While storms across this island come and go, there are some exceptional storms that are imprinted in the human conscious for years, decades even with stories handed down through generations from family to family.
Oíche na Gaoithe Móire or ‘night of the big wind’ would go down in legend across Ireland. On 6th January 1839 this strong wind hit the Island becoming part of Irish folklore. It was so written into our narrative that when the ‘Old Age Pension’ was introduced in Ireland many people had no birth certificate and one of the questions that was asked was “does the applicant remember the night of the big wind?”.
A generation later it would be another storm that would capture the imagination and be handed down similarly through familiar lines.
The snow would start in January 1947 and would continue to fall until March of that year with local memory telling us that February would be the worst month of all. In meteorological terms ‘The freeze’ as it would become known was caused by an anti-cyclone which had its centre located over Norway and Sweden and brought temperatures of -14°C, five major blizzards and in some places the snowdrifts were recorded at being upwards of 12 to 20 feet. Newspaper reports of the time record that the snow had drifted up to 15ft in places and what little motorised transport was available in the Antrim Glens came to a halt. It was a complete white out.
It was never ending and at first the kids were enjoying the adverse weather conditions. The schools were closed due to the teachers not being able to make it into the classroom and a lack of fuel, the fuel was needed for the homeplace and if we are being honest education was the last thing that was on the mind. Schools at the Fairhill, Glenshesk and the recently opened Barnish wouldn’t be fit to open their doors. Children like Mary and Johnny Mc Gill and Patrick Collins would make the most of their time off and would sleigh down North Street in an old tin bath.
While this article will focus on the Antrim Glens the Big Snow was Ireland wide. Reports soon started to surface in Dublin that in order to stay warm people were burning up what little furniture they had. Some deaths were reported too, while deaths in the Antrim Glens have not been recorded (as far as I can find). There is a story in the Morgan Family, who were farming at this time in the Ballyberidagh townland of Culfeightrin that John Morgan would later die from injuries received from a fall in the big snow. John Morgan was married to Harriet Mc Allister and had three children at the time. The youngest child James Henry was only six months old in May 1947 and his father is thought to have contracted pneumonia after a fall in the snow earlier that year, never to recover. As John Morgan was being laid to rest in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Culfeightrin, the snow was still reported to be several feet deep on Knocklayde. A fortunate escape was had by Margaret Mc Cormick. Every Sunday Margaret Mc Cormick would leave her house in Drumavoley making the journey by foot up Glenshesk to the Bridge house beneath Glenshesk Chapel. In the house lived her aunt Nellie Mc Naul, sister of her father John. This Sunday was an exception though, the snow had fallen continually for days now, even weeks but Margaret still made the journey up the Glen. On the way home this particular Sunday the road became so heavily blocked that she decided to take a shortcut home and tried to cut through the field. Margaret soon became disorientated and lost her way becoming stranded down by the Glenshesk river. It was looking pretty dire.
It was only with luck that local farmer Attie Mc Cormick, who was out trying to rescue and secure some of his flock of sheep, came across the woman and thankfully was fit to rescue her and take her to warmth and shelter. This woman was my Great Grandmother, Margaret May Mc Cormick Nee Mc Naul.
In the neighbouring townland Pat Neill from Corvally would have been only twelve years old. On the 25th of February ‘47 he was up visiting relatives in Kilmandil, near Corkey, Loughguile where his grandfather lived. The snow came on heavy and they decided to make for home. The only way for them was to catch the train at Killagan, near Dunloy and make their way down to Armoy. The train was forced to abandon the journey and they then had to proceed on foot down the lag, past the round tower and down the Glenshesk Road. Pat’s mother Alice was an elderly woman at this point and the snow was starting to drift. Joe and Annie Devlin of Breen kindly took the Neill family in for the night until they could get home to Woodside the next day. The 25th of February is the day that was etched into public memory. On this day, known as ‘The Blizzard ’, there would start the greatest single snowfall on record and reports say lasted for close on fifty consecutive hours.
