Tom Keane – remembered by a friend

By Jim Collins (UCD) – In the realms of Irish science, the names of Tom Keane and AGMET are inextricably entwined.  In the 1970s, Tom who saw a need to link like-minded individuals, then loosely associated to the discipline of agrometeorology.  He arranged with the Met Éireann Director to call a meeting of invited individuals to its Glasnevin HQ, on Feb 29 1984. AGMET was born there and then and Tom was asked to be convener of subsequent meetings and to arrange a programme of work.

And what a programme of work he devised. Using his innate attributes, Tom got us all working and within two years our first major endeavour was published. Tom edited a treatise that highlighted the interconnectedness of all the agricultural disciplines under the ‘auspices’ of agrometeorology: Climate, Weather and Irish Agriculture, 1986. Its list of chapter authors reflected Tom’s ability to get people working in a common cause. When Tom asked you to do something, you couldn’t refuse; he didn’t have to ask twice — you just said okay. All AGMET Group members got the message, if Tom said it needed to be done, there was no dispute.

As the leap years* rolled on, reports, proceedings and conferences followed, focussing on the demands of the time. New personnel were invited, new developments assessed and more deadlines set and met. To widen its mission Tom made sure that group meetings were held in various venues: university faculties, government departments, Teagasc regional offices & technical colleges. Tom kept his eye on numbers: students taking agrometeorology as an option, AGMET books sold or in stock, income from sponsors & cash balance in the bank.  The leap years of the eighties and nineties were marked by publications on various topics from pollution and water balances to environmental management, Tom himself undertaking editorship of the 200-page Irish Farming, Weather and Environment in 1992.

When the 1986 treatise went out-of-print, Tom was anxious not to leave a vacuum. He led the charge in updating this work. More authors were invited, more sponsorship sought and Tom’s desk started to fill with first, second and subsequent drafts of 13 chapters.  He agreed to share the burden with a joint editor. A perfectionist to the core, Tom insisted on repeated checking, re-readings and on the inclusion of subject and other indices to help the user.  Sponsored by the FBD Trust the 2004 ‘Climate, Weather and Irish Agriculture’ (Second Edition) filled almost 400 pages, well-illustrated with some in colour.

Indefatigable as he was, Tom saw a new outlet for his intellectual energy: Why not use the name of his illustrious predecessor, Austin Bourke†, for the betterment of AGMET and its mission?  So the finances were checked, a portrait located, a silversmith visited and engaged, and a number of silver and bronze medals cast with the following inscription on the reverse: “for excellence in Agricultural Meteorology”.  Who was the deserving recipient of the award of the first Silver Bourke Medal?  Tom Keane! No elaboration needed.

Only once, in my memory, did Tom’s enthusiasm get the better of him, and gave some colleagues (and Maureen) a bad fright. Preparing for an AGMET event in a South Dublin venue, Tom, with usual gusto, climbed a borrowed stepladder to fix posters to a wooden rail. With the job done and descending in a hurry. To fast it turned out for suddenly he was on the floor, stretched-out and concussed. We gathered round bewildered and before anyone said ‘ambulance’, one of his Met Éireann colleagues got Tom to a car, drove him to Sutton to his local doctor before taking him home.  Nothing fazed Tom, for the next morning he was back to open the conference at 9.30am. At the coffee break he explained: “I have a stepladder at home with a faulty bottom rung so when descending, I usually hop down from the second rung. On the borrowed ladder when coming down and putting my foot on the 4th or 5th rung, I got the impression it was unsafe, so I thought my usual hop would do, but I stepped… into thin air!”…………. Panic what panic!?

* The AGMET group aim to hold a conference, book launch or similar event on the 29th February each leap year, to further agrometeorology in Ireland. The latest leap day (2016) saw the relaunch of the AGMET website [ agmet.ie ]

† Austin Bourke (1913-1995), Irish Meteorologist, Met Éireann Director, President WMO Commission for Agrometeorology, prolific author, epidemiologist and initiator of ‘Bourke (Irish) model’ for potato blight control.

This article was submitted by Jim Collins (UCD), Secretary/Treasurer of the AGMET group for many years, co-author and friend of Tom Keane.