A sobering reminder of the power of our planet

Happy New Year, one and all. Let’s hope it truly is so this time, eh? As if to remind me not to expect too much change on the first day of a new year, when I woke up late this morning after an evening’s revelling I opened my window to the sight of rainfall – yet again. Storm Frank may well be taking its time to recede.

The recent rain storms, floods, and obligatory mentions in the media of (insert superlative here) (insert appropriate weather record here) Since Records Began are certainly concerning reminders of the power of our surrounding environment and climate, and how, despite all the various technological and scientific advances of recent years, we are all vulnerable to environmental and climatic changes. Such changes and disruptions can have far-reaching consequences: who knows what effects the floods will ultimately have on our lives and destinies in the years to come?

Crater rim of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa, Indonesia

Crater rim of Mount Tambora, Sumbawa, Indonesia

This year marks the bicentenary of 1816 (and I know I’m provoking an inevitable ‘Well, duh!’ response here) – a year known to historians and scholars all over the world as The Year Without A Summer. It was caused by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in the previous year. While Napoleon Bonaparte was making his big comeback in Europe during the Hundred Days, on 10 April 1815 Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa blew its top, killing nearly 12,000 people there outright. Famine and disease caused by the eruption’s wrecking of crops accounted for a further 38,000 lives, making this eruption easily the worst in modern history. Yet Tambora’s impact on Sumbawa island is only the start of the story. Ash and gases emitted into the atmosphere by the eruption affected the quality of sunlight around the world, creating quite colourful sunsets in some places. The emissions also caused temperatures across the globe to drop by approximately 1 degree Celsius. That may not look like much of a fall, but it was enough to precipitate a higher than average amount of rainfall and severe flooding around Asia and Europe. Aside from the resultant harvest failures leading to food shortages and thereby soaring food prices, this general cooling led to famine and disease in many places, including Ireland (of which more later). Not only that, but the almost incessant rainfall in much of central Europe led one group of British writers journeying in Switzerland in the summer of 1816 to spend one evening indoors by Lake Geneva, using the accompanying storm as a useful backdrop to writing and comparing ghost stories. Out of this evening emerged Mary Shelley’s first draft of her most famous novel Frankenstein.

It was not the first time that a volcano had left a massive imprint on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people not in its immediate vicinity. A generation before the Tambora eruption, June 1783 saw the beginning of an eight-month eruption of the Icelandic volcano of Laki, sending several millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere. As with Tambora, these gases and ash caused temperatures generally to drop, leading to crop damage and harvest failures across North America and Europe over the next four years. The ensuing hardships were an important factor behind increasing social tensions around western Europe, with the tensions in France culminating in revolution in 1789. Farther back, even before the Classical period, a catastrophic volcanic eruption led to the downfall of an entire civilization. At some point during the 17th century BC, the volcano atop the Aegean island of Thera blew the island apart, not only propelling ash and gases into the air, but also causing massive tsunami waves that destroyed Minoan towns and settlements on Crete and other surrounding islands and even the coasts of north Africa and Anatolia. The destruction of urban areas and palaces, combined with the ashfall destroying agriculture, led to famine, disease, anarchy and social chaos, with thousands opting to leave the empire and move to areas untouched by the disaster. This event, of a natural disaster leading to the fall of the Minoan civilization, is thought to have inspired the legend of Atlantis.

But back to the Year Without a Summer. The fallout from the Tambora eruption led to famine and disease all over the world: a cholera pandemic over the next decade or so claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in India, Egypt, Russia, and America. The epidemic even touched parts of western Europe, with the French prime minister Casimir Pierre Perier becoming perhaps the highest-profile victim in May 1832. Finally, in Ireland it is thought that around 100,000 died in 1816-19 from starvation and typhus. Understandably, this disaster is less well remembered than the Great Hunger of the 1840s, and the two events were not the only occasions in which Ireland suffered famine. Nonetheless, the combination of such calamities so soon after the 1801 Union with Britain, and a growing feeling that direct rule from London meant little, if any, improvement in the living conditions of the vast majority of the Irish population, were important factors in fuelling Irish nationalism. The historian Robert Kee in his book The Green Flag put it thus:

If the Union were to be a political success, it had to bring about some definite change in Irish life. Its justification lay in ushering in a new era. The one thing it could not afford to be in everyday terms was meaningless… The ground swell of social discontent remained as before, a vast unwieldy incoherent force, available to any political skill that might be bold enough to try to harness it.

There is an uncanny similarity about the way in which all eye-witnesses describe the conditions of the majority of the population of Ireland over a vast span of newly two centuries. In the middle of these two centuries stands the Union of 1801, an almost irrelevant landmark.

