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.
1947 was the year of the Big Snow, the coldest and harshest winter in living memory. 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.
‘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.
Francie McFadden’s neighbour Jim Kielty was driving back from Dublin to Ballymote the night the blizzard struck. Mr Kielty would drive over two million accident-free miles in his career as a hackney driver but he swore 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. 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. However, the bottom line was that nobody was going anywhere fast and nothing would be normal for many long weeks.
‘People said Ireland was finished’, recalled Mr 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, he was found by a farmer out searching for his sheep who 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 Mr 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.
The owner of Tullomoy House in County Laois was making his way to bed that night, candle in hand, when he though he heard a distant cry. Despite the fact that it was cold and snowing, he opened the second floor window and looked out but all he could see was a sheet of snow on the ground as far as his eye could see. The following day, the frozen bodies of a local woman and her two children were found curled up together in a little snow cave.
Another fatality was a Carriackmacross farmer who was found in the fields by his teenage son, Pat Joe Walsh.
For the elderly, those three bone-chilling weeks presented a deadly nightmare. The plummeting temperatures triggered respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes. If people had not stocked up on food and medical supplies, their situation was extremely precarious. Provisions were quickly rationed; 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 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.
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’, recalled Hugh McCormick, a sheep farmer from the Glens of Antrim. ‘They died from the want of water and food.’
By day, the farmers dismally combed 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 byres 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 died in the wild.
On the plus side, the snow provided 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. Most Irish children walked to school in 1947 so that was clearly a non-runner. Besides, all the ink had frozen solid in the inkwells so there was nothing to write with. So the schools simply shut and children began to break the glass on the milk bottles so they could eat the frozen contents like they were ice creams.
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, swore ‘that snowman was still standing in June or damned near it’.
Six-year-old Michael Griffin can remember ‘the cattle jumping over hedgerows and disappearing in the snow’ but for him the highlight was a tunnel his father dug from their front door to the stable in order to milk the cows.
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!’, marvelled Mr McFadden. ‘They had bands and danced 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’.
Elsewhere farmers were able to bring a pony and cart full of turf across Lough Major in Ballybay, while others went skating on the ice in Dublin Zoo.
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 shovelling 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 shovelled it away it just come back, every day you just had to restart.’ Eventually they started shovelling the snow directly onto a lorry that carted the snow down to the beach and dumped it into the salt water.
For those who did not own a shovel, the answer was sometimes to use the large plate or mías off the dresser to clear a way out.
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.
Sleaty Bridge on the Knockbeg Road outside Carlow was one of many bridges washed away on the night of 17th March. A priest from Knockbeg who was returning to the college would have been swept away in the torrent had some quick-thinking locals not managed to alert him. Water rose at such an alarming speed in nearby Graiguecullen that many residents had to be evacuated by boat.
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. In Fermanagh it is said that a coffin was found sitting on the wall of Montiagh Chapel; the snow had been so deep that they thought they’d buried it.
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 the mind of all who lived through it.
With thanks to the Vanishing Ireland Group on Facebook.
Turtle Bunbury (www.turtlebunbury.com)
Turtle’s books include the ‘Vanishing Ireland’ series, ‘Easter Dawn – The 1916 Rising’, ‘The Glorious Madness – Tales of the Irish & the Great War’ and, his latest work, ‘1847 – A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery’. All of his books are available via this Direct Link on Amazon.