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Climate, weather and society in Ireland in the long eighteenth century

27 October 2021

In today's blog on Climate and Society in Ireland, James Kelly describes the experience of the later phases of the Little Ice Age.

Climate and Society in Ireland is a collection of essays, commissioned by the Royal Irish Academy, that provides a multi-period, interdisciplinary perspective on one of the most important challenges currently facing humanity. In Chapter 9, James Kelly (DCU) maps the climate and weather experience of the population of Ireland during the later phases of the Little Ice Age (LIA).

On 21 July 1787, readers of Saunders’ News Letter were informed that ‘farms’ on the ‘banks’ of ‘all the country rivers’ had suffered ‘great damage’ due to flooding caused by ‘the late rains’. It was one of a sequence of reports recounting the effects of the heavy ‘rains’ experienced in the summer of 1787.What distinguished this report from others was not the specificity of its focus but the fact that it was accompanied by a positive reflection on the island’s climate:

Ireland, happily…does not experience those hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, which terrify the minds of the inhabitants in other countries. Dangerous lightning is seldom seen among us, though the neighbouring countries, and even the nearest, Great Britain, furnishes frequent instances of the mischiefs done by that elementary fire. France, one of the finest and most fruitful kingdoms, has been visited by such storms of hail, thunder and lightning, as have blasted the hopes of the year, while happier Ireland has escaped like calamities.

The ability to make such comparisons and to acknowledge that ‘great and manifest alterations have taken place in the climate of most countries’ over time was one of the outcomes of the increased interest in weather reporting that was a feature of the eighteenth century. It was integral to the data collection pursued by John Rutty, the physician, whose ‘chronological history of the weather’ is the fullest Irish statement of the proposition that ‘the weather has a powerful immediate influence…in the propagation, increase and abatement of diseases’. Indeed, Rutty’s contention that the population of Ireland was less susceptible to plague because ‘the air…[was] peculiarly wholesome and healthful’ and less prone to fever because of ‘the coolness and temperateness of our summers’ provided the foundation for his conclusion that ‘the healthiness of our climate in general appears from the rarity of any notable depopulating epidemics’. Other observers were more cautious but increased meteorological curiosity, the most material evidential legacy of which is the weather diary, attests to the appreciating interest in identifying weather patterns. The number of individuals who maintained weather diaries, whether for the purposes of facilitating inquiry or, as has also been suggested, as an exercise in ‘self-discipline’, was modest. But their existence is testament to the increased recognition of the impact of climate and weather on life and the desire to penetrate its secrets. 

Because ‘agrarian systems are directly dependent on climate’, it is appropriate at the outset to observe that the system of food production in Ireland and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‘was not resistant to climatic shocks’. As Axel Michaelova and Louis Cullen have pointed out, since both ‘short term climate shocks and long-term climate change’ have ‘a higher probability of extreme events’, ‘most periods of serious crisis were accompanied by harvest problems’. This was an inevitable consequence of the fact that, by comparison with England where ‘agriculture was quite diversified’, the ‘structure’ of food production in Ireland and France was not. As a result, the impact of ‘climate extremes’, especially when they occurred in ‘clusters’ was more consequential than ‘an isolated climate extreme’, which might not cause ‘long-term economic damage’. A negative outcome was certainly a possibility during the Little Ice Age (LIA), assuming one accepts (and not all do) that the 1–2°C decrease that defines this climatic era merit this appellation. What is not in dispute is that the temperature oscillated between the onset of the LIA in the fourteenth century and its conclusion in the mid nineteenth, and that the eighteenth century, which is the focus of this paper, spans a number of its later phases. These are, first, the later years of the Late Maunder Minimum (‘the coldest phase of the “Little Ice Age”’) spanning the final quarter of the seventeenth century and the early decades of the eighteenth (c.1675–c.1720). Second, a warmer phase, peaking in the 1730s but which also includes a cooler, less stable period spanning most of the rest of the century; and, third, the ensuing cold phase—the Dalton Minimum—spanning the final years of the eighteenth century and most of the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Though crucial features of each of these phases remain opaque, they provide a framework for this attempt to map the climatic experience of the population of Ireland between c. 1690 and 1830. Moreover, when set beside the calendar of crisis events—famines and subsistence crises particularly—they support the findings of historical climatologists that volcanic forcing exerted such influence on weather patterns during this period that it deserves a prominent place in the history of Irish climate.

To continue reading, purchase Climate and Society in Ireland.

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