Glancing out his bedroom window in Ballymote, Co. Sligo, on the evening of Monday 24 February 1947, seventeen-year-old Francie McFadden shivered. The penetrating Arctic winds had been blowing for several weeks. Munster and Leinster had been battling the snows since the middle of January. It was only a matter of time before the treacherous white powder began to tumble upon Ulster and Connaught.
That night, a major Arctic depression approached the coast of Cork and Kerry and advanced north-east across Ireland. As the black winds began howling down the chimneys, so the new barrage began. When Francie awoke on Tuesday morning, the outside world was being pounded by the most powerful blizzard of the 20th century.[i]
1947 was the year of the Big Snow, the coldest and harshest winter in living memory. Long may it stay that way.[ii] Because the temperatures rarely rose above freezing point, the snows that had fallen across Ireland in January remained until the middle of March. Worse still, all subsequent snowfall in February and March simply piled on top. And there was no shortage of snow that bitter winter. Of the fifty days between January 24th and March 17th, it snowed on thirty of them.[iii]
‘The Blizzard’ of February 25th was the greatest single snowfall on record and lasted for close on fifty consecutive hours. It smothered the entire island in a blanket of snow. Driven by persistent easterly gales, the snow drifted until every hollow, depression, arch and alleyway was filled and the Irish countryside became a vast ashen wasteland. Nothing was familiar anymore. Everything on the frozen landscape was a sea of white. The freezing temperatures solidified the surface and it was to be an astonishing three weeks before the snows began to melt.
McFadden’s neighbour Jim Kielty was driving back from Dublin to Ballymote the night the blizzard struck. Kielty has driven over two million accident-free miles in his career as a hackney driver but he swears that was the hairiest journey he ever made. Through heavy snow and near zero visibility, he could see buses, lorries and cars abandoned all along the roadside.
Every field, road and rooftop was submerged under this dry, powdery snow. In many places, the snowdrifts were up to the height of the telegraph poles. When he got caught in the snow, Jackie Doherty of Liscarbon, Co. Leitrim, found his way home by clambering up a drift and using the telegraph wire to guide and maintain his balance. In the towns too, all the shop fronts, hall doors and gable walls vanished under the massive walls thrown up by the Arctic winds.
De Valera’s post-war Ireland ground to a complete standstill. The transport system was the first major thing to crumple. Every road and railway in the land was blocked, every canal frozen solid, every power cable and electricity pylon suffocated by snow. No amount of grit or rocksalt was ever going to compete. Nobody was going anywhere fast and nothing would be normal for nearly six weeks.[iv]
‘People said Ireland was finished’, says McFadden. ‘It was pure black frost, night and day constant, and the snow was as high as the hedges. A lot of the houses around here were backed up to the roof. You couldn’t go outside the door without a good heavy coat on you. And there was no sky to be seen at all, or no sun.’
Bicycles were ditched all over the country and quickly consumed by the ravenous mantle of snow. Johnny Gormley, a postman in Roscommon, was caught out in the rugged valleys on his bicycle and collapsed suffering from fatigue and hypothermia. By a stroke of luck, a farmer out searching for his sheep found him and brought him back to his house to recover.
Thomas Levins of Co. Kilkenny recalls how his father set out into the blinding snow to rescue his mother who had collapsed on the road outside Gowran, surrounded by ‘walls of snow the height of herself’.
Less fortunate were two colleagues of McFadden’s father who were caught in a snowdrift while returning from the bogs of Sligo. They were found four days later with the bags of turf frozen on their backs.
Another fatality was a Carriackmacross farmer found in the fields by his teenage son, Pat Joe Walsh. (The younger Walsh as the man who tragically bled to death following a botched operation at Monaghan General Hospital in 2005).
For the elderly, those three bone-chilling weeks presented a deadly nightmare. The plummeting temperatures triggered respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes. If they had not stocked up on food and medical supplies, their situation was extremely precarious. Provisions were quickly rationed so that no individual was entitled to more than 6lb of bread, half a pound of sugar, half an ounce of tea and 2 ozs of butter. But the actual delivery of bread, milk, potatoes and vegetables was extremely difficult given the snowy roads. Grocers were also unable to access their potato and vegetable suppliers on the farms.
