His contribution to the recording of recent Irish social history has been enormous. His principal method of working to date has been to contact those people still alive who represent trades and modes of living which have gone and the memory of which is fast fading. Usually these have concerned trades or places we are at least aware of, such as coopers and tenements.
But I must say, I had never heard of the arctic winter of 1947, the more surprising as the story he unfolds is absolutely mindblowing. Admittedly I was only three years of age at the time, but, nevertheless, I would have expected to have retained vivid memories of stories from my parents. But zilch.
All the more valuable then, that Kearns has undertaken the mammoth task of assembling the facts and weaving them into a fascinating, and almost unbelievable, story. His sources in this case are almost entirely written - newspaper reports, biographies and articles.
The twelve months, between the Summers of 1946 and 1947 were astounding. First the rains of 1946 which set the scene by limiting the harvest and ruining the native fuel (turf). Then the Big Freeze and the blizzards, in early 1947, which covered the country in snow for six weeks leading to isolation, starvation and a doubling/trebling of the death rate. And finally, to be followed by the drastic floods, caused by rain downpours and fast thawing snow, which threatened the 1947 tillage and possible famine.
You'd have to read it to believe it and appreciate the massive scale of what was going on.
A few snippets to be going on with:
Whole villages and towns were isolated for nearly two months. Snowdrifts were so high that in places rescuers had to communicate down the chimney. At one stage the temperature was some degrees below that of Antarctica itself. "For six consecutive weeks the night temperature had fallen below freezing and most daytimes the mercury had remained below 32 degrees (0ºC)." The dead were buried temporarily in shallow snowpits as the ground could not be broken for proper burial. Some of the coffins were subsequently carried away by the floods during the thaw.Flood waters in some places rose higher than a man's head.
There are some interesting examples of the stance of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. The Archbishop of Dublin relaxed lenten fasting regulations during the freeze, no great help to those without enough food to be able to break the fast. That said, the Church did operate some food kitchens while the Government for some obscure reason did not. The RC Church also granted farmers and farm labourers a dispensation to work on Sundays when all the stops were out to belatedly get the crops sown.
There is also reference to what became known as Blizzard Babies, the result of isolation and a lack of entertainment outside the house! No doubt the Church would have been pleased at the extra souls but they might not have been unqualified good news for the families concerned.
A fascinating book on a forgotten national crisis, with many parallels today for us to reflect on.
As a purely personal aside, I am intrigued by the lack of high quality scenery photos in the book. It is clear from the text that a large stock of dramatic high quality photos existed, not least in the newspaper archives. I assume the author would have included some of these had they been available. So, where have they gone? A story for another day, perhaps?