Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Great Blizzard Revisited

‘Haec Olim Meminisse Iuvabit’ (Virgil)

It began on the evening of Monday 24 February 1947; the greatest snowfall of the 20th century was about to hit my hometown of Boyle. Today, 70 long winters later, the great event is simply remembered as The Blizzard. Casting an eye across such a long period of time I can confidently describe it as the most unforgettable experience of my life. The phenomenon of nature about to unfold was for me all about fun, snow battles, holidays from school and to use a little quote from my friend Wordsworth the poet “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven.” And that it was. 

During the weeks leading up to the great freeze, an ice cold wind swept over the land like a Biblical Plague leaving everything in its wake rock dry. Going to bed that night my mother hinted the good news: “It’s starting to snow,” she said, adding in a little plea to the man above, “God grant it’ll take the awful cold away!”. Next morning, when I had a peep out, what met my eyes was beyond my wildest dreams; shop windows, doors and their recesses were buried beneath a blanket of snow. The chimney stacks on the roofs opposite, complete with their pot hats, looked like miniature soldiers lined up on a snow covered slope. The morning cackle of birds on the moss-covered slates had fallen silent; there wasn’t a bird to be seen. I missed their presence that morning as I would ‘Fluffy the cat’ rubbing up against my legs looking for attention. Downstairs in the kitchen, the oatmeal porridge cooked from the night before lay ready to be reheated and consumed. Then dressed in my new woollen balaclava, two pairs of socks, a sprinkle of holy water and a hug from my mother I stepped into a mini snow storm like a young Scott of the Antarctic. As I trundled up Saint Patrick Street, I crossed to the middle of the road to walk in a lorry track made earlier that morning; it came to an abrupt halt at the entrance into Candon’s flour yard. My Hansel and Gretel track had just run out of road.  As I gazed about in the deadly silence that accompanies the falling snow I seemed to be the only student finding his way to school that morning. It was then I saw Granny Mitten standing in her doorway with her great mane of snow-white hair reminiscent of the great Albert Einstein blowing in the wind. She beckoned me over to her and like a modern day ‘Oracle of Delphi’ she told me to “go home before someone gets lost in this blizzard”. Then looking to heaven she added in a kind of afterthought: “I haven’t seen the like of it since The Count was elected”. This other Delphic remark meant nothing to me until my mother enlightened me later that day. Granny Mitten was remembering ‘George Noble Count Plunkett’, the first Sinn Fein T.D. elected to the British Parliament for North Roscommon in the by-election of February 1917 exactly thirty years before; the event is remembered in local history as the ‘Election of the Snows’. The snow fell all day Tuesday till midday Wednesday driven by a powerful east wind that built up huge snowdrifts in alleyways, archways and gable walls. The town could have been taken for an isolated outpost in Siberia with no trains or buses getting through for several days and commercial life at a practical standstill. Boyle town was fortunate to have two good bakeries in operation all during the blizzard: Egans, Green Street and Cunnions, Elphin Street. They attempted a delivery each day with a transport to match the weather, the horse and sledge. The names Egan’s Batch and Cunnion’s Wheata became synonymous with the story of the blizzard and were given the grand title of ‘Manna from heaven’. Two big milk suppliers used a similar type of transport to get to their customers but weren’t always one hundred percent successful. There were instances of the occasional breakdown on the way; the mountain had to find its way to Muhammad! There was also the smaller dairy farmer who prized his own precious little customer base. He was like a member of the family, the man who called every day of the year, the man who sat in the kitchen for a chat and brought all the news with him, the man so attuned to nature he could give you the weather forecast better than any modern day meteorologist. Jimmy from ‘Spa’ at the foot of the Curlew Mountains (our supplier) was that kind of man. His transport was of the old traditional style, the pony and cart fitted with rubber tyres. The terminus for Roger the pony was the wooden E.S.B. pole on the corner of Green Street beside Ryan’s Pharmacy. Roger was tethered to the pole and given an early morning lunch in the form of a large bag of hay spread on the ground. A special memory I have of Jimmy’s visit to our kitchen was the little drop of milk he always ‘threw in’ for Fluffy our cat, a gesture a child doesn’t easily forget. Another memory of Jimmy was the din he created on the street from the rattle of the aluminium jugs he had hanging from the spout of the great dairy can he carried with him; the man was giving advance notice to his customers of his coming amongst them. With delivery completed, he made for the window stool in Devine Conlon’s pub (Saint Patrick Street) for his usual two or three bottles of Guinness to re-energise him for his journey back to Spa. The window stool appeared to be Jimmy’s by some sort of squatter’s right; it was his vantage point to keep a watchful eye on Roger across the street while he was enjoying his few glasses of medicine. Leaving his cosy nook on the window stool Jimmy would sometimes say with a smile: “Back to the reservation lads!” 
As the days went by a series of strange stories were beginning to unfold, the first being that of the missing postman. Johnny Gormley set off from the post office in the early hours of Tuesday morning with his bicycle and bag of mail. The countryside he covered was mountainous, rugged and beautiful and included the long meandering Lough Gara, stretched in the valley below. In summer the poet Wordsworth would certainly have described it as ‘the loveliest place on earth’, but in winter it was bleak and unforgiving. Steep hills, narrow winding roads as old as time itself and a valley to cross was the daily challenge for Johnny. The names of the townlands he traversed had a Celtic/Gaelic ring about them: Kiltycreighton, Ballinultagh, Corrnameeltha, Derrynaugheran to name some of them but that didn’t make the job any easier. Near the top of Brislagh Hill, which at its highest point is a little short of a thousand feet, Johnny was forced to abandon his bicycle beside a ditch and continue on foot. Conditions were so bad he was contemplating turning back but then had second thoughts. By late afternoon anxiety was high in the post office when he failed to return, so a small search party set out in a hurry but returned a while later as dusk had set in. Early next morning a search party set out again, this time with food, blankets and medical equipment but failed to locate Johnny. The snow in the fields had reached the level of the surrounding ditches making it impossible almost to recognise known landmarks; the area had become one vast desert of snow, a no-mans land! Thursday and Friday went by. Then on the Saturday morning with hope practically gone a vision in flesh and blood appeared on the Crescent. The missing postman had come back from the dead and was telling the story of his survival to a crowd gathered around him. A farmer from the Cloonloo area searching for sheep found Johnny lying in a hayshed semi-conscious and in a state of hypothermia. He brought him to his home nearby and took care of him till he was well enough to make the journey back to Boyle five days later. The house of the Good Samaritan remains standing today and is often pointed out as the place the postman found refuge during The Blizzard.

