Friday 20 October 2017

A tale of two storms

Today I was thinking about Storm Ophelia and some of the stories of kindness and bravery that had occurred in its wake. My mind wondered, like a butterfly in the breeze, eventually settling on a memory of something that happened many years ago…

My first ‘proper’ job was in 1976, working as a trainee manager in a posh English department store – and it was a proper job. Back then, jobs were for life and companies invested in their employees through good education and training. Over the following two years I was privileged to work in every department of the store, from the warehouse to the accounts department and everywhere in-between, including a week in the lingerie department – tough going for an impressionable young man! I learned much that would serve me well in the future from the kind and gentle employees of that wonderful family-run establishment. Of all the work-placements I experienced, my favorite by far was the stationery department.

I’ll admit, I found studying for the British Stationery Products Federation diploma course to be rather less interesting than learning about bra sizes, but I was saved from terminal boredom on the day I was moved to the pen repair counter. Back then most people learned to write with something called a ‘fountain pen’ and continued to use the same pen for many years – I still write with one today. A good quality, wet ink, fountain pen manufactured by Parker, Sheaffer, or Waterman, would have a gold nib, a tortoise shell case, and cost more than a lowly trainee manager earned in a week. Once it is worn-in, a fountain pen becomes unique, with the nib worn just-so, it perfectly matches only one person’s handwriting, feeling as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Such an instrument cannot be replaced, but it can be repaired. Trained, qualified and equipped with my magnifying glasses and special toolkit, I was a micro engineer! I stood behind the glass counter and whiled away my days straightening bent nibs, unblocking ink feeds, and replacing broken clips. This seemingly insignificant service was of great benefit to our customers and their gratitude gave me a real sense of purpose and achievement.

One of the first pens I repaired belonged to a diminutive lady named Mrs. Storm. Standing just over five-feet tall, with dark auburn hair, carrying a black handbag, and wearing a beige tweed jacket and matching skirt worthy of a school headmistress, she was perfectly disguised for her role as the shop floor security guard. Every day she drifted through the store unseen by many, as invisible as a ghost, while her eagle-sharp eyes searched for the opportunist thief. At a time before CCTV, Mrs. Storm spent much of her time near to the pen department. From here she had a good view of the counters that displayed many of the stores high-value items that were small enough for a thief to slip into a pocket or bag. To enhance her disguise, sometimes I would pretend to show her pens, while we chatted about her family, her life as a police officer, or sports, or nothing in particular. Even though we were quite friendly, and she called me ‘Young Nick’, I always addressed her as Mrs. Storm. Her Christian name had always been a closely guarded secret – until the day of the soccer match.

I’m not a follower of football, so some of the details are rather vague, but I recall it was a big match (perhaps a local derby), and we were all on high alert as trouble and violence was anticipated. It started off to my right, with a scream of shock and dismay, followed by the crash and tinkle of something being knocked over. Then there were the sounds of fast running feet and the shouts of indignation as shoppers were pushed aside. Just as I stepped out from behind the counter to investigate, a very large youth with a ‘skinhead’ haircut came running into view. He was wearing a red football shirt and a look of violent desperation. His right hand was clutching a bundle of cash. Before I could react to what was obviously a robbery in progress, a beige blur came out of left field. It was Mrs. Storm. With astonishing alacrity, she dipped her right shoulder and tackled the man as if she were an England international rugby scrum half. The huge thief went down like a felled tree, scattering the stolen cash across the floor. There was an audible “Ooof” as the air was expelled from his lungs.

Despite the shock of this unexpected tackle, the thief had the resilience that comes from youth and the fear of impending arrest. Even with a middle-aged woman sitting jockey-like on his back, the big lad quickly recovered and it was only when Mrs. Storm turned her pleading eyes in my direction that my bewilderment dissipated and I sprang to her aid. With the benefit of my additional weight and muscle, the robber was quickly subdued, and once the handcuffs were clicked shut, he hung his head and complied.

