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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


Central Park, 2004, heading for -20

Here in Ireland, it has been a rough, cold start to the year. The weather has told a similar tale of frigid woe in many other Northern Hemisphere locations. One thing however, sets us Irish, and our British counterparts, apart in this; we are totally and utterly unused to the cold. Honestly, we haven’t a bull’s notion of how to deal with temperatures of any extremity.

For example, Ireland has a population that hovers around 3.5 million, and yet we ran up around 300 million euro in compensation claims during the cold spell in january. Bear in mind this figure is generated by insurance companies who feel they have been gravely slighted by the merest payout, so the figure may be slightly inflated. To the tune of 90 million per person. Is that what it really cost? Really? Honest?

There is no doubt that claims due to icy incidents shot up. But why is this? Predominantly because we Irish have been cosseted by the Gulf Stream. Living in its temperate clinch, we have not proofed our lives for extremes of temperature. Houses are not insulated sufficiently, causing burst pipes, excessive use of heating and other resources and health complications. Cars are not adapted for icy conditions. People walk on glazed footpaths like its midsummer. In short, idiots are plentiful.

But Ireland didn’t get REALLY cold.

How cold?

Temperatures were recorded as low as -12ºc in the midlands. Even in the centre of Dublin, which as an urban microclimate would have a higher ambient temperature, footpaths were glazed over with ice up an inch thick. Now, that is cold, fair enough.

But just try Canada. In Canada’s interior the winter months can experience temperatures for months on end that hover below -20ºc. Go down 5 degrees further and flesh can freeze, when exposed, in around a minute. Thus Canadians’ cities have their downtown buildings linked by tunnel. At -40ºc your eyeballs can freeze. Ten further down again changes the complexion of everything, snow freezes till it becomes almost as strong as a metal. Not that you could see with your frozen eyeballs.

Why worry about western countries? While Ireland was experiencing burst pipes and road accidents 1.7 million head of livestock froze alive in Mongolia.

Mongolia would do well to heed history. In 1709, at the height of The Little Ice Age, Europe plunged into what became known as the Great Frost resulting in crops destroyed, which in turn led months later to rioting and famine. In Burgundy, “travellers died in the countryside, livestock in the stables, wild animals in the woods; nearly all the birds died, wine froze in barrels and public fires were lit to warm the poor”. Temperatures remained constant and down as low as -15ºC. Bear in mind Mongolia has been suffering -58ºC.

Some situations make cold relative

Cold is a subjective experience. Our bodies may, or may not be telling us the full story. According to Stephen Marche in the Guardian;
“Below negative five, external heat sources become more or less useless. Do not have a bath, no matter how tempting it may seem. The warmth of your skin after a bath is a mirage”.

What makes this really impressive (aside from calling -5 “negative five” which makes him sound like John Fucking-A McClane) is the surprising fact that what we feel as warmth is actually our body losing heat- the warm afterbath glow. But this is warm water. Cold water is different.

And surprisingly cold water, as a designation begins at a higher point than you might expect. +15ºc! This is low enough to shock the senses and cause drowning in 2 to 3 minutes.

The initial response is “cold shock” – gasping, heat transfer from skin, heart rate and blood pressure increases and panic sets in. Once your body’s core goes below 35ºc you have hypothermia. Ever the masters of sardonic, po-faced understatement the Irish Government offers all would-be Chuck Nolands this illuminating advice; “Entering the water should be the last resort for seafarers who are abandoning their vessel”.

The Heroes of Telemark

The Heroes of Telemark

Some details on exposure

No deaths from exposure were recorded in the Irish cold snap as we were all too amazed that we forgot to go outside and experience it. Which is incidentally the best approach. When Norwegian commandos were dropped onto the Hardanger Vidda for the attack on the heavy water plant in Vemork that would be immortalised in the movie The Heroes of Telemark, they survived in huntsmans’ stone huts eating strips of frozen reindeer meat. Not quite as glamorous as the film but at least they didn’t die of exposure.

Death from exposure, and in particular, in extreme cold involves feeling the cold, then a kind of drunkeness and finally surrender. Every New Years young Poles are found where they had sat down on their way home drunk and literally frozen stiff. Eventually your body just can’t sense the cold anymore (particularly after alcohol consumption) and allows you to give up. A bit gruesome but there you go.

There are loads of stories of cold environment explorers and pioneers succumbing to similar deaths though exposure, poor preparation and lack of provisions, but really it doesn’t need to be that cold. In the context of the temperate Irish climate, the most famous death is probably that of Art O’Neill. After becoming one of only two people to ever escape from Dublin Castle, he died of exposure on the way to Glenmalure in the Wicklow Mountains. The Inquisition couldn’t tell you how cold it was, but his companion Aodh Rua O’Donnell lost his big toes to frost bite.

Will we be ready next time it gets cold? Don’t be so bloody naive.

The Return of the Hunters, Pieter Bruegel

The Return of the Hunters, Pieter Bruegel

Special Bonus Resources for Irish people

Stock up with these and ponder them. Or burn them for firewood.

Pieter Bruegel’s The Return of the Hunters shows a land splendidly encrusted with thick snow. It is the depth’s of the Little Ice Age, but fuck it, life goes on.
Miss Smillas Feeling for Snow by Danish author Peter Hoeg is a fantastic little book set in a Scandinavian winter. Irish folk take heart – Gabriel Byrne was in the film and lost no extremities to frostbite.
The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna tells us all we need to know about cold places. They don’t have many people living in them because they are cold.
The Heroes of Telemark movie is based on Knut Haukelid’s book Skis Against the Atom. These guys were tough as nails and they why Richard Harris was in the film.
Ray Mears is not Irish, but for Jesus’ sake he could probably make a fire by rubbing together two frozen dog poos and use snow as kindling.

Extreme Canadian Conditions
1709 – New Scientist
Cold water advice for mariners from the Irish Government
Death from exposure, blow by blow
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Peter Hoeg, The Harvill Press, 1996
Skis Against the Atom, Knut Haukelid, American Heritage Press, 1989
The Ice Museum, Joanna Kavenna, Penguin, 2006

This article was posted by on Thursday, March 4th, 2010 at 06:16.
It is archived in Culture, Dublin, Environment, Health, History, Ireland, Wild Places and tagged , , , , , .

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