Around the same time a similar scene was unfolding on the far side of Boyle town. The Home Assistance Officer for the area left his home in Cortober, near Carrick-on-Shannon, that morning for his office in Boyle. Near Woodbrook House, which is the home of the distinguished Kirkwood family and a place of literary note, Danny got bogged down in a huge snowdrift. He faced a tough choice; should he try to walk to Boyle six miles further down the road or walk the four miles back home? He decided to attempt a short cut across ‘The Plains’ which is a vast area of countryside thinly populated and with few houses. When he reached the humpbacked railway bridge beyond Hollymount School, Danny was in for a second shock. A farmer’s cottage nestled deep in a hollow in the shadow of the bridge appeared to have vanished. A massive snowdrift twenty feet deep had enveloped the cottage on two sides leaving it almost invisible to the naked eye. The Relieving Officer stared in disbelief at what he knew to be the bachelor Luke’s cottage. He called his name several times without a reply and then a muffled voice broke the deadly silence. Luke was alive and well and informed Danny he had enough food on hand to see him through for a week or more. Danny continued his journey across the ‘The Plains’ but like the postman he too succumbed to the Arctic conditions and had to take shelter in a farmer’s cottage for twenty four hours. When he arrived in his dole office in Boyle a day late, but with his ‘Wells Fargo’ intact, he was greeted with smiles all round!   

