Weather and Welfare, a climatic history of the 1798 Rebellion

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Reviews, The United Irishmen, Volume 10

John Tyrrell,
(Collins Press, E12.68)
ISBN 1898256047
In the last few decades research has revealed factors from the fifth century to the present day which have enriched our understanding and appreciation of our history. One in particular brought forth astonishment on the one hand but no jolt whatever to soil users. When Gardiner and Ryan’s map of the soil types of County Wexford was published in 1964 it was found that, give or take a few acres and allowing for flexibility in regional boundaries, the different soil types synchronised with the old political boundaries. The powerful MacMurchada were on one of the best soil types in the world, known to agronomists as the ‘Clonroche series’. They were closely followed by the Síol Mac Brain (Shelbourne) while the marginalised groups like the Uí Bairrche (Bargy) were shifted to the worst soil type, known as the ‘Rathangan series’.
Now we have yet another clear window on events which puts the author, John Tyrrell, upon a plinth of his own. Weather and Warfare brings his own discipline (meteorology) to bear on the phase of revolution we have just commemorated, the insurrection of 1798. Having worked along with many others on that revolutionary period I did not think there was a great deal else left to create a surprise. Yet Tyrrell’s work has done just that. There was much that was in the folk memory, the ‘long hot summer’ in County Wexford, grain to fill pockets still in barns; along with the climatic fact that the south east corner of Ireland is sunnier. I have often seen in time of drought when south Wexford farmers were praying for ‘seasonable weather for crops’, rain pelting down on the Wicklow foot hills, Mount Leinster’s slopes and, for that matter, half way across to Wales while the remainder of County Wexford stayed bone dry.
John Tyrrell has now published an academic source base to much we knew by word of mouth and record but which was often doubted. For example many doubted that there could possibly be a dense fog on Kilcumney Hill on that one morning of a crackle dry summer when Fr John Murphy and his aide-de-camp, James Gallagher, became separated from the main body of insurgents. I doubt if any historian questioned the effect of the wind in the capture of Enniscorthy by the insurgents. There no doubt that the United Irish leader Edward Roche did. He ordered the burning of the thatched houses of Guttle Street (now John Street).
The author’s work covers the entire battle ground in Ireland. He includes areas from across Ireland where the climatic conditions varied from County Wexford both in wind directions and occurrences of rain. He supports his findings with numerous meteorological maps showing the climatic situation on the days of confrontation in that terrible year. As he says himself ‘rich source material makes hindcasting of the weather of 1798 possible’. By combining data daily weather charts from May to October 1798 are constructed.
Yet another illuminating factor emerges in the work. The author reveals in a manner which will surprise many the number of battles the insurgents could have won but for changing climatic conditions such as dense wind-blown smoke at Goffs’ Bridge and Ballynahinch. On the other hand the use of climatic conditions, again wind-blown smoke was exploited by professional tacticians such as Moore and Lake. The naval threat to the insurgents and the French is also emphasised. It was climatic conditions, which foiled the French in Bantry bay in 1796.
The work does not consist solely of meteorological data and weather charts. Tyrrell follows the events in narrative style to the end of hostilities. He finishes with a satisfactory overview. He emphasises the strategic importance of United Irish victories, which have received less than their share of attention such as Tubberneering, Castlecomer, and Saintfield. The sea confrontations between French and English off the west coast are treated admirably while Humbert’s stature is greatly enhanced: ‘This achievement of Humbert was against all the odds. It defied any logic. Even the weather was against him, causing delay and the loss of surprise which at times appeared to be his only hope of success’.
Weather and Welfare will give impetus to arguments we thought had drifted off with the old century. Its richness and readability is such that it must join the library of everyone interested in the convulsions of 1798, particularly in the battle zones. It may well prove to be one of the most individual and successful offerings of a decade of very substantial production.

Nicholas Furlong


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