Petrol and gas supplies were also severely rationed. The fledgling electricity supply swiftly dwindled and most people were soon back on paraffin lamps and candlelight. More worryingly, by the close of February, there was a nationwide shortage of peat. It was estimated that half the houses in Dublin City had no turf for their fires. People began to hack up furniture while, in the countryside, countless trees were felled for firewood. Iced up wells and frozen pipes added to the misery. A marooned old timer in Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, packed a large cauldron with as much snow as he could gather and was dismayed to find that, when boiled, he only had a half pint of water.
Survival is a game that favours the young. Inaccessible to doctors and nurses, hundreds of elderly souls in rural Ireland, the children of the 19th century, must have succumbed during the Big Snow of 1947.[v]
Burying them turned out to be particularly difficult on account of the snow and the frozen ground. In several instances, coffins remained above ground or were temporarily buried in snow until the ground was sufficiently thawed to dig a grave. Coffins were often transported in improvised sleighs, usually barn doors taken from their hinges and pulled with ropes by horses. The quick-thinking bakers and milkmen of Boyle, Co. Roscommon, constructed similar sleighs to supply their snow-besieged customers with bread and milk.
The wintry conditions were particularly devastating for out-wintered livestock. In Britain, almost a quarter of the country's sheep died during the Big Snow and it took six years for the numbers to recover. Newspapers across Ireland carried similarly sorry tales of horses, donkeys, cattle and sheep killed by snowdrifts. ‘There was a lot of sheep smothered up in the hill’, recalls Hugh McCormick, a sheep farmer from the Glens of Antrim. ‘They died from the want of water and food.’ By day, the farmers dismally trawled their snowbound lands, seeking out the telltale signs of life from the breaths of animals trapped underneath. Cavan’s Swanlinbar News reported that over 1,000 sheep had been lost in the snow. Maguire and Patterson, the match manufacturers, lost the entire herd from their farm in Donegal. On Mount Leinster, Carlow farmer John Cody became a local hero when he single-handedly shepherded a neighbour’s flock to safety. Even animals kept in sheds and byers required constant attention as fodder and hay were in short supply and the water troughs constantly froze up. Enormous numbers of chickens kept in poultry farms perished from the cold. Countless thousands of other birds, mammals and wildlife must have also died in the wild.
But as anyone experiencing these January snows will tell you, the snow provides a heaven-sent opportunity for youngsters to spend the days sledging, throwing snowballs and building igloos instead of studying Peig Sayers and doing their sums.[vi] Back in 1947, most Irish children walked to school. That was clearly a non-runner with the snow so the schools simply shut. Besides, all the ink had frozen solid in the inkwells so there was nothing to write with.
Beneath the bleak day sky and the clearer, brighter night skies, boys and girls across Ireland took to the slopes on an assortment of push cars, enamel basins and aluminium trays. In Co. Wicklow, the boys of the Sunbeam Orphanage outside Bray bombed down Bray Head on an old pram. They also made a giant snowman which they kept on building, day after day, higher and higher, thicker and thicker and Johnny Golden, one of its young architects, swears ‘that snowman was still standing in June or damned near it’.[vii]
When the seventeen springs of Co. Sligo’s Bellinascarrow Lake were found to have frozen to a depth of nine feet, a group of young lads took the shoes off their horses, loaded their carts up with several tons of sawdust from the Ballymote mills and poured it all over the icy surface. ‘And didn’t they set up a stage on the lake with poles and lights and big heavy batteries!’, marvels McFadden. ‘They had bands and done dancing on it and the music of accordions and bodhrans could be heard above Boyle.’ One foolhardy gent won a whopping £30 when he drove across the lake on a BSA motorbike. Another daredevil cycled the full 10km length of Lough Key for the ‘craic’.
Across the Irish Sea, a force of 100,000 British and Polish soldiers and German prisoners were put to work clearing snow from the railways and roads. Clearing the roads was certainly the most immediate and obvious solution to the crisis. By early March, men had gathered all along the roads of Ireland with shovel and spade, ready to do their bit. In towns and cities too, the people came out to remove the snow from the streets and footpaths.
The rural community at Ardmore in Co. Waterford had been effectively cut off by the blizzard and the 10-foot high drifts. It took a lot of shoveling but the reward was manna itself when the bread van from Youghal finally reached the village.
