Interview with Sally McKenna

Co-founder of the Irish Cloud Appreciation Society



1. What made you decide to set up The Irish Cloud Appreciation Society?

It came about after discussions with Hans Wieland, of the Organic Centre, with whom I founded the Irish Society. Hans warned me from the very start - "clouds are addictive", and the discussions between the two of us have now broadened to include hundreds of other cloud spotters. It's been a joy to watch develop.

In this part of the world, I think we're all a little bit obsessed with the weather. And whilst, after a gloomy summer like 2011 we often speak negatively about our climate, I think our whole psychology is influenced by the fronts that continually pass over us, spearheaded by the clouds. I think, frankly, it's what makes us interesting.

Learning to observe and know the clouds, just like observing any of the other elements, enriches our lives in a way too great to even quantify. One of our fellow cloudistas recently sent me an interview with Keith Christiansen, the Chairman of European Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He said something that really struck a chord with me, namely that photographing clouds is “not a record, it’s an emotion”.

It would have to be said that, as a group, we have been hugely influenced by the character and writings of Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, of which we are now a local group. I think Gavin is one of those great media science figures who manages to pull emotional strings as well as intellectual ones.

I think groups like ours are important because whilst forecasting is getting more and more accurate, while basic equipment and instruments are getting more and more sophisticated and while we discuss the weather more than ever because of the fear of climate change - it has ironically coincided with mass de-skilling in terms of understanding nature.

We live in a rural community, and when we first came to West Cork we were always impressed by how the local farmers could tell you, just by looking at the sky, when the rain would come.  Their observations were linked with the clouds, the sun and the moon and the tides:

"Rain on the ebb/Go home to bed/Rain with the flood/It'll only be a scud." That's a Mizen phrase and there are many more like it. The locals around where we live in West Cork would be able to judge approaching rain simply by the visual clarity of the mountain ranges that surround us. And then the ever-telling moon and sun halo - these phenomena were constantly watched, documented and interpreted without the need for modern equipment or communications.

Historically our very survival and development as a race has been founded on being able to naturally interpret and navigate in nature. It goes to the core of our evolution. I think it’s important we don’t lose it to technology.


2. What's your favourite cloud type and why?

It’s a toss up between two or three of them. Who could not love the humble cumulus, the classic Simpson's cloud, with its foretelling of good weather. An innocent, optimistic cloud. The darker clouds are fascinating too. I now find myself running out of doors at the first sign of thunder, trying to make out exactly where that cumulonimbus might be stalking. But if I had to settle on one favourite, it would have to be the hovering wonder of the lenticularis, seemingly unphased by the earth, sky and other clouds that surround it, a magical cloud that has inspired Shakespeare himself, and many a cloud spotter lucky enough to be able to see and enjoy them.


3. Are there any cloud types which you dislike?

Only one, the altostratus blanket, the one Gavin Pretor-Pinney calls the tupperware-coloured cloud. It was the cloud that dominated our first Irish Cloud Festival in Skibbereen. Without form, without light, it's a miserable cloud that depresses everyone beneath its grey, gloomy span. Having said that, our Festival was a huge success, the clouds will never behave, and we humans won’t let them get the better of us.

4. What is the best location in Ireland from a cloud spotting point of view?

Hans Wieland would say Sligo! And gosh, Ben Bulben is a great showcase for clouds, but all over the country has great clouds. Personally I love being near water, and seeing the towering cumulus congestus that suck up the sea and form impressive peaks long after the clouds have burned off over land.


5. What is your favourite type of weather?

I'd be lying if I didn't say glorious sunshine with endless blue sky, but only for a day or two, and then I'd be searching the skies for the tell-tale, beautiful cirrus, whisping, then thickening to tell us that the party's over and we're living in Ireland, so get over it!


6. We know that you write food critic books. Have you any plans to write about cloud spotting?

I always have an instinct to publish, I can't deny it. My next project has to be the TICAS website, which was put together for the Irish Cloud Festival. So far, we've used Facebook as a communication centre for TICAS members, and it has been great. It's free, anyone can join and it has prompted some great pictures and discussions. But I would love to develop the website to allow people to learn and discuss and enjoy all our clouds. I know there are many out there who won’t use Facebook, and I’d like to create a forum for them too. I’d also love to produce a cloud App for smart phones, but I think I’ve already been pipped to that, there is talk of one being developed in Europe.

7. What other interests have you?

I am a  sea kayaker, which leads me by its very nature to love the world I kayak in, and that means not only the seas, but the skies, for night kayaking, the clouds for day kayaking, and, more recently I've become fascinated by the wealth of seaweeds we have growing so abundantly around us. Seaweed not only tastes good it's amazingly good for you. It's a fantastic resource that, like our weather, we don't appreciate enough.

I also play the piano, very much as an amateur. All my family love music, playing instruments and listening to CDs. It’s something I can share with my children, which is a delight. This year we all went to Electric Picnic together, which was very special.


8. What's your view on climate change? How do think it will affect clouds?

I'm no expert when it comes to meteorology, but I find climate change very frightening and very real. Storm clouds are genuinely terrifying so calamity is certain to be beautifully staged.

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