Dunsink Observatory near Dublin was the official regulator of Irish time from 1880 until 1st October 1916 when Ireland was incorporated into the British time zone. This observatory was once the workplace of John Brinkley (1763 – 1835), Andrews Professor of Astronomy at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), first Royal Astronomer of Ireland, later President of the Royal Irish Academy and the last resident and independent Bishop of Cloyne in the Established Church (Church of Ireland).
You may have heard it remarked that ‘the Irish are always late.’ Certainly we don’t appear to aspire to Teutonic punctuality like the Germans, Austrians and Swiss – or the Scandinavians, for that matter. However, this assertion about the Irish is actually incorrect. In fact it may even be shown to be scientifically incorrect!
Indeed it is a serious calumny against us poor Irish to suggest that we cannot read a clock. It fits in the same category with the observation of British (or more precisely, English) travellers to Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They often assumed that the natives were inherently lazy. This observation was frequently derived from seeing the grass lying unharvested for hay early on a summer’s morning. Or more likely from observing in Ireland haymaking only started after 10.00 o’clock on a summer’s morning – a shocking example of sloth when the English farmer had already started the same task at least two hours earlier. It took the Welshman, E. Estyn Evans of Queen’s University Belfast to observe that the Irish farmers were very sensible to start their haymaking after 10.00 o’clock or even after 11.00 o’clock. You see, Evans observed that in England (especially the south and east of England) the weather was often warmer and drier than in Ireland, and, consequently, the grass in the hay meadows was frequently dry before 10.00 o’clock or even 9.00 o’clock.
However, Evans observed that in Ireland the grass was often wet with dew until about that time in the morning in Ireland (and even in parts of his native Wales as well as Scotland. and the north of England). There simply was no point in scything damp grass to make hay – it actually has to be dry to make hay. In Ireland the sun may shine on a summer’s day but it is really the breeze that dries out the grass, cut or uncut. So the nineteenth century Irish farmer wasn’t being lazy – he just did the right thing for making hay. Start when the damp from the dew has burned or blown off and then cut the dry grass. If you’ve ever mown a wet lawn (!) you will understand the wisdom of the nineteenth century Irish farmer’s traditional haymaking custom of waiting until the grass was dry before cutting it. It wasn’t that the Irish were lazy but that the English observer frequently didn’t understand, or didn’t wish to understand Irish conditions.
Saving the hay in Listowel in 1920s Ireland. The term ‘saving the hay’ refers to the vagaries of the Irish weather – the grass had to be dry before being cut and it had to be left to dry out completely before being gathered into haystacks. The unpredictable Irish weather meant that the work was highly concentrated and extremely demanding in order to save the main winter fodder for the livestock from the unpredictable Irish weather.(National Geographic Society, Washington DC)
And so it was with time, or, more particularly, Irish timekeeping. There is a delicious irony in the fact that just six months after the Easter Rising in April 1916, Britain imposed the last ‘Act of Union’ on Ireland. This wasn’t really a specific Irish security measure but had more to do with larger matters pertaining to the Great War.
In order to increase productivity in British War industries, the Westminster government introduced certain measures like mandated pub closing time and daylight saving time. The latter was designed to ensure that every hour of daylight in the long summer days in the latitude of Britain and Ireland would be put to productive use in the factories producing shells, bullets, guns, uniforms, and other war materiel. The new ‘daylight saving time’ was mandated to come into effect on 1st October 1916. However, the new law also affected Ireland by stealing its time, as Constance Markievicz (one of the 1916 rebels) claimed.
The clock on the Bristol Corn Exchange has two minute hands – the red hands show Greenwich Mean Time or London Time and the black hand shows Bristol Time, ten minutes later.
The Time (Ireland) Act of 1916 amended a legal situation dating to 1880 when Dublin Standard Time became the official time in Ireland. Until 1880 time in Ireland (and in Britain) was determined by the noonday sun (if it could be observed!) in each district in Ireland. Clearly, Cork is further west than Dublin so its time was later than Dublin time. Galway was further west again – so that was a few minutes later. Midleton had a public clock before 1750 so that was set to a time that was appropriate to the town until 1880. The arrival of the railways changed all that. The speed of the mainline trains was such that it became necessary to closely co-ordinate the times for departures and arrivals at the various termini and intermediate stations. This was particularly important for passengers aiming to catch a connecting train. The importance of keeping the railway regulated by a standard time is illustrated by Bristol’s Corn Exchange Clock which shows TWO time zones on its face – Bristol time and London (or Greenwich) time. Bristol, being further west than London, observed local noon ten minutes later than Greenwich.
From 1880, Dublin Standard Time was set at 25 minutes 21 seconds after Greenwich Mean Time. Dublin time was regulated by the Dunsink Observatory until 1st October 1916. Thus Ireland had its own national time zone for all thirty-two counties for a period of just thirty-six years until 1916. At 1.00 am on the morning of the 1st of October 1916, when Britian had to put its clocks back by one hour, Ireland only put its clocks back by 35 minutes to bring Irish time to an end. Thereafter, Ireland followed (and still follows) the British system of springing forward in March and falling back in October. The date of this change has moved to the last weekend in October. The reason for the change of time zone in Ireland was to facilitate the telegraphic communications between Dublin and London, especially between the Admiralty and Royal Navy’s facilities in Cork Harbour.
The Royal Navy developed the island of Haulbowline in Cork Harbour as as vital naval station guarding the south-western approaches in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
So the irony of this year’s centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising is that it is followed by the less prominent commemoration of the last Act of (Chronological) Union just six months later. But, of course, the Irish rebellion goes on. If the Irish are about thirty minutes late for an appointment, they are not really late. You see we were never consulted about the change of time zone. We are still operating on Dublin Standard Time or Irish time that operated between 1880 and 1916! So we are really on time…..it’s actually the clock that’s wrong! One unintended benefit of the move to British time is that Ireland enjoys particularly long periods of daylight on a summer’s evening – almost on a par with Scotland, which is situated much further north.