For others it was not such satisfying work. Charlie McAlister of Co. Antrim recalled how he and seven other men ‘were shoveling snow from January until the 17th March … and every time you shoveled it away it just come back, every day you just had to restart.’ Eventually they started shoveling the snow directly onto a lorry which carted the snow down to the beach and dumped it into the salt water.
On 13th March, the snow was still window high in Buncrana. Four days later, on St Patrick’s Day no less, the great thaw finally began as the mighty slabs of ice slid from the rooftops and crashed onto the ground below. There was so much snow to dispose of that it was several weeks before normal travel could resume. To make matters worse, the thaw was accompanied by prolonged heavy rain, making it the wettest, sludgiest March in almost 300 years. When at last the green fields of Ireland reappeared, the countryside looked as if it has been pummelled by a twister – it was a veritable ocean of mangled bicycles, broken poles, fallen trees and the corpses of dead animals.
An unexpected positive was that the Big Snow appears to have done the arable farmers a favour for the yields of corn and potatoes in the summer of 1947 were as lush and bountiful as any there has ever been. This lends some credence to the old theory that frost and snow are good for ridding the soil of pests and disease.
When the world turns white, everyone has a memory. It was a time of extraordinary collaboration and resourcefulness, fun for children, almost unbearable for adults. There is no doubt that the Big Snow of 1947 was an event that was clearly etched on everyone’s mind. As with the present crisis, snow slows everything right down. The only solution is to be patient and wait until the melt begins. Perhaps inevitably, de Valera’s stumbling Fianna Fáil government got the blame for the lousy weather. As with Britain’s Labour government across the water, they were slung out of power in the ensuing General Election.
The winter of 2010 will undoubtedly be a cold one. But how will it compete with the other whoppers of times past? The winter of 1683–84 remains the coldest on record with the Thames freezing solid all the way up to London Bridge and the longest frost ever. In 1740, the big freeze combined with a famine to wipe out an estimated 16% of Ireland’s population. The winter of 1878-79 slammed the country with back-to-back months where temperatures averaged below zero. The blizzard that struck Ireland on the day of the General Election of February 1917 was the worst in living memory at that time. Another came in 1932 which, according to blacksmith Jack Lowry of Mountrath, Co. Laoise, who was nine at the time, levelled the whole country so that ‘you’d only see the top of the trees and there were places where there was twenty feet of snow.’
Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’ was the Christmas Day No. 1 in Ireland in 1962, and that was a title that must have appealed to many of those who watched the powdery snow flakes tumbling from the sky that day. That evening, all along the eastern half of the country, the snow froze solid; temperatures would remain on or below zero until early March in what was to prove the coldest winter since 1814. Over 17 inches of snow fell on New Year's Eve alone. It was to be the soberest start to a new year that anyone could remember. Nobody wanted to brave conditions that had already frozen the Shannon at Limerick.
Bitter Siberian easterly winds and further blizzards continued to pummel the country over the next week, creating snowdrifts up to 15 feet in height. Leinster and Ulster were paralysed, as villages were cut off, roads and railways blocked, telephone wires collapsed, food stocks ran low and farmers were unable to reach their livestock with deadly consequences for thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle. The freezing fog and low temperatures were also fatal for huge numbers of birds who literally fell from their perches and died. For the hundreds of thousands living in rural Ireland, often in thatched houses with just a turf fire to keep them warm, this was a time to brace oneself. In some instances, food and medical supplies had to be airlifted in.
By mid-January, men were being pulled off the dole, handed shovels and sent out in lorries to clear the roads. However, Arctic winds brought another four inches of snow causing complete turmoil to relief efforts, as well the sporting calendar. In early February, the Siberian cold returned with a phenomenal snowstorm that smothered the west of Ireland in white powder. The price of fresh food shot up 30%. Britain likewise ground to a halt and in London the Thames froze to such a depth that there was a car rally on the ice. The big freeze was followed by a gentle thaw brought on by a dreary drizzle in the early days of March. Be warned though, Cliff Richard seized the opportunity to cheer everyone up with a song called ‘Summer Holiday’.
