had the weather been more favourable and Phillip II Spain gained power, the history of the British islands may have been very different. Weather again affected the Spanish effort to aid the Irish Chieftains, led by Hugh O’Donnell and Hugh O’Neill during the 9 years war in 1601. In that year Philip sent Don Juan del Águila and Don Diego Brochero to Ireland with 6,000 men and a significant amount of arms and ammunition. Bad weather separated the ships and nine of them, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, had to turn back. The remaining 4000 men disembarked at Kinsale. The Battle was won by the English on the 24th December 1601. The autumn and winter of 1601 was very cold and wet, it led to great hardships on both sides and increased illness and death. If the full Spanish fleet had sailed the resulting stronger force may have tilted the balance somewhat in favour of the Gaelic Irish cause. The French expedition to Ireland was an unsuccessful attempt by the First French Republic during the French Revolutionary Wars to assist the outlawed Society of United Irishmen, a popular rebel Irish republican group, in their planned rebellion against British rule. The French intended to land a large expeditionary force in Ireland during the winter of 1796–1797 which would join with the United Irishmen and drive the British out of Ireland. The French anticipated that this would be a major blow to British morale, prestige and military effectiveness, and was also intended to possibly be the first stage of an eventual invasion of Britain itself. To this end, the Directory gathered a force of approximately 18,000 soldiers at Brest under General Lazare Hoche during late 1796, in readiness for a major landing at Bantry Bay in December. The operation was launched during one of the stormiest winters of the 18th century, with the French fleet unprepared for such severe conditions. Within a week, in December 1796, the fleet had broken up, small squadrons and individual ships making their way back to Brest through storms, fog and British patrols. The phrase ‘a protestant wind’ destroyed the French fleet was used by contemporaries, as it had been used about the Spanish Armada.
The Glorious Spring of 1798
The 1798 rebellion in Ireland took place after a decade of repression in Ireland by the Crown against the United Irishmen, created in 1791. The rebellion had 2 key regions where limited success was achieved, namely Antrim and Down and Wexford. The rebellion involved great movements of people as they moved from hilltop to hilltop, battle to battle. The United Irish armies were essentially peasant in nature, along with the fighting men, who were mostly armed with pikes and other agricultural implements, travelled their women folk and children. The fact that the rising lasted over a month in Wexford from 25th May 1798, with some activity still taking place at a local level into July was aided by the weather. April, May and June 1798 were exceptionally dry, warm and sunny this was of great benefit to rebel armies in helping their movements and foraging for food. More importantly it allowed the thousands who joined the rebel bands sleep out in the open at their various camps. Some commentators at the time, both lay and clergy, gave descriptions of rebel camps which make them sound more like a modern rock concert, mentioning debauchery and fornication! If the weather conditions had not been so favourable it is unlikely the 1798 Rebellion would have had the level of success it had, or last as long as it did in areas like Wexford.
The Great Irish Famine and The Role of Weather
The Great Irish Famine 1845-49, was influenced by weather in a number of areas. The summer of 1845 was especially wet, with high humidity – ideal conditions for the spores of the blight to develop on the leaves. Persistent rain then washed them into the soil, where they infected the growing potato tubers. If only we could have had one of our drier summers it might have slowed the spread of the fungus and bought us some time. Towards the end of 1846 the first great wave of deaths from the Irish potato famine began. The Whig government of Lord John Russell brought in a series of public works schemes whereby people stricken by famine could earn between 8 and 15 pence a day working piece-work. By December 1846 snowfall was widespread with drifting winds. A lot of the works were roads in the middle of rural areas that served no purpose. The money paid was not sufficient to feed parents and a family. But a little money was better than nothing. So malnourished, disease stricken men, women and little boys worked at breaking stones and carrying sacks of stones on their scantily clad backs, often bare foot. This work was undertaken in atrocious weather, severe cold and snowstorms. Many died on the sides of the roads with the stone sacks frozen to their bodies. The severe wintry weather continued into 1847. When combined with malnutrition, hunger and disease the snow blizzards and severe frosts of this winter added to and hastened the number of famine deaths across the country.
The Fenian Rising of 1867 and the March Snowfall
In March 1867 the secret society Fenian group or IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) planned to rise up against the British Crown. On the night of the 5th March men assembled in areas such as Tipperary, Limerick, Sligo, Louth and Tallaght with very limited success. The British intelligence system had broken down the IRB system of groups of small circles of men which was designed to be watertight, but obviously wasn’t. There was a heavy snowstorm on the night of the uprising, causing chaos and making communication between the various groups extremely difficult. Add to that the fact that the insurgents were poorly armed and very few had any experience of how to wage war. Again wintry weather, and in particular snowfall played a role in Irish history. Now of course if the weather had been perfect the IRB rising wasn’t going to succeed as planned anyway but it would have helped!
Count Plunkett’s Election, 1917
This particular event was an election that got its name from a weather event, rather than the weather shaping what happened. ‘The Election of the Snows,’ they were to call it in North Roscommon and with good reason. Nowhere was the snow any less than two feet in depth except for the few spots that the wind had managed to blow clear, during late January\early February 1917. Joseph Mary Plunkett, one of the Easter Rising leaders, was executed in May 1916. He was dying of TB at the time and spent much of the Rising lying on a bed. In late January\early February 1917 his father, Count George Plunkett (a papal Count), ran for election to Westminister in Roscommon as part of a revamped Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein idea was to abstain from Westminister if elected and Count Plunkett duly was. Up until 1947, in Roscommon and much of Ireland, this very heavy 1917 snowfall tended to stick out in peoples’ memories. Count Plunkett was elected to parliament in this blizzard of January\February 1917. The election was a by-election and the first victory for the pan Nationalist party that was Sinn Fein at this time.
In conclusion I have outlined some Irish history events which were influenced by weather conditions, there are many more. At least there is one occasion when rather than being a ‘victim’ of the unpredictability of our climate we gained a slight measure of control over it. On June 3, 1944, Irish Coast Guardsman and Blacksod lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney and his wife Maureen delivered a weather forecast by telephone from Co Mayo’s most westerly point. The report convinced General Dwight D Eisenhower to delay the D-Day invasion for 24 hours, potentially averting a military disaster and changing the course of World War II. For once we were ahead of the weather.