“You know the fables?” says Colm O’Driscoll, the head gardener at Airfield Estate in Dundrum.
“Ash before the oak and you’re in for a soak. Oak before the ash and you’re in for a splash,” he says, over the phone.
The fable tells that if the leaves on an ash tree bloom before an oak it will be a good year for rain.
“I don’t know how reliable it is,” he says.
Two researchers are starting a project that looks into just that: past fables, old records and oral history about Ireland’s past droughts.
They aim to document local experiences of droughts to eventually gain a better understanding of how Ireland can deal with future water shortages.
The project, with funding from the Irish Research Council, will see Arlene Crampsie, lecturer and assistant professor from University College Dublin (UCD) School of Geography and Associate Professor Conor Murphy in the Maynooth Department of Geography look at the phenomenon in two different ways.
“Arlene is taking the lead on the historical context. She’ll be doing things like oral histories and looking for people’s memories on droughts,” says Murphy.
This, Crampsie says, is a crucial part of the research.
Crampsie hopes to revive some lost knowledge by collecting people’s stories, she says.
“For us, what is really important is that people in the past were faced with these challenges without the same levels of technology that we have today,” she says.
“There’s water supplies around Ireland that have been forgotten about,” says Crampsie.
Originally the stories were going to be collected through face-to-face interviews, says Crampsie.
“But now we are looking at the possibility of doing them over zoom with the current pandemic,” she says.
Murphy will be looking at the natural science aspect of droughts in Ireland, which will involve data rescue, a process which is “a time consuming effort”, he says.
“Many rainfall records are held on paper copies in the UK Met Office and in Met Éireann,” says Murphy.
Murphy has been working to get those paper records transferred onto digital format, he says, so he can examine droughts going back over the last 300 years.
The idea is to combine these stories with Murphy’s scientific research, Crampsie says.
“This would allow us to move forward with practice and policy,” says Crampsie.
Problems in the Past
Research like this could also greatly help people like Colm O’Driscoll from Airfield Estate.
“[Airfield] is a charitable organisation. It is about 38 acres in Dundrum. It’s farming gardens and a heritage location so education is at its core,” says O’Driscoll.
The effect of the 2018 drought was visible in Airfield Gardens, says O’Driscoll. They planted amaranthus, a grain crop, in two separate patches – the food garden and the ornamental garden, he says.
The food garden however was prioritised and received more water at the time, the other patch didn’t grow at all. “It just stagnated for the whole summer,” says O’Driscoll.
Hearing people’s experiences with drought and how they mitigate it is a focal point of the team’s research.
So what does O’Driscoll do to prepare for a dry spell?
“I try not to leave soil bare,” he says, as it can “exaggerate the conditions of drought”.
He makes sure that he gets as much mulch down on the ground as possible at the end of spring, he says.
After building a kitchen extension, Dougal Hyde found a solution to drought for Flanagan’s Fields Community Garden in Rialto, he says.
Hyde is a gardener at the volunteer community gardening project.
“I live around the corner from the garden. When we were building the kitchen extension we hit a spring,” says Hyde.
They had the spring analysed and they realised that it was a part of Blessington Street Basin water reservoir, he says.
A volunteer group dug down in the ground in Flanagan’s Fields and tapped into this supply of water, he says.
At the moment he uses the water for the mainline for the community garden, says Hyde.
“But by the end of the year we should be up and running with a solar pump [for the water table],” he says.
The Forgotten Hazard
“The research undertaken by UCD and Maynooth University serves to tackle a phenomenon not often associated with Ireland,” says Peter Brown, the director of the Irish Research Council.
But climate change will change this, he says.
“Drought is part of the uncertainty and climate challenge that we will undoubtedly face,” says Brown.
“What we are really interested in doing is looking at drought patterns and seeing how they impact people and places,” says Crampsie.
The research is important because there is a real lack of understanding around droughts in Ireland, she says.
“We don’t even have a rain drought warning system in Ireland. When the drought happened in 2018 there was no way of communicating to people in the same way that we have the wind weather system,” she says.
Drought is the most overlooked weather phenomenon in Ireland, Murphy says.
“I call it to the forgotten hazard,” he says.
Over the last 30 years, we have had a considerable amount of floods and a low number of droughts, says Murphy.
“But there is no reason to say that periods of drought won’t become more frequent into the future. In fact with climate change we expect it to become more frequent,” he says.
It’s a hazard that we have become increasingly vulnerable to, he says.
People looking to get involved with this research by sharing their memories of droughts can make initial contact on the UCD website, under Irish Droughts Memories.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 3 June at 21.32pm. An earlier version mispelt the surname of Arlene Crampsie. Apologies for the error.]