The Big Freeze 1947

By Marie Conlon

The early part of January 1947 had been unusually mild and the Sean Lemass was glad as the Autumn had been very wet and a lot of the turf hadn’t been saved and lay wet in the bogs.

The 2nd World War was still on and had affected our imports of coal, and also there would probably be a shortage of food, a lot of crops has suffered as the weather the previous Autumn meant the usual crops of wheat, barley and oats had been poor. In early January Sean Lemass rationed flour and bread.


Temperatures began to fall down to -2 to -6 and on 24th January we had our first snowfall, the country had been covered in snow. The people were not worried and there was the usual fun associated with the first snowfall, children happily throwing snowballs, couples walking in the parks admiring the beautiful scenery it created. On the 28th January it became much colder, and people rushed to buy warmer clothes, and were using more coal and turf on their fires. People living in tenements were finding it difficult to cope. The Liffey was starting to freeze, and huge icicles covered ships in the port. On 30th January the temperature had dipped to -14 and was accompanied by a severe blizzard across the country. The country was as cold as Siberia, and by the early days of February storms were raging at 50 to 60 miles an hour and with snow blizzards we had never seen before, the ground became covered with snow drifts that were at least 5 foot deep. Transport became impossible, the telephone and telegraph communication was knocked out, the E.S.B. no longer worked, our railway system was almost paralysed, and in the middle of all this England who was also in the grip of this weather and in the middle of a war, banned exports of coal.


It was not any better countrywide as the roads became impossible to navigate and cars and vans were abandoned after driving into snowdrifts. In some areas the snow was as high as tree tops. Our country was not equipped to cope with this Artic weather and there was no indication that it was over or nearly over. Our country was in “Lockdown”. The month of February came and there was no
let-up in the weather, and with no proper way of forecasting at that time this was particularly difficult for ships out at sea and many were lost unable to cope with the high swells. Many areas in the country were completely cut off. Snow drifts 8ft. high left many areas particularly in Wicklow with no access at all. Power companies like Dublin gas had to drastically cut supply to homes. Schools were closing country wide as it was impossible to heat them, also food was proving difficult to get.


The first deaths were being reported by mid-February, people perishing in snow drifts and blizzards, people began dying of the cold and starvation in their homes and also the flu epidemic had hit. For the poor it was impossible to cope, fuel had run out and they were using the furniture in their homes as they could not get turf. Hospitals were unable to cope and undertakers could barely meet the demands on their services, bodies were being stored waiting for a thaw as it was impossible to dig a grave. By late February it was known that thousands of Dubliners were dying.


The snow and blizzards continued and near the end of February and snow drifts of 8 to 15 footcountry wide were being recorded. Cattle and sheep were freezing to death in the fields.


Our Government unfortunately did little to help and were being criticised in the newspapers. The Army should have been brought into action but were not. No food kitchens were even set up. The weather showed no signs of an end, and another snow and blizzard storm occurred on 25th February it snowed for 2 days on top of what was already on the ground and this caused even more major problems, power lines were brought down and communications within the country was no longer possible, provincial buses got stuck in snow drifts, trains came to a halt on mid journeys and some derailed altogether with snow up to 10ft. in height. Rescue squads were sent out as people starved on the buses. The country was like a place in Siberia. Roads were no longer visible in the West of Ireland.


Then the people started the response gathering volunteers starting with C.I.E. and then in every county who were armed with shovels and picks, hatchets, planks, and food for a few days. Other groups started to dig out families who were trapped in their homes countrywide, some houses only visible by their chimney pots. People feared that this was the return of the “Ice Age”.


On the 4th March after having a few days of no further snow, it all returned again, blizzards and gale force winds all their work been undone. At this stage the large machines were brought in from England to help reach areas that had been completely cut off, these were like snow ploughs which smashed their way through snow-drifts and glaciated ice-barriers, and after a few days started to liberate villages that had been cut off particularly in Wicklow.


Many bodies had been discovered in the snow drifts, people had died from hunger, the cold and flu and this was the case country wide, many more had died in shipwrecks of the coast, the old were particularly vulnerable. Records of the deaths were never recorded by the Government, but it might be safe to say thousands died during that period. On the 9th March the temperature did not fall below 0 degrees and this was the first time in 6 weeks, and during the following days Ireland’s weather began to return to normal.


By March, normally fields would have been ploughed and prepared for the crops, but this had not been possible, and to make matters worse on St. Patrick’s weekend, torrential rain fell and flooded the country. This rain had been accompanied by high gale force winds and as the temperature had risen a sudden thaw had started, huge snow cliffs melted and caused rivers to flood and pour out on to the fields to a depth of 4ft. Cattle and sheep were found floating as were human bodies who had probably been caught in snow drifts.


Dublin was flooded, houses, shops and streets, people had to go upstairs and watch their furniture float around downstairs. It was like a river flowing through the city. In Howth landslides occurred and thousands of tons of land just disappeared off the cliff face.


But, all was over, and little by little the weather improved and in late March temperatures rose to 70 degrees, the land dried out quickly and the farmers managed to get their crops sown. The good weather continued, coal bans were abolished by England, and life was slowly returning to normal. By early June the temperature rose to over 80 degrees and the Summer was the warmest in living memory.

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