Last week Ireland was hit by a winter storm called Emma. Imagine sharing your name with a storm system, or “severe weather event” as it was strangely referred to in the news.
In all my (six, long) winters in Canada or (seven) winters in Norway I never came across a couple of windy, snowy days that had a name. Sure why would anyone bother? It’s snowing and blowing and freezing all the time in both countries, for months on end. There was no fancy name for the Oslo blizzard that blew while my younger daughter was born one February, or any cute moniker to describe the Christmas we spent dog-sitting (and dog walking) at a friends’ house located on Toronto’s minus 20 lakefront. Nor is there any way to train your leg muscles to forget the thigh-high piles of snow to be climbed over to get into your downtown office… for days or weeks at a time. Or the snow shovelling, or walking on ice, or keeping pipes unfrozen.
Those long-born habits of mine all faded into one big blur last week when I started picking up on the slightly-panicked warnings about the impending “Beast from the East” and Storm Emma last week. We were warned of “minus 7” degree temperatures, that we should stock up on food because by Wednesday the country was being told to all stay indoors for a couple of days. The entire country. Oh but especially Dublin, because round here we’re not so used to really bad weather. That’s for the folks down the country, the ones who have to deal more regularly with the lambing and the narrow local roads and more likely downing of electricity and Netflix for a few days.
No, all my hard-earned familiarity with snow and ice conditions went out the window. Transport would stop, shops would close. There were red warnings, yellow warnings, the emergency people on the telly were telling us – in plain English and equally clear sign language – that we had to be prepared: we must stay inside. Would we need to await their approval to build a snowman?
I found myself reverting back to the nervous Irish woman who found herself in the thick of a real Canadian prairie winter back in 1998, when her boyfriend first brought her home to his family for Christmas. From my first breath outside Calgary airport – which made my lungs freeze – to the “good sport” who joined in the minus-18 sledding fest after Christmas lunch (see photo) and to the subsequently-invaluable experience of finding my car not stopping properly at a red light, I learned to respect and love the snow. Jump forward several years and I have two kids who grew up in Norway – one of whom spent two winters in a forest kindergarten (they even built their own latrine) – and who go far beyond me in terms of understanding the nature of snow.
By Wednesday the schools were closed. Fair enough, the wind was picking up a bit but I don’t remember many (ahem) snow days in Norway and Canada. The day before, some of us school mums were getting into a bit of a tizz about the shelves emptying out at SuperValu. The bread and milk were, naturally, nearly all gone but also dwindling were the loo paper, the firewood and… the potatoes.
On the radio news the Taoiseach (prime minister) was bombarded with more than the usual questions: “Can you tell us Taoiseach when the snow will be gone?” It hadn’t arrived at that stage.
That night I went outside to look at the snow that had started falling. There was something wrong with it – it was all plasticky, like mushed-up styrofoam. It didn’t melt in my hand.
On Thursday morning we knew this was S-day. I was actually feeling a bit panicky. What if someone needed to get to a doctor? What if the snow didn’t come after all? And then we realised we had no running water in the house. The pipes had frozen during the night. Well even minus 2 is below zero and the pipes are on the roof.
Very luckily for us we could move up the road to my Dad’s house, where we ended up having a cosy few days that were like Christmas without the Christmas part. Stronger together, we’d be snowed in, with sausages and veggies for soup in the fridge and flour in the press.
The weekend was a blur of ipad time, tea and chats, fresh scones, tackling some boxes of old photos, short walks and a couple of hacking coughs. Shovelling snow out on the footpath – a mostly useless job as the car was going nowhere – we met neighbours we’d never gotten around to meeting before.
The kids weren’t too pushed about getting outside and it took us a while to dig out from the attic any of our old Norwegian snow gear (oh, how weeks of my life had centred around drying, mending, finding, swapping, buttoning up that stuff). But for most Irish kids this was clearly a huge event they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, and it was lovely to watch them with their homemade sleds made out of trays and rope, plastic bags, or some super-fancy wooden sleds you might see hanging on the wall of a Norwegian cabin
And by the time about 40cm of snow had fallen, the country had shut down. You couldn’t drive or take a bus, or walk to the pub, which was probably closed and you might slip anyway. The island cut itself off as flights were stopped, nurses and doctors slept at hospitals, major events were cancelled. A friend of a friend had been heading from Oslo to the Corofin trad festival and the message went around – “anyone know of any sessions near Heuston station in Dublin?”
There were some nasty stories of looting and stupid behaviour but many, many more stories of communities coming together to help each other out and because there’s never this much snow people went mad for the snowmen – of nuns and tea parties and presidents and also igloos.
And there was the sledding grandmother down in Cork:
I ventured out for a walk to the now-open SuperValu on Saturday. One woman navigating through the slush coming towards us shouted out to the air, “Try Lidl for milk!” As the local supermarket, the place had never seen so much foot traffic: from fancy ski boots more used to Saint Mortiz, to the woman with two rubber bands around her boots: a brilliant idea I’d never seen before.
The news on the telly was fun to watch. So was Twitter and Instagram, where the hashtags were proudly in Irish – #sneachta and #sneachtageddon – presumably to claim this wing of #StormEmma as separate to the bit that must have hit the UK. We didn’t hear much about that. There was far too much to enjoy about this one.
As the country started coming back into operation – first buses were tentatively on the road by Saturday – my kids watched in bewilderment as the news told us that the red line of the Luas (Dublin’s tram) would just be running “from Red Cow to The Point”. They’re real places, I explained. Word went around the internet (no papers were to be had) that the bishops had granted dispensation from Sunday mass.
By Sunday we went out and about, for a change of scene, to the refuge of a museum along with many weary-looking tourists.
School opened, with no big fanfare, on Monday morning. You could see the green grass glowing again. Water shortages were put in place around the country though our own water returned as silently as it had left us. We still have a wonky gutter to fix.
And one thing I really noticed, which I always missed especially in Norway, were the birds. They were everywhere, those Irish robins and thrushes and blackbirds, picking away at the ground, happy to see Spring was there all along.