Afterwards, Mrs. Storm came by my counter to thank me for my assistance.
“Think nothing of it Mrs. Storm,” I said, waving my hand dismissively, “I’m happy to have helped.”
“Well, I’m very grateful,” she replied, smiling. “In future, you may call me Ophelia.”
I nodded and returned her smile, proud of the privilege she had just bestowed.
“Ophelia Storm,” I whispered, “What a lovely name.”


Storm Ophelia crossed the Atlantic ocean, picking up energy from the unseasonably warm waters and spinning into a hurricane before it slammed into the south west coast of Ireland on the 16th of October 2017.

With wind gusts of 191km/h and waves over 17 meters high, it was the most powerful storm ever to hit mainland Ireland. In its wake 295,000 homes were left without power, thousands of trees were down – many blocking roads, and hundreds of buildings were damaged. That only three lives were lost, is testament to how well the public obeyed the advice to stay indoors until the storm had passed. We spent most of that day looking out of the windows and hoping for the best. Our power went off just after lunch, so there was little else we could do but light candles, hunker down and wait.

My wife had longstanding plans to visit England for a holiday, beginning on the 17th of October (the day after Ophelia). Hoping for the best, Lesley packed her bags by candlelight, then we set the alarm clock for 3:30 am and headed to bed. During the night the wind had eased considerably and, as Ryanair was reporting ‘business as usual’, we set off for Shannon airport at 4 am.  Although there was much debris to avoid along the way, and one diversion caused by a fallen tree, the thirty mile trip was slow, but largely uneventful. Back at the house, with the power still off, I stoked the fire and snoozed on the couch as I waited for the sun to rise.

The morning seemed eerily calm, with only the distant buzzing of chainsaws to disturb the silence. Soon the cattle began lowing – like a call to prayers – as the scattered herds reassembled. It was a chilly morning, with a crystal clear blue sky and not a breath of wind – a typical autumn day in the west of Ireland. After feeding the chickens, I walked our four dogs around our land and checked for damage.   

We had lost a few trees and our power was out for twenty-eight hours, but otherwise there was no significant damage. Given the incredible power of the winds, I felt we were extraordinarily lucky. By the time the ESB electricians and linesmen reached our house, they looked haggard with exhaustion – but they were in good spirits, laughing and joking as they worked.

There are many tales of local heroism that I could relate, but one in particular really summed up how our community can pull together at a time of need.

Bob is an elderly American, living alone in a remote part of Ireland, just south of Killaloe and close to Lough Derg. We’ve been friends for a couple of years. He is a kind and intelligent man. We meet for lunch about once a month as well as conversing by email. In his own words, this is his experience of storm Ophelia and the kindness of strangers…

“We lost electricity about noon. Around 4:00 pm the folks on our road got it back, but we did not. I checked my breaker box and it was OK so I suspected the problem was somewhere in the wire from the utility pole. I called the electric company to report a problem and was told it could be up to five days to get it looked into.

“There are still about 150,000 homes without electricity, but mine is not one of them. This morning I went over to Bobby Reidy's Pub to use his free Wi-Fi to send you guys a message. Bobby and his family were good friends of my wife before she passed. His mom is a neighbor of ours. I told him I was still without electricity, he said that he would  call a friend who could possibly help me out. I said thanks, but never expected anything to come of it.

“I was asleep in the guest house (my bedroom being very cold without heating and electricity) when my niece came over to tell me the power was back on. At 10:00 tonight a guy pulled up to the cottage to repair the wire connection on our utility pole. I had just dropped off to sleep after getting into bed at about 9:30.  Now I am wide awake and will have trouble getting back to sleep, I did not even get a chance to thank the guy. It was Bobby's friend that fixed our electrics. He lives up the road past us a ways and was on his way home, dog tired after a 12 hour day, yet he made time to help someone he has never met. I’m still having a hard time believing it. I need to find an appropriate way to thank them both. I think I will go over to Reidy's tomorrow and thank Bobby and leave an envelope for the ‘friend’.

“The wind did no other mischief here. ELECTRICITY IS GOOD.”

Best wishes