The very same train taken by Pat, the Number 41, would be subject to great media speculation around this time. Pat Mc Veigh of Carey Mill would remember having to dig themselves out of the house. Jimmy Mc Neill of Coolnalough would later recall making ‘snowshoes’ out of boards to spread the weight in case of falls. John Black would later recall that the snow was up to the telegraph poles in Ballyvoy, just below Mc Naughten’s pub.
The plight of the Ballycastle people would get wider attention when a small Miles Gemini aircraft from Londonderry Air Charter Ltd, Newtownards, piloted by Wing Commander TWT Mc Comb who in a previous life was Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force and a photographer from the Belfast Telegraph would take flight from Newtownards and make their way towards the Antrim Glens. Coasting at 1500 feet as they approached Ballycastle they would make a loop of the town itself before dropping significantly to about 150ft where they would try to make some sort of sighting of the railway. It would take some time before they caught glimpse of the black train in the white snow, all that was visible was the roof! ‘The Lost Train’ as it has become known was found was wedged deep in the snow between Capecastle Station and Armoy. She was the last train to leave Ballycastle that day with Barry Limerick driving and onboard headed for Ballymoney station were seventeen passengers, the Engine fitter Mc Crum, his assistant, and finally the guard Jimmy Iron’s.
The driver Barry Limerick said “It was grand until we passed Capecastle, she went into the first drift, and she shouldered herself out of it. The second drift was the same and again she pushed through it, then we went into the third drift, she pushed and pushed and pushed till she stopped altogether. It was pitch black. Then I could not get back, with that much snow around the brake van, or I would have put the brake van off the road. We were lucky enough for there was a farmhouse just beside us, Delargy they called him, and Big Jim Delargy came across to see how many passengers there was. He brought across a big bag of bread and a great big buttermilk can of tea with as many cups as he could carry. We stayed there all night with the passengers huddled in the van. There was no fire in the van at first, but it was briquette coal. Now Briquettes burn all right in the engine with a draught, but there was no draught in the van, so we tried to burn the briquettes as best we could and kept poking them and the more, we poked them, the more they went out.” (Ref 1)
Luckily the following day another train managed to get through and take the passengers back to Ballycastle with the Engine crew staying on through the day before spending that night in Delargy’s farmhouse. On the 3rd day over 100 men were sent from the labour exchange to dig out the engine.
The roads were no better. The Belfast Telegraph reported that the last bus from Belfast to Ballycastle was buried and the only way to contact the town was through the phone. One brave motor van owner did attempt to get through the snow, but the van was abandoned half way. On the stretch of the road was sitting ten cars already abandoned. The two home bakeries in Ballycastle, Boyd’s of Castle Street and Mc Collam’s of Ann Street were working overtime hours to get the bread out.
The local dairy men had to dig their way into the town as there was a shortage of milk starting to take hold in the town but still some daily life was going on. Ballycastle Urban Council workers were tasked with clearing the streets and there is imagery showing a man carrying the laundry down castle street. The local postmaster Irvine Wilson, with ten postmen under his command was troubled on how to get the post out. It had got the length of Ballycastle, but all the adjoining roads were closed with drifts. Some people made the most of the cold spell and local historian Danny Mc Gill had managed to photograph men playing hurling on a frozen Margy River.
Parts of the Glenshesk, Cushendun and Cushendall Rivers were frozen as was the beautiful Glenariff waterfall, locally known as the Grey Mare’s Tail.
As you can imagine those that suffered most were the wildlife and the farm animals.
Malachy Mc Guile remembers being told by his father that they could only find the horses by the airholes that were left in the snow. This was a story that I have heard replicated across the Glens. Jimmy Mc Veigh personally remembers the same airholes left by sheep in the Culfeightrin area and Frank Connolly of Loughguile was said to have lost 700 ewes on Slieveanorra Mountain.
Across the top of Carey the same could be said. In Glenmakeerin, just below Ballypatrick forest, a group of local men had to partake in back breaking work and start to shovel the snow. Most of the men were from the townlands that would be close to the effected area. This wasn’t unique, Charlie Mc Allister of Glenariff is quoted by historian Turtle Bunbury saying, “how he and seven other men ‘were shovelling snow from January until the 17th of 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.”
