turn off sound of blizzard

The greatest snowfall of the century

It began on the night of Monday 24 February 1947. The greatest snowfall of the century was on its way. Today it is simply remembered as, ”The Blizzard. As I look back to those far off days when I was a young ten year old ,I recall in a special way the words of the poet William Wordsworth when he wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven,” and so it was.

For weeks before, an arctic wind had been blowing across the land ,and snow was the topic on everyone’s lips. As I went to bed on that Monday night dreaming dreams, the first flakes were beginning to fall. The next morning when I woke up and looked out on the street below I could barely recognise it. Shop fronts, shop windows, hall doors, had literally disappeared under a huge blanket of snow, and the roof tops opposite looked strangely different with their snow capped chimneys standing out stark and weird against a snow filled sky.

The birds that chattered in the morning on the moss covered slates and perched along the telegraph wires were nowhere to be seen. I wondered had some natural instinct told them that a blizzard was on the way and so had taken flight in a hurry to a warmer country. That morning I didn’t dally over the breakfast as time was very much of the essence. Dressed in Wellington boots, balaclava on my head and schoolbag on my back, I set off for school fully prepared for anything the elements could throw at me.
I paraded up Patrick St, in a track that had been made in the middle of the road earlier that morning and which came to an abrupt halt at the gateway to Candon’s flour yard. Suddenly I began to feel panicky as the snow was almost up to my waist and the readymade path had run out. An eerie silence hung everywhere and there wasn’t a human being in sight.Just then an old lady whom I met regularly on my way to school appeared in her doorway. Better known to all of us as Mrs Mitten the widow, she was small in stature, and her great mane of white hair reminiscent of the illustrious Albert Einstein was blowing wildly in the wind. Somewhat eccentric in her ways she had a habit of greeting the morning with a rendering of her one and only song “Sweet Genivieve” as she carried her jug of milk to a friend a short distance down the road.
That morning she wasn’t singing when she beckoned me over to her, but like the wise old oracle advised me to go home before I got lost, assuring me there would be no school that day or for many a day. Then, as if looking up to heaven ,she said ‘I haven’t seen anything like it since “The Count” was elected’.
It was many years later before I understood who she was talking about .“The Noble Count Plunkett” had been elected as the first Sinn Fein Ireland for North Roscommon during a similar blizzard in February 1917 ,and she was apparently reliving the memory of that historic event some thirty years later. Many of her generation would have remembered it as the ‘Election of the snows.’ That morning I didn’t hesitate in taking her advice, and turned for home hoping and praying that her forebodings would come to pass.

1947 down to Bridge Street 1947 down to Bridge Street The scene that was now unfolding by the hour was to last for a month. It snowed all that day and night until midday on Wednesday, accompanied by an arctic wind that left a trail of snowdrifts in its wake. Gable walls, alleyways and archways took the brunt of the storm with drifts fifteen feet high piled up against them. The town began to look like a lost village in Siberia with its commercial life slowly grinding to a halt, and public transport failing to get in or out for several days.
People were beginning to panic buy. The town was fortunate in those days to have two thriving bakeries, Thomas Egan,Green Street, and Danny Cunnion ,Elphin Street. They did a bread delivery almost every day with their own improvised mode of transport the “horse and sleigh” and this relieved the situation considerably. “ Egans Batch” and “Cunnions Wheata” became household names and was the proverbial” Manna from Heaven.” Milk was also a big worry at the time as there was no such thing as being able to buy it in the shops. Sonny Gannon from Greatmeadow had a large milk delivery which covered a wide area and he overcame the problem by using the same mode of transport to get to all his customers. It was hailed as a great success. James Hennigan, another supplier from “Spa” at the foot of the Curlew mountains had a more humble form again. With his small donkey and cart he plodded his way to the outskirts of the town near Easkey and Lowparks ,and from there he continued his delivery on foot. He supplied many homes in the town centre including our own home during those hard wintry days never failing to turn up with his priceless commodity.It was often said in fun at the time that Jimmy would be heard coming ,long before he was seen, from the rattle of the aluminium jugs hanging from the spout of his dairy can.