Of the many events and tales of courage to emanate from out that period, the most memorable for me must be that of the ‘Marathon Man’. Pat Joe told me his story some years before he died and I felt his Sam McGee-like experience deserved to be put on the record and made part of the story of The Blizzard. Pat left home with his bicycle late on the Monday afternoon, the eve of the blizzard, his destination being Collooney railway station fifteen miles away. His intention was to board the train for Enniskillen and from there transfer to another train going to Belfast, a routine journey he did a number times each year as part of his business. Pat was in his late twenties at the time, as tough as nails and possessed of an iron will. The evening he set off on his tour-de-force, the weather was in pre-blizzard state, extremely cold and crisp dry. Around 9pm, it started to snow and gradually got worse with the snow blowing directly into his face. When he reached Ballymote he left his bicycle with a friend and decided to walk the rest of the way to Collooney station. When he eventually got there cold and hungry, he was given the news he least wanted to hear; the railway to Enniskillen was closed and would remain so for an unknown period of time. Pat now faced a dilemma; should he make the effort to return home or simply book into a guesthouse for a number of days! The roads were beyond use and traffic was at a standstill. As he surveyed the landscape round about pondering his plight he became aware in the distance of what he reckoned to be the telegraph poles that run parallel with the railway line. Could there be a solution to his problem here he thought? He started across the fields till he reached what turned out to be the railway embankment and he slid down the snowy slope to the track fifteen feet below. Pat was about to begin his marathon journey home via rail through Collooney, Ballymote, Kilfree junction ending up at a bridge that spans a viaduct at Mullaghroe where he bade farewell to the Permanent Way. He was now back on territory he knew like the back of his hand and got home weary and hungry but very proud of his little achievement. The ‘Marathon Man’ had entered the local hall of fame! 

Back in Boyle town, another strange event was happening that commanded the front page of the Roscommon Herald. An old and well-known resident had died and the usual religious rites would be fulfilled; removal of remains to the church, requiem mass the following day and burial afterwards in Assylinn cemetery. The funeral was unique in that it was ‘a first’ for people to witness a coffin being drawn by horse and sledge to the church and thence to the graveyard. A large crowd of people followed the cortege through the town centre and many more lined the footpaths in a show of respect. A few local residents who happened to own cameras went on to take photographs of the macabre scene being played out on the streets; this was a funeral of a different kind and would have to be recorded for posterity. The steep hill leading to the cemetery had been partially cleared of snow to assist the cortege in getting to its destination and men in groups of six then carried the coffin to the graveside for burial; the blizzard had created another piece of history!
A week later a variation on the same theme featured at the railway station. A man from outside Boyle had died in a hospital in Dublin and the remains were brought home by rail for burial. A brief digression will explain my presence at this other strange event! Being fascinated with steam engines (all my short life) I dreamed one day I would be the driver of one. The day in question I was standing on the cross bridge with my school pal Paddy (the Station Master’s son) eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Iron Maiden as she belched forth great clouds of steam in all directions. As the passengers disembarked, Larry the tall railway checker paraded up and down the platform like a sergeant major calling out the name of Boyle in a commanding voice. At such times I would feel a little surge of pride and wonder could my home town be famous for some event of history that passengers on board should be made aware of! During all this activity the huge engine gorged her belly with countless gallons of water from the old water tower at the end of the platform; then with a shrill whistle and more bursts of steam she shunted her way slowly out of sight. It was then we noticed the group of people on the platform carry a coffin towards the waiting room. We hurried down to see it placed on a wooden catafalque in a corner of the waiting room with Andy the railway porter leading the way. Relatives and friends of the deceased paused for a while in quiet conversation and in prayer, and afterwards the waiting room was closed and locked for the night. Our curiosity was whetted; who was in the coffin, a man or a woman, were they from the town? Good humoured Andy gave nothing away only to say there wouldn’t be any breakfast! 

Over the days and weeks, the blizzard had transformed the town into a winter playground with Green Street Hill and the Crescent transformed into a natural skating rink. With road traffic practically at a standstill there was little problem for the youth to try their skills on these two great slopes. Anything that could move on ice made an appearance. Push cars, buggies, stripped down prams, stools upside down, enamel basins, metal trays, could be seen in motion with the young ones hanging on for dear life. Laughter filled the air and if a collision occurred few tears were shed; aches and pains were glossed over or forgotten about in the heat and enjoyment of the moment. Three popular members of Boles Drapery Store – George, Edwin and Ernie – brought a real snow toboggan (with a steering mechanism) on the scene and it became the star performer on Green Street Hill. The starting point was at Caleb Shera’s dwelling house (Sheridan’s House today). Caleb, an old and respected member of the landed gentry, loved to sit in his doorway wrapped in a rug to watch the sheer excitement on children’s faces as they were given a ride in this modern day Porsche. The joy on their faces could have come straight from Oscar Wilde’s famous story of ‘The Gentle Giant’ as he watched the smiling children playing in his beautiful garden; God was in His heaven, all is right with the world! Back down to earth and the man standing sentry at the bottom of the hill armed with a flag to indicate all was clear! The pilot and his young passenger then took off like a rocket into space racing downhill through the junction at Main Street, across the river bridge by the Royal Hotel and coming to a halt at the entrance to the Rockingham Arms Bar. An experience never to be forgotten! George, Edwin and Ernie and their toboggan had become part of the story of the blizzard. 

