Post-traumatic rain amnesia

We Irish tend to feel, with some justification, that we’re more informed about the past than most other races. Many very old issues are unresolved here. We still have a lot of unfinished history. Knowing that history, and having opinions about it, is part of every Irish person’s base culture.

But there is one area of the past for which we have a deep, wilful blind spot. We suffer from rain amnesia, in particular the virulent sub-variant, post-traumatic summer rain amnesia. On principle, we refuse to recognise that it rains here between May and September. Apart from the occasional hillwalker, no one in Ireland owns rain gear, and very few have waterproof clothing of any description. In a warm pub on a rainy July day, the  smell of wet wool can be overpowering.

Oh God will it ever stop

We loathe wet summers. We take them as a personal insult, and are deeply, bitterly disappointed when it rains in August, even though it always rains in August. So we repress the memories of a lifetime of rainy summers and, come May, expect glorious baking sunshine.

Autumn, when rain is grudgingly accepted, is almost a relief. But not quite. The most common weather conversation remains:

“Grand day”.

“Ah sure as long as it’s not raining.”

As a result, weather forecasting here has to be part psychotherapy. The profession has developed its own jargon, full of defensive euphemisms: “fresh and blustery”, “organised bands of showers”, “scattered outbreaks of drizzle” and, particularly common, “unsettled”.  Unsettled means frequent rain. Irish weather is “unsettled” like the Black Death was an outbreak of acne.

Comparing Irish and English forecasts shows just how touchy we are about this. On the BBC, the forecaster will tell you how much, where and when it’s going to rain, perhaps with a rueful shake of the head. On RTÉ, it can never be told straight. A glimmer of desperate hope – “It might be dry in Munster on Thursday!” – is essential before the sheepish revelation of an approaching deluge.

Maybe some things are better repressed. If we remembered accurately, we’d realise that Irish rainfall is always above average.

We might be starting to face up to our problem. The Irish Met Office is starting to recover past weather, digitising reports made daily since 1840 in the Phoenix Park (though the results are not yet public). They also have an excellent guide to the locations of historic Irish weather archives and a very interesting day-by-day reconstruction of the weather of the week of the Easter Rising in 1916.

The Four Masters complain about the weather 4000 years ago

Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth has also done an excellent summary of our historic obsession, including a description of the earliest reference to a meteorological event in Europe, a description in the Annals of the Four Masters to Lough Conn ‘erupting’, allegedly in 2668 BC. We’ve been at it a long time.


A glory and a wonder

I recently finished digitising the 1899 Dublin Municipal voters’ lists (the fruits are live on the Dublin City Library and Archive site). This was the ninth year I’ve done, with 1908 to 1915 already live. Believe me, it doesn’t get easier.

These are the gnarliest of gnarly records: four categories of voter, each listed separately in a different format in fifteen voting wards, with an supplementary list in three of the four categories, also separate inside the wards. So 4 * 15 + (3 * 15) for a grand total of 105 individual sub-lists. And of course the wards cut across streets and the voting categories cut across households. Capel Street, for example, is partly in three different wards, Inns Quay, North City and Rotunda. So to get a complete listing of voters in that street, in the printed original you’d have to look at 21 separate sub-lists, seven for each ward. There are no indexes.

Israel Shumlovitz, a lodger in his father’s house in Portobello. And hence a voter.

In other words, the printed originals are virtually unusable.

Digitising them involved disassembling the 105 sub-lists and then re-weaving them into a database searchable by name and street, a slow and cumbersome process. But with the reconstruction complete, the records become extraordinarily accessible.

The right to vote was gradually expanded in the UK in the late nineteenth century , in particular with the creation of an entirely new class of voter, the “inhabitant householder”. This person qualified simply by being the head of a household with a stable address in a property valued more that £4 annually. The designers of the system probably thought the £4 valuation would exclude Paddy Stink and Mickey Muck.  They’d never walked past the reeking tenements of Gardiner Street, with its hundreds of decaying Georgian houses, each valued well over £4 and each holding more than a dozen households. Paddy and Mickey got the vote.

They were part of the vast standing army of Dublin’s crushingly poor manual workers, clinging precariously to casual dock-work, street-selling fruit or flowers, driving delivery carts.

The great circle of Dublin tenements

And here they are in these lists as in no other record of the time, living in the great belt of city-centre slums that arced around from East Wall, Monto and Summerhill through North King Street, over to the Liberties and down through York Street to the Quays: household by household, room by room, year after year. Joyce’s Dublin emerges vividly, stinking, dingy and overcrowded to a degree that is impossible to imagine now. The genesis of Dubliners and Ulysses becomes much clearer when you grasp the terrible, inescapable intimacy enforced by these teeming streets.

After doing nine of the things, some other aspects are clearer. The numbers recorded are very consistent, hovering around 45,000 voters for the entire period between 1899 and 1915.  Of the four categories, one comprised more than 90% of all listings over the whole period, the inhabitant householders. The Mucks and the Stinks had a majority. The supplementary lists, naming those entitled to vote only in local elections, include large numbers of women, the first stirrings of female suffrage. While very useful in giving a time-lapse view of Dublin over almost twenty years, the lists are definitely not a full census. There were 331 voters listed in Capel Street in 1899, but 1605 inhabitants in 1901.

And no matter how many volumes I cover, each one turns up a consistent 500 or so surnames never encountered before. Put that in your statistical model and smoke it.

Everything you could want to know on the background to the lists is here.

DCLA have eight remaining volumes, 1900 to 1907. They need rebinding and conservation, but the plan is to digitise one a year, as budgets allow. The full set will be a glory and a wonder.