As the days went by, strange events began to make the news., the first being that of the missing postman. Johnny Gormley left the Post Office in the early hours of the Tuesday morning with his bicycle and bag of mail to carry out his usual delivery. The countryside he served was mountainous, rugged and beautiful. In summertime our friend “Wordsworth “ would have described it as “the loveliest place on earth”, but in winter it was bleak and unforgiving. Steep hills, winding narrow roads half as old as time, and a valley to cross made it daunting terrain. The names of the townlands he served sounded equally beautiful. ; Kiltycreighton, Townanaden, Corrnameeltha, Derrynaugheran to name but a few of them , but that didn’t make the job any easier for Johnny. At Brislagh hill he was forced to abandon his bicycle behind a ditch and continue his journey on foot. As the weather conditions were getting worse by the minute he wondered should he continue or turn back. In the Post Office, anxiety was mounting when he failed to return by late afternoon., so a search party set out but had to return within a short time as dusk had already fallen. Early the following morning a full search party set off with food, blankets ,medical equipment and lanterns ,but again returned that evening without success.

Huge snowdrifts had obliterated many of the familiar landmarks, making any further search impossible .The area had been transformed into a no mans land.. Thursday and Friday passed with the same result, and now with hopes fading fast of finding him alive his family and friends had begun to fear the worst. Saturday morning dawned and people continued to hope and pray that the friendly postman would be found alive, and then,”
Miracle of miracles “,a vision in flesh and blood appeared on the ‘Crescent.’The postman presumed dead was telling the story of his” deliverance” to a hushed crowd. Johnny had struggled his way across the valley through the townland of Taverane and on towards Cloonloo where he collapsed, suffering from fatigue and hypothermia . A farmer out searching for his sheep found him in a semi- conscious state and brought him back to his home where he took care of him until he felt strong enough to attempt the journey back to Boyle town. It was a story with a fairytale ending and a cause for celebration for the rest of the day. The house of the ‘Good Samaritan’,can still be seen today ,and whenever a heavy snowfall occurs the story of Johnny’s survival comes to life again and is retold in many a bar and lounge.

Around the same time a similar scene was unfolding on the other side of town. Danny Kelly the Home Assistance Officer for the area left his home at Cortober, Ck-on-Shannon, to travel to his office in Boyle.Near Ardcarne,about five miles from the town, his car got stuck in a large snowdrift ,so he abandoned it and decided to take a shortcut across ‘The Plains’via ‘Eastersnow. It was an area of the countryside he knew like the back of his hand. .
When he passed Hollymount school and came to the small hump backed bridge over the railway line,Danny was in for a shock . A farmers cottage situated in a hollow in the shadow of the bridge appeared to have vanished .A massive snowdrift nearly twenty feet high had enveloped it completely on two sides leaving it almost invisible to the naked eye. Danny, who knew the farmer very well was in disbelief , as he stared at what used to be Luke’s cottage. He shouted out his name several times in desperation but failed to get any response. Then after what seemed an age, Luke’s muffled voice broke the silence. He was alive and well and in good spirits ,and said he had plenty of food, fuel and good neighbours to see him through the immediate crisis. Having got over his initial shock, Danny ,whose ordeal was still far from over, continued his hazardous journey across ”The Plains“ .However, like Johnny the postman he too became a casualty of the fierce weather and was forced to take shelter in a farmer’s cottage until the following morning. That afternoon, there was unbridled joy in the town when Danny the social welfare officer arrived safely in his dole office with his ‘Wells Fargo’ intact. It was another cause for celebration.

Of the many stories of courage and endurance to come out of that period one of the most memorable must be that of ‘The Marathon Man’. Patrick told me his story some months before he died and it is surely one for the record books. He left his home in “Duballa” a few miles outside the town late on the Monday evening of the Blizzard with his bicycle. His destination was Collooney railway station where he was to board the train for Enniskillen and thence to Belfast.
It was a journey he had made many times before and thought little of it. When he set out that evening the weather was extremely cold and dry, and some time later it started to snow. Conditions were getting worse by the minute, and the blinding snow was making it almost impossible for him to cycle. When he eventually arrived in Ballymote ten miles on ,he left his bicycle at the railway station in the safe hands of the Station Master. He continued his journey on foot to Collooney which was another ten miles ,and eventually got there feeling cold, weary, and more than disappointed . All transport had been cancelled due to the catastrophic weather conditions ,so his marathon journey had all been in vain. But he now faced a new and tougher challenge as he had to find his way back home on foot which was twenty miles away. The snow on the roads had by now reached the same level as the tops of the ditches, blotting out practically every landmark that he was familiar with. A sea of white stretched to the horizon on all sides .