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. Those sheep that didn’t suffocate in the snow starved to death. In some areas, reports of ducks and other water birds were said to have been frozen into ponds and rivers and the harbours across the Glens were said to have a layer of ice. Places like Torr head and the coast that runs between Ballycastle and Cushendun were effectively cut off, its close proximity to the sea never helped it any. Jack Coyles, the owner of the Rathlin Mailboat would use his craft to drop much needed supplies to the old Torr harbour that stood at the foot of the radar station.
Once the snow had dissipated and an enquiry had taken place it was estimated that in the mountainous areas of the Glens, twenty-five per cent of ewes and shearlings had perished and twenty-three per cent of the ewe lambs born in 1946. Only words and statistics to us in 2022, but a truly horrific number in real terms. For the livestock that managed to be taken to lower grounds or even housed, it would be hunger that would get them in the end with no access to fresh grass etc, and the hay would soon run done.
By the end of March, some normality was starting to take place across the land but with every big snow there has to be a big thaw. The next serious problem would be the flooding. The fields were saturated, and smaller roads would be washed away. The devastation to the animal population would visually unfold. In a country that was starting to recover from the effects of World War II, it must have felt and looked like complete devastation. One family that lost more than most was the Mc Intyre’s of Shelton, high up above Magherhoney, Loughguile. I know the Mc Intyre family and knew of this story, but it was an article on the big snow by Glens of Antrim Historical Society Member Bobby Mc Mullan, now sadly deceased that made me make the connection. Eamon Phoenix of the Irish news would later publish this in his Irish News column
Bobby mentioned in his article that Frank Crawford of Parkmore, while out clearing snow, saw flames in the distance. The house that he saw would be that of John Mc Intyre and wife and their large family of eleven children. The family, on wakening in the morning would see flames on the ground floor of the house and within a short time the whole house would be engulfed in flames. The kitchen ceiling and stairway would give way and the family would be lucky to survive. John would carry the youngest daughter one quarter of a mile to the Mc Aleese Family nearby in the deep snow. By a quirk of fate, I think the Mc Aleese’s are related to this author. The family lost everything, belongings, life savings. The house was left with four walls and nothing else. Even the cats and dogs would sadly perish in the fire. Bernadette Mc Intyre, born 1942 doesn’t remember much about the big snow of that year but vividly remembers the family watching the house burn from their byre. She remembers watching the flames coming through the house and her siblings sheltering there in the byre while they waited on help coming. After the house was burnt, they stayed in a farmhouse belonging to neighbour Henry McClements. The house was rebuilt – completely new. The Parish and neighbours brought supplies, clothes and furniture as the family had lost everything.
Unbeknownst to me until I started writing this article, I had written previously on the Mc Intyre family. Finvola Mc Intyre, John’s wife gave birth to triplets in the years before the big snow that would make the headlines in the area. The triplets Susan, Austin and Monica were born in Ballycastle and sadly only Monica survived. Monica would for many years be the nurse in Dalriada Hospital.
Apparently, the snow was lying on Knocklayde mountain until June of that year, but by April most people were starting to find normality. People were meeting again and beginning to converse. The older people of the middle glens would cast their mind back thirty years, to 1917 when they remembered snow as bad. April of 1917 would see the heaviest snow of the century at this point and the heaviest snow in fifty years. Some of that generation mentioned the sinking of the HMS Thrush, a British warship that would founder off Glenarm in April 1917. On the 11th of April 1917, the Thrush would go down during a snowstorm with the loss of eight members of the crew and the rest being rescued by breeches buoy. Some of the graves are in Glenarm cemetery.
Like the night of the big wind, the big snow of 47’would go down both in Irish history and local lore as the stuff of legend. It is inscribed into folklore and folk memory and even now in 2022 local people would cast their mind back and tell their family memories of that time. While 1947 would not see the last of the snowstorms, there would be other major snowstorms in 1962, 1982 and then more recently in 2010 but to those of a certain age it does seem to be this one in the years after the war that does hold significant memory.
With the global temperatures now rising and our winters getting warmer, will Ireland ever see the snow of 1947 again?
- The Ballycastle Railway, Second Edition, Dr EM Patterson, Colourprint, 1965