This word may make you think of Irene, which is fitting, as it’s an adjectival form of the name. But Irene will surely make you think of a hurricane, and that’s ironic. And I don’t mean ironic in the senses in Alanis Morissette’s song, none of which are actually ironic – although a hurricane is indeed “like ra-i-ain… on your wedding day.” No, I mean that Irene, also rendered in English as Eirene, from Greek Εἰρήνη Eiréné, was the goddess of peace, and irenic means “peaceful”. Its main sense is not in reference to weather, true – it’s rather political or interpersonal: “tending towards conciliation and lack of conflict” would be a longer way of putting it. Irene’s opposite number was Polemos, “War”, from which we get polemic, so you get the idea. But still…
And yet within peace is the memory and possibility of conflict. I say this not just because irenic starts with ire, and not because of the words “to secure peace is to prepare for war” from Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me,” nor even because of how close Eirene is to Erinye. But in Erinye – which is a rather better name for a hurricane – we see a demonstration of the principle: the Erinyes were the Furies, the goddesses of vengeance, born out of the spilled blood of a Titan (how about I don’t say what part of Uranus was cut off that led to the spilling of the blood). They pursued Orestes and, after losing a court case against him, were pacified by Athena by being made the Eumenides, “the kindly ones.” It’s kind of like that bit in Fantasia where, after Night on Bald Mountain, everything is peaceful. The tempest has passed. (There are a fair few other bits of classical music with that theme too.)
True, Irene (Eirene) has no such questionable origins, aside from being a daughter of Zeus (that thunderbolt-hurling lecher) and Themis (the Titaness who represented divine law). There is another Eirene in Greek mythology, a daughter of Poseidon, god of the sea, and you could draw a thematic connection between her and hurricanes, I suppose, but she just shares a name with the goddess behind irenic, nothing more.
Although irenic doesn’t specifically refer to calm weather, it may still bring to mind the peaceful pastures of Arcadia, with shepherds playing their Pan pipes: scenic, lyrical. It will certainly always bring to mind music for me, because of the various musical Irenes I can think of. The first Irene I ever met or heard of was the wife of a teacher (Don Pinay) who was a colleague of my mother. Don Pinay had a band, and, if I recall correctly, Irene would at least sometimes sing with it.
But many more people will first think of Dexys Midnight Runners and their song “Come On, Irene.” Except, as many people are rushing to point out (with their knuckle-rapping rulers ready!), the song is actually “Come On Eileen.” Well, never mind. Even CNN is in on the act – it’s the theme song for the hurricane (yes, hurricanes have theme songs now). I’m partial to the version of the refrain that Lauren Ackerman (@VerbingNouns) tweeted: “Come on, Irene! Oh, I swear you’re so mean: at this moment you scare everything. With your arrival now, my thoughts I avow, verge on terror. Ah, come on Irene!”
There’s also the Nana Mouskouri song about a girl who keeps chasing after boys. (You can see her perform it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ktz1kiAMsNE if you don’t know it.) But the song that many on the east coast of North America will be glad to sing is the American folksong “Goodnight, Irene” – though not because of its tale of despondence over a marital breakup, and especially not because of its line “Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown,” but they might appreciate the line “I’m gonna take a little stroll downtown,” which New Yorkers will be eager to do again. (Actually, some of them were out jogging in Battery Park while the water was still a foot or two deep.)
Probably they won’t be thinking of Alanis Morissette, though. But there’s one more ironic thing about irenic to do with this hurricane. Hurricanes are an Atlantic thing – in the Pacific they’re called typhoons, and in the Indian Ocean cyclones. (Cyclone is also the name of a roller coaster at Coney Island, closed during Irene of course.) But a rough synonym for irenic is pacific.