For Pat the situation was looking very grim. 1947 clearing the Rails in Boyle
1947 clearing the Rails in Boyle

Suddenly, the proverbial “spark from heaven” came to his aid. Across the fields in the distance he recognised the stretch of telegraph poles that run parallel with the railway track. Slowly and doggedly he struggled across the frozen landscape till he reached the embankment and found his way on to the railway line. From there he continued his marathon journey along the track through Ballymote station,Kilfree Junction, and Mullaghroe. Knowing he was in home territory at Mullaghroe bridge, he left the railway track and completed the last few miles of his extraordinary journey by road. The ‘Marathon Man’ had made his way home safely and his story is now part of history.

Back in Boyle town an event was taking place that made the front pages of the Roscommon Herald. An old resident had died and his burial was in Assylinn cemetery which is situated on a steep hill a mile outside the town. The man’s funeral was unique in that it was the first time for people to witness remains being carried through the town centre on a horse drawn sleigh. As it wound its way from St.Joseph’s Church through the streets, a large crowd of mourners walked behind ,while many more lined the sidewalks. Photographs were taken of the funeral cortege at various points along the route with the old Box camera in evidence. It brought a touch of the macabre to the whole scene. When it mounted the steep hill close to the cemetery, an area had been cleared in the snow to park the horse and sleigh. Groups of pallbearers then took it in turn to carry the coffin into the graveyard for burial. .It was a slow tortuous journey of a kind not seen before, and for many, hopefully would not be seen again in a lifetime.

Some days later a variation on the theme took place at the railway station. As a young lad I was fascinated with steam engines and spent many an hour watching them rumbling in and out of the station. That particular day I was high up on the cross bridge looking down on the old steel giant grinding to a halt and belching out great clouds of steam in all directions. 1947 Steam engine coming into Boyle Station

Passengers boarding and disembarking, scurried out of the line of fire while the railway checker rushed up and down the platform loudly calling out the name of “Boyle“.
As a young lad for some unknown reason I used to feel a tinge of pride when I heard its name ringing out loud and clear. During the excitement of it all the engine filled her huge belly with water from an old water tower at the end of the platform .and with a shrill whistle and more clouds of steam the old warhorse shunted her way slowly out of the station and out of sight. It was then I noticed a group of people dressed in dark suits carrying a coffin along the platform and into the waiting room. I hurried down to see them placing it on a readymade catafalque situated in one corner.
Andy the porter, whom I knew well seemed to be directing operations. Curiosity getting the better of me ,I asked him who was in the coffin. Andy, known for his wit and good humour left me little the wiser except to say in a whisper, ‘He’s resting peacefully here tonight and he wont be needing any breakfast.. That put an end to my curiosity. Some prayers were said quietly around the coffin before the small group of mourners drifted away in silence. I never found out the name of the deceased or what form of transport ferried him to his final resting place.

