Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Siren and Me

I can't remember what the dream was exactly, only that it involved mushroom clouds on the horizon and me fleeing frantically to some underground shelter. Imagine then my first impression when I awoke to what sounded like the doomsday siren in the pre-dawn of a November morning. Apparently, its distinctive howl had incurred on my unconscious mind the scenarios that I associate most with it, before finally waking me into what seemed a surreal situation. I waited a few seconds to see if it was just the last sonic embers of my dream. But it wasn't long before I realised I was hearing this notorious sound in full cognition. In Kilkenny. At 4.45am.

If you've never heard the civil defence siren, you really should give it a listen. It is absolutely one of the most unsettling noises you are likely to encounter. Having spent a sizeable amount of my life engrossed in twentieth century history, its eerie bawl evokes in me images of Londoners crowding into tube stations during the Blitz, or sixties-era American school kids ducking and covering in preparation for a Soviet nuclear strike. In fact, just the other day I watched, and posted on Facebook, a video showing the siren in action in Tel Aviv, Israel.

But I've never heard it in little old Kilkenny. Why would I? This isn't exactly Checkpoint Charlie. Surely the Marble City could never be wiped off the map by a wave of atomic fire? Though I do remember my father telling me how his school drilled for the outbreak of World War 3 during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But he could have been just making that up.

Whatever about that, I've always wondered how useful these sirens would be if Nuclear War actually did happen. Wouldn't they just terrorise people into realising that the human race is about to be annihilated and there's absolutely nothing they can do about it. Let us sleep I say.

Such considerations were redundant as I opened the window to hear the siren wailing across the outside air, where wind and rain only added to the fatalism of it all. Being alone in the house didn't help. There was no way of making myself feel empowered by shaking someone from their sleep whilst screaming hysterically: “It's Here! It's Here!”

Instead, I hurried downstairs to see if any neighbours had stepped outside to investigate. Standing in my driveway, I found the sound almost unbearable. I calculated its general direction and wondered if it was some kind of cataclysmic burglar alarm from the truck yard across the road, like one that would sound only when all the trucks were stolen. Not seeing anyone else around and with no traffic on the road, I went inside to contact Kilkenny GardaĆ­. As I passed by the television, I wondered if switching to Sky News would yield a graphic proclaiming: “BREAKING NEWS: WORLD ENDING”

There was a definite gaiety in the voice of the female officer that answered my call. It sounded like she was having an enjoyable morning on the switchboard.

“Hello, I'm on the Freshford Road. There's an extremely loud alarm coming from the direction of the truck yard across the road” I said, in the mode of a truly concerned citizen.

“It's actually from the army barracks” she responded cheerily. “We've had hundreds of calls. Someone's set off the civil defence siren and they don't know how to turn it off!”

At this point, I was fairly sure I could hear other GardaĆ­ chuckling at her end of the line.

“Ah yes, the civil defence siren” I acknowledged, as if to convey myself as someone who had seen it all before. “I thought for a second we'd started World War 3” I continued, before deducing that I couldn't have been the first funnyman to tell her that joke this morning.

“No, you're safe enough” she reassured me. “Hopefully, they'll get it off soon”. That was that it seemed. 

Then, like all good men in the early twenty-first century, I took to Facebook and Twitter to tell everyone everything! Surprisingly, updates from sleep-deprived Kilkenny folk were minimal. I suppose most people in this town are such good sleepers that even the threat of societal destruction can't wake them. Though I did get a text off my sister, who lives outside town. Funny that she could hear it whilst others I've spoken to, some living within 500m of the base, slept through it soundly. My family must have some innate paranoia about Armageddon. 

After another ten minutes or so, the siren whimpered into silence. It was finally over. Or so I thought. Moments later, it started up again! I wondered what exactly was going on in the barracks that this could happen twice in one night.

“Are they all drunk or something?”

Eventually it stopped for good. And I went back to bed, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow would come.

This morning, I began investigating what had caused the siren to go off. I rang the military press office, where another female officer was hell bent on assuring me that I was still alive.

“I'm just curious” I explained, trying to dissuade her clear supposition that I was a nervous wreck who spent too much time reading about doomsday scenarios on the internet.

She told me to email on my questions. So I did. And thankfully, the military press office delivered a prompt response. Here it is:


Almost all military barracks and facilities at home and overseas have some form of audible alarm system. It is either used to indicate a defensive requirement for the post or sometimes to re-call Military Personnel in the locality to the Barracks. Many barracks test these alarms for a few seconds from time to time and at a time of the day so as not to disturb local residents. In the case of Stephens Bks Kilkenny, a technical fault caused the alarm to sound in the early hours of the morning. I understand members of the garrison have been on local media apologising for this inconvenience. 


The Military

No need to apologise Military. This is easily the most exciting thing that's happened to me all year! The tale of a nightmare inducing siren on the sleeping people of Kilkenny. Well, on one of them anyway