Other winter sports found their niche along the way. The grounds of Abbeyview House on the Shilling Hill, that onetime home of the actress Maureen O’Sullivan, was the setting for one of them. The majestic building sits high on a hill with the surrounding terrain dipping sharply towards ground zero. To enjoy a bird’s eye view of snow skiing in action one had simply to sit on the Abbey Park wall on the Sligo Road and watch. It was thrill-a-minute action as the fledgling skier zig-zagged his way down the steep slope towards the boundary wall richly lined with giant beech trees. Skill would be vital in negotiating this short and speedy descent to ground zero. Amateurs most of them, some learned the hard way as they came face to face with the line of beech trees, not to mention the sturdy stone wall beyond that again. Out of sight of the observer, the sound of the crash of ash would rise up from behind the high wall; a little pause of silence would then follow while the learner shook himself down and got ready for a replay on the same grounds. It was front row entertainment and all of it free. The next theatre of sport was the lily pond at The Warren which was part of the ninth hole on the old golf course. Frozen solid for the duration of the blizzard it became a miniature skating rink for the young and not so young. Many members of the golf club took up skating on this half acre of ice, better known to them as the pond of a thousand golf balls. Some didn’t fare too well, ending up with frozen shoulders, sprained ankles, a few cases of concussion but all in all, nothing worse.

The real jewel in the crown, however, for winter sports was the frozen over Lough Key. In the early days of the freeze, the ice was stress tested at different points of the lake and was found to be some six inches thick. Stories have been passed down of Ceilidhe dances on the shoreline at Doon, Tinnerinagh and Corrigeenroe in the glow of bonfires with energetic young dancers waltzing on ice into the daylight hours. The sound of the melodeons and bodhrans echoed across the full length lake and found its way into the very halls of Rockingham House itself eight kilometres away. Dick Clynch, head butler in the Big House, told the story to my mother all those years ago. Even the legendary Una Bhan NicDiarmuida and her lover Thomas Laidir Mac Coisdeallbaigh, who lie side by side on far off Trinity Island, could have been awakened from their centuries old slumber from the sound of the haunting music! It would have been a fitting epilogue to their sad dramatic love affair! The fun and sport peaked on Sunday afternoons with small groups of people daring to tread the frozen lake on foot and visit some of the better known islands near the shore such as Castle, Trinity and Church Islands. The extraordinary sight of seeing small groups of people walk to an island was beyond belief; others again preferred to climb to the top of the ‘Rock of Doon’ to enjoy the panoramic view of Lough Key in all her winter splendour. Stranger than fiction stories tell of a number of young diehards who used the frozen lake as a shortcut home. One daredevil surpassed the rest by cycling across eight kilometres of frozen ice to his home at Knockvicar, the point where Lough Key merges with the River Shannon. Happily he survived it.

In town, the ‘Winter Olympics’ carried on unabated with snow battles played out daily on the streets. When the footpaths were cleared the snow stood six feet high in the channels; gaps were then opened at different points on the streets to help shoppers cross from one side to the other. A man wearing a hat or smoking a pipe was a regular target for the street urchin; the hat was an easy enough object to retrieve but the pipe was a more serious problem; it sank out of sight in the snow. An apology was immediately made to the victim and a search was carried out for the precious pipe. Finding the pipe was a cause for celebration. Tempers did fray at times but usually ended up well. Youth after all was having the time of its life.
The great freeze had now exceeded the biblical forty days and nights and was coming to an end. When it did come, it came with a vengeance. The channels were unable to cope with the massive mounds of melting snow that stood on the streets like megalithic tombs. As the great slabs of ice rumbled from the roofs overhead, they crashed on the streets below like a clap of thunder. Notices were pinned on street corners to warn shoppers to ‘Beware of falling ice’. The people were witnessing the death throes of the Great Blizzard and the finality that accompanied it. The like of it would hardly be seen again in a lifetime. For the young it was generally the best of times, for the old and infirm it was arguably the worst of times, and for animals and birds it must surely have been an endless nightmare. As I look back over seventy winters there are many that stand apart for special reasons. None, however, can ever match the wonder and the ferocity of ‘The Blizzard’ that hit Boyle town on the night of the 24th February 1947. I treasure the memory of it and will always regard it as the most momentous event of my childhood.

Christy Wynne

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