As the days passed, the frozen snow had turned the town into a winter playground., with” Green Street“ hill and “The Crescent “transformed into skating rinks. Lorries and cars were in short supply in those days ,so there was little problem for the youth to try out their skills . Anything that could move on ice made its appearance; .Push cars, broken-down prams, enamel basins ,aluminium trays, stools on their end could be seen racing helter skelter down the hill with children hanging on for dear life.
The sound of laughter was everywhere, and if and when the odd minor collision did occur, few tears were shed. Everything was forgotten in the sheer joy of the moment. A few members of staff of “Boles of Boyle” drapery store rigged up a real snow toboggan, and it became the star performer on the” Green Hill.” As children we would line up at what was then Shera”s house at the top of the hill and eagerly await our turn to be called. A colleague at the bottom of the hill gave the all clear signal and the pilot and his young passenger shot like a bolt of lightning through the junction, at Main St | Patrick St, careered up Bridge St, past “The Royal Hotel” and finally came to a halt outside “The Rockingham Arms“. It was the thrill of a lifetime .and an experience you would never forget.
The pilots, George, Bill and Ernie divided up their leisure time to try to give everyone a chance ,but it was like fighting back the tide. The queue of young recruits eagerly waiting their turn was endless ,and the pilots themselves had only so much of their leisure time to give. For those of us who can remember back to those days, it used to be said in fun that George, Bill and Ernie deserved the purple heart for bravery. As the day progressed we turned our attention to another type of live entertainment. The scene was “Abbeyview Hill “at Knocknashee., and the setting was readymade for the would be skier. For a birds eye view we would sit on top of the Abbey Park wall which was directly opposite and watch the impending action. The skiers raced down the slope zig zagging their way to the boundary wall that was lined with beech trees. Sometimes their landing came a cropper and a sound like the crash of ash could be heard rising from behind the wall. However after a brief pause and a spell of silence the aspiring skiers would be seen to struggle back up the hill for more of the same ,looking a little humbled but unbowed. It was entertainment at its best, and the seats were free. Our next stop was Conroy’s pond on the old golf course at Warren . Frozen solid ,it too became a skating rink both for the young and not so young. We tried our best to play football on it, but spent more time on our backside than on our feet. Some members of the then club tried their skills at ice skating but fared rather badly. Sadly a number of them ended up with sprained ankles and frozen shoulders. They would have been much more at home wielding a driver or a nine iron on the nearby green.

During all this period Lough Key was also frozen over and it too became a winter playground. Stories survive of Ceilidhe dances being held along the lake shore at Smutternagh., with bonfires alight and the sound of accordions and bodhrans echoing across the frozen waste as the dancing continued into the early hours. Una Bhan and her lover Thomas Costello would have loved it all ,as they listened from their quiet graves on far off Trinity Island. 1947 frozen Lough Key The fun and sport came to a peak on Sundays when many took to skating on the frozen lake. A vantage point on top of the ‘Rock of Doon’ gave one a panoramic view. It was a beginners paradise, with, the young and old indulging in a sport that was unlikely ever to be seen again on Lough Key. It was to remain a dream and a memory. The lake remained frozen over for several weeks and this tempted a few brave hearts to use it as a shortcut home on many occasions .The bicycle was the most common mode of transport then, and some of these daredevils peddled their way across five kilometres of ice without considering the cost. A story is told of a man who cycled the full length of the lake to Knockvicar Bridge , a distance of ten kilometres for the “Craic“. .He would have needed nerves of steel to make such a crossing as the lake is noted for its countless fresh water springs.
Back in the town the ‘Winter Olympics’ continued unabated, and snow battles were played out daily on the streets. When the paths were cleared to allow people to shop in relative comfort, the snow lay six feet deep in the channels. Openings were made at various points along the street to allow shoppers to cross from one side to the other.; The setting was readymade for the hit and run battle. Youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy were in plentiful supply meaning the harassed shopper had to run the gauntlet each day. Many a farmers hat bit the dust with his bulldog pipe still lit lying beside it .Tempers became frayed at times but were rarely lost. Youth was having the time of its life and apparently could do no wrong.

Finally, after the biblical forty days and nights , the great thaw had set in and was at its height. As the ice melted on the roofs, huge slabs crashed down on the streets below with a sound like thunder. Any person unlucky enough to be caught under one of them would hardly rise again. It was the endgame and there was a terrible finality about it. The great blizzard was coming to an end and we were watching it in its death throes. It was unlikely we would ever see anything like it again in our lifetime. For the young it was ‘the best of times’, for the old and infirm it was “the worst of times “ ,and for the birds of the air and the animals of the fields it was surely a nightmare. As I look back over a period of sixty winters, many of them stand out for various reasons. None however will ever match the ferocity of the blizzard that hit the country on the night of the 24 February 1947.

Deep down I have a joy and satisfaction in being able to recall what was the most momentous event of my childhood and to be able to say that I was part of it.

Christy Wynne 2007

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