The newspapers were wrong – Frank McNally on the joys of unexpected snowfall

When we all feel like we’re six years old again

There are many people who hate snow, and with good reason. But most of us love it, at least in the short term. Especially when it’s the first fall of the season and arrives overnight, unexpectedly, as it did in eastern Ireland on Friday.

Which is why I often think that the snow-story headlines in newspapers like this one, focusing negatively as they usually do on the word “disruption”, are out of keeping with what most of us really think.

It’s as if we’re pretending to be responsible grown-ups when, in truth, faced with fresh snowfall, even cynical old journalists feel like we’re six years old again.

The disruption to people’s moods – typically involving joy, excitement, and in many cases a sudden outbreak of concern for the vulnerable – is at least as important as the inconvenience to traffic or other serious news angles.

Perhaps there should be a psychological division of Met Éireann to reflect this. It too would issue status red and yellow warnings.

But instead of the usual thing, these would alert adults in affected areas to the risk of them turning back into children temporarily, and caution on the need for proper warm-up routines before engaging in snowball fights or sleighrides.

***

Irish social media now has a verbal expression of the mass reversion to childhood caused by snow. Thus, when the first pictures of Friday’s blizzard were posted, as is now usual, they came with the hashtag #sneachta.

This is more than the mere enthusiasm of Gaeilgeoirí. For many of us, it also evokes the experience of being in primary school again and of first learning Irish, certain words of which remain as redolent forever afterwards as the smell of pencil shavings or rubber erasers. Sneachta is one such powerful conveyor of nostalgia, clearly.

Snow is a lovely word too, of course, mesmerising when repeated in poetry. But sneachta has a round, crunchy quality that hits you in the face, somehow – almost rudely on occasion and yet always to refreshing effect.

While we’re on the subject of snowball effects, meanwhile, Friday was also the start of Seachtain na Gaeilge. Which despite the name, and in yet another example of festival inflation, runs from now until March 17th.

It was doubly apt, therefore, that as the 2024 event was ushered in with a blizzard, a hashtag from March 2018 and the Beast of the East was revived on Friday. The reference to a week was again dropped, temporarily, in favour of “sneachtanagaeilge”.

***

Speaking of ushers, at the height of Friday’s blizzard I took a walk down to the Liffey quays to get a picture of James Joyce’s House of the Dead: No. 15 Usher’s Island, scene of one of the great snow-storms of world literature.

The close-up angles there were somehow unsatisfactory, however. This was partly that there wasn’t quite enough snow on the doorstep yet. But worse than that, the door’s number had gone missing.

Had somebody stolen it for a souvenir? Was it now on display in an Irish pub in New York or Boston? Surely not, for without the door or a self-culpatory explanation of its context, the number 15 would be useless.

But in the meantime, without the number, the door looks bereft too. Bad enough that the house’s future is still shrouded in uncertainty. Pending possible redevelopment, it also seems to have become the victim of identity theft.

***

Abandoning close-up angles, I instead crossed the road onto Santiago Calatrava’s James Joyce Bridge for a wider focus.

And although I had made the potentially treacherous descent of the streets running down to the Liffey by foot without so much as a slip, I was now suddenly sliding all over the place like a drunk on skates.

The problem was the bridge. When not covered in snow, Calatrava’s structure is notable for its curved, translucent glass walkway. An elegant feature, normally. But when combined with slushy snow, as I found, the effect on walkers can be somewhat less elegant.

In search of better angles of No 15, I nearly toppled twice, emitting language more in keeping with the Nighttown episode of Ulysses than with The Dead. A passing tourist pointed at the walkway and said something in Italian. “Si,” I agreed with him, whatever it was.

With its slanted wings, the bridge is supposed to evoke an open book. It is not, however, well suited to the conditions described in the famous last lines of the story set in the house it faces.

As I lined up another photograph, leaning slightly off balance, both my feet suddenly slipped from under me. To paraphrase Joyce, I had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead, or was heading in their general direction.

My soul swooned slowly as I heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, to the amusement of the Italian tourist, I ended up on flat on my backside.

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