John B Keane: Skinny dipping cast God’s wrath upon us

THE BAD weather of recent months must be a serious cause for concern to those who provide us with long-range weather forecasts. Aided by the most up-to-date equipment they have shown themselves to be wrong again and again. In the past they have sometimes been right. That much must be said in their favour. Still, there is no obvious excuse for their continuing inability to tell with any reasonable degree of accuracy what kind of weather, for instance, we will have next September. Have they taken too much upon themselves? Is it really possible to forecast so far ahead?

THE BAD weather of recent months must be a serious cause for concern to those who provide us with long-range weather forecasts. Aided by the most up-to-date equipment they have shown themselves to be wrong again and again. In the past they have sometimes been right. That much must be said in their favour. Still, there is no obvious excuse for their continuing inability to tell with any reasonable degree of accuracy what kind of weather, for instance, we will have next September. Have they taken too much upon themselves? Is it really possible to forecast so far ahead?

Certainly in my youth if a man foretold in the month of June that the latter half of September would be wet and windy they would at once go in search of a hackney driver to take him back - back meaning the mental home in Killarney.

However, an explanation for the failure of the weathermen to supply sound, long-range forecasting may lie in the following story. About forty years ago, in the middle of the month of June, on a Sunday afternoon, the beaches of Ballybunion was thronged with day trippers and long-term holiday makers. The sun shone forth, as the poet might say, from a cloudless sky and dolphins desported themselves offshore for the amusement of the many curious onlookers who came from far inland and were not used to such phenomena. Children splashed in the pools at the base of the cliffs and all and sundry bathed or paraded in the salt water. It was a good time to be alive. There had been a ridge of high pressure for several days, and who could blame small boys and girls for thinking that the skies would remain blue forever. We had been lulled into a lotus-like security by the warm weather. We were like the bees in Keat’s Autumn:

Until they think warm days will never cease

For summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Ballybunion, therefore, had been especially singled out. The group of women who sat on rented beach seats righteously denounced the goings-on which resulted in such a manifestation of God’s anger. The question was what precisely were the goings-on? It could not have not have been cheek-to-cheek dancing, which was so commonplace in the Pavilion Ballroom. Cheek-to-cheek dancing had never been denounced from the pulpit the way close dancing had. Therefore, it had to be close dancing. But was close dancing alone enough to justify the recent terrifying celestial outburst?

Later, the whole business was fully explained. The night before at the witching hour, there had been a midnight swim off the ladies’ strand. The participants were believed to be a party of Scottish holiday-makers who had been drinking whiskey from an early hour that day. Upon leaving the public house, they were seized by a wild fit of lunacy, males and females alike, which impelled them towards the laving waters of the then languorous Atlantic.

Every stitch was thrown off. All inhibitions had been expelled by the whiskey. With a mixture of abandon and dementia, they flung themselves into the sea. That was the screaming and screeching, the bucklepping and the splashing and the dancing. An outraged onlooker who had his arm round the waist of his girlfriend reported the matter to the Gardai. At once, a long-serving minion of the law made his way towards the scene of the reported debauch.

“Alright,” he said, “come along now, please.”

So saying, he helped them sort out their clothes and made sure that nobody was left in the sea. The man who reported the incident was astonished. He told the garda that he should be ashamed of his uniform for not arresting the offenders.

Tired

“Come along now, please,” said the garda, “it’s late, and I’m tired.”

We see, therefore, from the foregoing how difficult it is to forecast the weather with any great degree of consistency. Very often the forecast will be correct, but who can tell what human folly will invite God’s wrath and upset the most meticulous calculations? My sympathy, therefore, goes out to weather forecasters whose homework is beyond reproach and whose every pronouncement is supported by the most fastidious research. Alas, nothing is proof against man’s intransigence and we never know what he’ll be up to next nor what destructive spanner he’ll throw in the works when everything seems to be ticking over smoothly.

Older folk, too, had begun to take the fine weather for granted. Why wouldn’t they! That very morning had not the announcer on Radio Éireann assured the nation that it could expect several more days of fine weather?

The ridge of high pressure mentioned earlier was stationary over the country and nothing was likely to shift it from its entrenched position.

What a balmy day it was in the middle of that distant June. You’d have as much chance of selling an overcoat as you would a box of firelighters in hell. Even the inshore water was sickeningly warm.

Then suddenly a gorsoon of my acquaintance pointed a finger to the west. In the distance was a dark cloud of vast proportions and there seemed to be no doubt whatsoever that it was making its way to the seaside resort of Ballybunion. At first the older people were slow to notice its approach. They lay on the sand drugged by sun, or walked in the shallow water with bent heads, so they might have a full view of their toes as they ambled along. In a matter of minutes the cloud grew to twice its size and now for the first time man, woman and child were alerted. Belongings were quickly gathered together and there was a mass exodus from the beach.

There were many who stood temporarily stunned, their mouths open, unable to believe their eyes. But then came large drops of rain, a certain indication that a heavy downpour was in the offing. However, before the rains came, a giant flash of lightning split the sky asunder. It was followed by a massive peal of thunder which reverberated off the cliffs with deafening tumult and rolled inward across the sleeping countryside, rumbling, grumbling and tumbling across the changed face of the sky.

After the thunder came the rain. Like a wave it came drenching everything that lay exposed beneath. After the initial cloudburst it raced inward from the sea in mighty sheets. It brought hisses of steam from the roasting faces of the tall cliffs and it churned the sea as though every fish beneath the surface was threshing in agony. The dry sand rose in a low cloud, but not for long. Soon it was downed and heavy. A number of us with our togs on revelled in the unexpected strength and force of the thunderstorm. We turned our back at the fuming heavens.

Disappeared

Then the giant cloud disappeared as quickly as it had come. At once the sea settled. The sun came out and the steam rose in spume-like effervescence from the rocky cliffs. People re-appeared, wonder on their faces, mixed with relief and relaxation. Soon they were standing about in groups drawn together as always by the threat of common calamity. Needless to mention, the topic of conversation was the recent thunderstorm. Nobody, not even the sagest and oldest weathermen on the beach, could account for the sudden transformation which had taken place.

They searched their memories and scratched their heads in perplexity endeavouring to recall similar occurrences. About an hour later, as I was drawing the tea from Collins’ tea house, which overlooked the strand I overheard a group of elderly women discussing the freak thunderstorm. To them everything was clear. The wrath of God had visited Ballybunion. Later their words would be borne out because Listowel, Abbeyfeale, Newcastle West, Newmarket and numerous other nearby towns and villages had escaped the storm, not being visited by even a single drop of rain.