The Irish Winter Through History

Above Snow Roscommon February 1947

Since a very young age I’ve always been fascinated with meteorology.  As a child I messed around with thermometers, rain gauges and weather vanes, breaking some of the former and spilling mercury, which exasperated my mam in particular!  I suppose coming from a farming background the weather was central to most of our work. Here I give a brief outline of the Irish Winter through history.

The Irish Winter has always been dominated by milder weather with the odd exception.  We experienced winters at least as mild, if not milder than the last 20 years, during The Medieval Warm Period.  Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223 AD circa) notes in his work Typographia Hibernia that snow seldom falls in Ireland and when it does it doesn’t stay on the ground for very long.

The Little Ice Age as reflected through art of the period: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Winter Landscape with Ice-skaters and Bird-trap (1565)

During the mini ice age, 1450-1850, we had more notably colder winters with more common snowfall.  Some were quite exceptionally snowy and cold e.g. the Winter of Lorna Doone 1683-84 (part of R.D. Blackmore’s novel is set against this winter), most of the 1690s, 1739-40, 1794-95 and 1813-14.  The 20th century, while colder than presently, was warmer than the preceding centuries.  Yet notable large snowfalls occurred in 1909-10, 1917 (January and April), February 1933, 1947, 1951, 1955, 1958 and 1960.  And of course the later snows of that century 1963, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1982 and 1987.  This century has witnessed substantial snowfall in 2000, 2001, 2009, 2010 and most recently in late February\early March 2018 when Storm Emma, coming up from Biscay, met the cold Siberian air known as The Beast From the East.

Countrywide snow fell on 17 Christmas days, at a least one of Met Synoptic station, since 1961 (1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1980, 1984, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2009 and 2010).  There were 9 Christmas days (1964, 1970, 1980, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2010) with snow lying on the ground at 09 am in the morning, during this period.  So while mild has, is and will be our predominant weather theme a total analysis reveals many interesting stories of cold spells and what may be termed ‘rogue’ snowfalls or ‘ninja’ snowfall, a relatively new term.  That’s what makes sizeable snowfall at lower levels so interesting and exciting for many, its comparative rarity.

When speaking of snowfall over the last 100 years 1947 has to be mentioned as the gold standard.  Also as it’s 73 years ago most people over 80 have memories of it.  1963 was a colder winter overall but lacked the copious amounts of snow which fell in ’47.  1947 was a late winter to start, only really kicking in about 20th January.  February featured 5/6 major blizzards, the worst conditions being in the east of the country.

Irish Times 27th February 1947

I remember my dad, who was 20 at the time, recalling many stories about that winter.  At one stage he and his brother travelled 8 miles through drifts on horseback down from our hills on the Laois\Carlow\Kilkenny border to purchase bread in Bagenalstown, Carlow.  Two neighbours died and they had to remove their bodies through the upstairs windows of their two storied house to get them to burial. They couldn’t tell the ditches from the roads.  It lasted from mid January until after St. Patrick’s Day 1947 with us, as we live above 1,000 feet above sea level.  My dad used say there was snow still in quarries facing northward in May.  I actually didn’t believe him until I was told the same story by a number of older neighbours.  It was due to the amount of snow that fell and it was compacted.

Above Snow Roscommon February 1947
Above Snow Roscommon February 1947

Then 1946 and 1947 were bad harvests.  There was a fear of famine.  Post war shortages and it being the centenary of the Great Famine added to the worry.  Lads and lassies of teenage years were sent down the country from Dublin to help with the harvest as the weather improved in September 1947. They were the ‘Harvest Volunteers’. Not being as used to making sheaves of wheat as the country folk their sheaves were smaller when tied and became known as Volunteer Sheaves. With the improved September weather sunburn became a problem with the long hours outdoors.

We are a couple of weeks away from Meteorological Winter namely the months December, January and February.  Who knows what is in store for us!  Especially this year, of all years, we’ve grown used to expecting the unexpected.

– Walter Lawler

-Abbeyleix Library

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