It’s yet another example of how our sometimes violent earth and frequently fickle weather loom over us all, with the power to change all our lives in ways rarely predictable at the time of the original events.

  • chrisjones2

    Why? Just as probable

  • chrisjones2

    I have to (sadly) disagree. They will preserve it bottle it eulogise it, worship it and celebrate it a la 2016

  • chrisjones2

    “consider famine as a tool of population control….”

    Who suggest it was a tool? Through the centuries until perhaps the 20th famine was a regular feature of life in large parts of Europe on a regular basis. It wasnt a tool but Governments had no means to stop it

    “think the Ireland of the time was incapable of being organised through industry, etc, to support a population of eight million people?”

    Well with al;l the benefits of modern civilisation they still haven’t achieved that and many are forced to emigrate seeking work – so yes they hadn’t the capacity to do it.

  • chrisjones2

    I agree

  • chrisjones2

    Because they made a mess of famine relief and because he was a greasy politician desperate for votes in England

  • chrisjones2

    You have regularly said that its of no import to you and you cant judge it because you werent alive then / were too young

    YYour defence is like a Gerry Adams Press Statement

  • Croiteir

    But then who then would be? Perhaps Burgundian, Gascon or whatever, remember that up until the mid 19th century it was a small minority of French who actually spoke French (the French of the academy anyway). At the end of the day they thought of themselves as French.

  • Greenflag 2

    Disagree with what ? Have you been hitting the bottle again ?

  • Greenflag 2

    No they’re not -They don’t exist . Unless you have proof of course .

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Really Chris, I know you love to offer contrarian points of view, but even you must see that the shift from providing relief under the Torys to conditional relief as conceived by the new Whig administration that required intense labour from people weakened by hunger and illness was something more than simply a terrible miscalculation? People actually spoke with a brutal naivety of the advantages of a reduced population de to such natural selection even at the time.

    Lord John Russell made a decent hand of shipping it to a degree. The change in policy by the next Whig administration saved the English taxpayer money, but only at the expense of a million Irish. Please do not try and tell me that there was nothing that could have been done, or to imply any inevitability, things were being done and these things were discontinued.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The last time I attempted to enter the sea locally without a wet suit my poor voice lifted to an even higher octave than its usual rather fluting pitch. But my wife successfully entered the water at Crom in the snows one New Year. We emptied the hot water tank to get her back to normal temperature and loose the blue colouring…….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As an historian I’d question that they thought of themselves as French in any meaningful way. I’d feel that they really “thought of themselves” and their possession of land and status first and foremost. The notion of feudal hierarchy was far more significant to such people than even language, and this is precisely why the Normans in Ireland were so readily absorbed into the local culture.

    National consciousness is an interesting animal, and one of our foremost historians, Brendan Bradshaw, has recently had a most interesting collection of his many essays on this very subject published., “And So Began the Irish: Nationality, National Consciousness and Nationalism in Pre-Modern Ireland”. I can highly recommend his work, but I doubt that either the larne or Carnlough Libraries will be holding the book.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/began-Irish-Nation-Nationality-Consciousness-ebook/dp/B010TI96H0/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1451987961&sr=8-4&keywords=brendan+bradshaw

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I imagine that Hebredian harps really had to be imported, so bare I found the landscapes. The day was Sunday and I did not even find a filling station…….

  • chrisjones2

    I will give you zombies if you concede the alien army

  • chrisjones2

    http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/yourview/famine-food-facts-dont-add-up-228979.html

    “In 1844, the year before the Famine, Ireland exported 94,000 tonnes of wheat and 314,000 tonnes of oats, and imported 23,000 tons of wheat. Net exports: 385,000 tonnes.

    In 1847, at the height of the Famine, Ireland exported 39,000 tonnes of wheat, and 98,000 tonnes of oats , and imported 199,000 tonnes of wheat, 12,000 tonnes of oats and 682,000 tonnes of maize. Net imports of 756,000 tonnes, a change of 1,140,000 tonnes.

    The country lacked the milling, the baking, and the transport infrastructure needed cope with the change in the diet of almost half the population. The maize had to be milled twice.

    Given the exceptional circumstances, that the response was inadequate cannot be denied. But how much more could have been processed is open to question.

    The suggestion, often made elsewhere, that the problem could have been easily solved by ceasing all “food” exports lacks credibility, and Shane’s statement that “Ireland was actually a net exporter of food” is directly contradicted by the facts.”

    Be careful; Your prejudices are tripping you up

  • chrisjones2

    “Larne will mostly be under salt water, ”

    See. We agree there will be some benefits

  • Greenflag 2

    Naw – as the old cliche has it ‘No surrender ‘ on that one 😉

  • Greenflag 2

    I guess I must have polar bear DNA 😉

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed! I seldom use ASDA anyway………