January 1982 probably stands as the best month ever to be a school kid in Ireland because for much of the month, there was no school. Three short but intense snowstorms painted Ireland white for the best part of three weeks. The heaviest fall was a 36-hour blizzard which began on January 7th. The east was the worst affected area, with Dublin City notching up some 2.5-ft in some parts, while the drifts rose to five and six feet in the suburbs. Hundreds of motorists were rescued from their cars on the Naas dual carriageway. There were a further two weighty falls over a ten day period which, combined with snow showers drifting in from the Irish Sea, added to the snow that had already frozen and compacted on the ground. That made for ideal tobogganing conditions, not least because temperatures were mild either side of the snowstorm, and the hills were alive with youngsters jetting off down the slopes on wooden sleighs, old car bonnets and fertilizer bags. Postmen, milkmen and council workers got around with snow chains while snowmobile sales also rocketed. The government duly appointed the late Michael O’Leary, subsequently nicknamed the ‘Minister for Snow’, to coordinate emergency services. Power cuts and bread and milk shortages were widespread for a while but, talking to anyone who remembers it, you get an overriding sense that everybody secretly loved it.
[i] The anticyclone had been slowly rolling south from Greenland into the Atlantic since January. Snow began to fall across Ireland in uneven measures over the early part of the month, sleeting down upon the thousands of mourners who attended Jim Larkin’s funeral in Glasnevin. The freezing temperatures were often accompanied by easterly gales and high rolling seas. On the night of 8th February, the SS Ary, a coalship belonging to the Great Southern Company, set sail from South Wales across the Irish Sea with a consignment of 640 tons of coal for Waterford. The steamer was commanded by a 55-year-old Estonian national, Captain Edward Kolk, with a crew of fifteen men. A cruel east wind slowly turned the ocean into a swirling cauldron of troughs and waves, until the coal cargo began to shift to one side and the whole ship started to capsize off the Irish coast. At midnight, Captain Kolk gave the order to abandon the sinking ship and the two lifeboats were launched into the bitterly cold night. Six men jumped into the starboard lifeboat; none survived. Nine men clambered into the portside lifeboat; by the morning only one was still alive. The 19-year-old Pole managed to stay alive for three days before making it to dry land at Dungarvan. Both his legs and several fingers were amputated in the effort to save his life. Over the next 10 days, the gale force easterlies drove the bodies of the other men on around the coast as far as Youghal. Twelve of the bodies were recovered and buried in a mass grave in the shadow of Ardmore’s thousand year old Round Tower. Even as the coffins were lowered on 18th February, the snow began to fall. Reports in the Anglo-Celt from that same day reported that Cavan’s Lough Gowna had frozen over, and people could walk across it for the first time in over thirty years. Four days later, the cold spell stopped and the sun appeared for the first time in nearly three weeks. Anyone who imagined the harsh winter was over was to be sorely disappointed.
See: 'The Loss of the ss. Ary, Ardmore, Co. Waterford (8-18 February 1947)' by Kevin Gallagher and 'The greatest snowfall of the century' by Christy Wynne.
[ii] Recalling the 1932 snowstorm, blacksmith Jack Lowry of Mountrath, Co. Laoise, who was nine at the time, leveled the whole country, said: ‘You’d only see the top of the trees. There were places where there was twenty feet of snow. There was very little food around then. A loaf of bread, some flour, a few eggs. Some were near starving because they couldn’t get to their neighbours. People got out and started digging along the road and finally they got into Mountrath the following week and that was the relief. There was never the like of it came since.’ In fact, 1947 could have been worse. The following December 26th 1947, heavy snow buried New York City under 26.4 inches of snow in 16 hours; the severe weather was blamed for some 80 deaths.
[iii] Winter 1947: Monthly Weather Report for February 1947, The Monthly Weather Report of the Meteorological Office.
[iv] Mick Higgins, a railway porter from Claremorris, walked the line from Claremorris to Kiltimagh, a distance of 9½ miles, to assure people that the snowplough train was coming soon. The drifts were up to his hips in places and the gallant porter required an urgent thaw when he reached Kiltimagh.
[v] Amongst those who died during the cold spell were 66-year-old Viscount Powerscourt, chairman of the hospital’s committee who managed the Irish Sweepstake.
[vi] “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven” – Wordsworth.
[vii] Milk froze in bottles so that children could break the glass and eat the milk like lollipops.