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Flashback 1982: Ireland comes to a standstill during 'the Big Snow'



Soldiers clearing ice from footpaths on Grafton Street in January, 1982. Photo: Donal Doherty.

Soldiers clearing ice from footpaths on Grafton Street in January, 1982. Photo: Donal Doherty.

Soldiers clearing ice from footpaths on Grafton Street in January, 1982. Photo: Donal Doherty.

White Christmases are all very well, but Irish people reach a point around this time of the year when we are quite happy for the snow to go away. But most of the worst periods of snow this country has suffered have only started in January, with this month in 1917, 1947, 1963 and 1982 going down in history for blizzard chaos.

The Irish obsession with weather goes way back - the Annals of Innisfallen report that in 1028, "Great snow in the Lent of the above year for three days and three nights so that neither people nor cattle left their houses."

And in 1917, the south and south-west was hit by snow measured at Ballincurra, Cork at 52mm. In 1947, within a seven-week period from late January to early March snow fell on 30 days. On New Year's Eve 1962 over 45cm was recorded at Casement Aerodrome and further blizzards lay on the ground in many places until early February. The Irish Independent reported that the Shannon was passable on foot near Limerick.

In 1982 the schools had just returned when they were confronted with a 36-hour storm on January 8 and 9 which hit the east of the country worst, heralding an extended holiday which lasted up to three weeks in some places. The initial storm dumped 26cm of snow on Dublin Airport, and two more blizzards arrived over the next 10 days, each arriving just as the nation was recovering from the previous one.

Roads became impassable, and strapped emergency services battled to restore lost power. With drifts more than two metres deep it got so bad that the Canadian government took pity on us and donated six snowmobiles to the nation.

Temperatures dropped below freezing for more than a week - minus 19.6C in Glasnevin was the lowest recorded - and parts of the country became isolated. The village of Oldtown, near Swords in Co Dublin was completely cut off for five days, during which it had no electricity, while the phones were also down for three days. In a scene from a disaster movie, the Irish army helicoptered in emergency supplies of milk to the villagers.

Irish Independent reporter Gerard O'Regan wrote that it was the worst ESB blackout since 1956, while Paul Drury related his tale of a 12-hour journey from Galway to Dublin on what he called "CIE's Siberia Express".

Wicklow was the worst county hit, with thousands of sheep and a large number of deer losing their lives. Opportunist thieves ransacked abandoned cars on the dual carriageway in Kildare and Dublin "They behaved like wolves in the snow. I've lost all faith in human nature with what I've seen over the weekend," one garda told the Irish Independent.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was on a sun holiday in Tenerife, which is never a good PR move in such weather. It took him four days to return, too, by which time Minister for Energy Michael O'Leary had taken on the role of Minister for Snow.

From Monday to Wednesday the Indo's front page screamed: 'Get it cleaned up!', 'We're still stuck!' and 'Storm troopers!' as the crisis deepened. While people took a walk across the pond in St Stephen's Green, others lost their lives on frozen lakes in other parts of the country. Homeless people died too, as support services struggled to get through.

Within weeks the snow had melted away, and Taoiseach FitzGerald was feeling a chilly response to his budget - in February he would be frozen out by the electorate.

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