by mariocorrigan on September 1, 2007

Kildare Voice 20 July 2007

Kildare’s wettest summers





Praise the rain. Two of North Kildare’s most prominent landmarks can be said to have been erected to commemorate a wet summer.
The rain-filled summer of 1742 (and frozen winter which preceded it) caused a famine which provoked Lady Katherine Conolly to build the Wonderful Barn at Leixlip and Conolly’s folly in Ballygoran, near Maynooth.
Both had their profile raised by the building of the M4, which brings 60,000 motorists a day past them. Both served the same purpose, famine relief for a starving Kildare populace.
Widow Kitty, as she was known, shows in her letters to her sister in August 1741 that she had tired of the generosity, especially when the workers were looking for more. Tony Barnard gives a picture of her motivation and lifestyle in Kildare: History and Society.
Historians are still coming to terms with the scale of the crisis the two follies were built to alleviate.
We know very little about what must have been the major event in the lives of the vast majority of people who lived in our county at the time. We have only a sketchy picture of the weather patterns that led up to it.
What we have is due to Dublin Quaker physician, Dr John Rutty who compiled a considerable amount of data on Kildare and Dublin weather patterns just as the resettlement of Kildare after the Jacobite wars was beginning.
The seventeenth century had seen the culmination of the coldest weather cycle in a thousand years. It was quite common for the Liffey to freeze over in the 1690s, it continued to do so occasionally until the 1750s.
Robert Healy’s grisaille Skating at Castletown in 1768, shows Tom Conolly and his brother skating at Castletown is a reminder of frostier climes in our county.
From 1717 to 1722 the weather showed an overall improvement, but the vitally important springs and autumns of these years were classed as variable and resulted in poor harvests.
In an agrarian county the success or failure of harvests has immediate effects on all levels of social and economic activity. When the frost bit and the rain fell, Kildare starved.
However, 1723 was a consistently good year with an “excessively hot and dry” spring, and an “unusually hot and dry” summer and autumn followed by a “pretty open” winter
The harvests of 1726, 1727 and 1728 were poor. Then, in the 1730s, the annual temperature rose, there was a series of hot summers, warm autumns and, with the exception of 1730–31, a decade of exceptionally mild winters.
The winter of 1734 was the warmest for a hundred years, and 1732 and 1736 were probably the two best years of the century overall. Suddenly, in the autumn of 1738, the weather started to degenerate.
There followed 28 disastrous months in which three successive and widespread bad harvests brought the worst famine of the century.
It came at the height of the penal laws, a deliberate impoverishment of the estimated 92pc of the households which were Catholic.
Irish population figures are notoriously inaccurate, but it has been estimated that this famine claimed between 200,000 and 400,000 out of an estimated population of about 2,500,000.
Kildare’s population in 1732 was 49,968. How many died? How many were saved by Lady Conolly’s penny-a-day relief scheme? We never shall know.
The worst hit areas must have been the most remote, the Noble & Keenan map of Kildare published in 1752 shows large portions of the county were still virtually inaccessible, the Taylor map of 1783 shows islands in the bog only marginally less so.
Kildare was luckier when further wet summers provoked further xcalamities, at least in the north of the country.
The wet summer of 1756 caused a harvest failure, the collapse of banks, financial ruin in the towns, bread riots in the cities and an emergency parliamentary grant of £20,000 to the poor.
Kildare had a lifeline, 30,000 mean were required to dig the new Grand Canal scheme, taking 13 years to progress as far as Ballymakealy near Celbridge for its grand opening day.
In 1816 just as Newbridge town was coming into being with the building of the military barracks there, the harvest failed again causing the famine in 1817.
Galway based meteorological historian Stephen Galvin has recently linked the “year with no summer” with the impact of the Tambora eruption of 1815 in Indonesia.
It was the biggest eruption in recorded history, four times more powerful than Mount Krakatoa in 1883. This event at the other side of the world slashed the yields on Kildare farms and drove down prices at market day in Naas.
When another damp summer destroyed the potato crop in the 1840s it was the railway that was being built through north Kildare, another happy coincidence.
By now rainfall records were more exact and we are in a better position to work out what were our wettest summers. The year 1900 was the champion wet summer, rain putting paid to sporting fixtures through the season.
Spring saw more rainfall and characteristic floods until the Poulaphuca scheme in 1939. The Liffey flood of 1933 still stands out in folk memory in Kilcullen, Clane and Celbridge. Leixlip dam was completed in 1949.
What distinguishes this year is that summer rainfall is well ahead of winter. Baldonnel recorded 131.3mm in June, compared with an June average of 52.6 and a recent high of 107.5 in December (it was 19.7 in June 2006).
Similar figures in July and August would propel it past the summer of 1986, when Hurricane Charlie swept away bridges in the Wicklow mountains and rendered roads impassible all through the county.
But it is unlikely to beat the summer record of 1958, when people will remember the rain-sodden progress of the Kildare football championship won by Kilcock against Round Towers and the washed out race meetings in the summer, and indeed the unforgettable drenching of spectators when Dublin played Louth in the Leinster final.
What landmarks will we have from the wet summer of 2007? Maybe somebody should do a plaster cast of the car parks at mud-mired Oxegen perhaps, or the spectator tracks beside the tenth hole at the European Open.
The wettest summers on record:
Accumulated rainfall between June and August
1958    426.4 
1900    367.3 
1986    316.8 
1895    315.6 
1912    308.6 
1985    304.5  

Some of the coldest and wettest summers on record, discussed by Eoghan Corry in his column in the Kildare Voice. Our thanks to Eoghan

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