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Monday 24 September 2018

Dancing on Ice: recalling the Great Frost of 1740

A bus at Belgard Road during heavy snow in 1982.
A bus at Belgard Road during heavy snow in 1982.

The big chill event freshest in many minds is Christmas 2010, but in terms of difficulty, that was nursery slope stuff.

A monster snowstorm in January 1982 presented a greater challenge, with roads blocked by drifts, livestock exposed and starving, and communities cut off without food, phones or electricity. With Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald off sunning himself in the Canaries, Labour Tánaiste Michael O'Leary found himself in charge of crisis managing the country. He was dubbed Minister For Snow by the public, and not in a good way. Weeks after the thaw, the electorate emerged to vote in February 1982, grumpy and resentful like a hibernating bear roused from its slumber with a sore head. The coalition was dumped, with more than one TD blaming the weather.

The white-out of 1963 brought much the same chaos as 1982, but the freeze lasted longer. The effects of blizzards between Christmas 1962 and the New Year were amplified when the warming Gulf Stream was knocked out of kilter by cold currents.

Those who remember 1947 say it was worse. Ireland was covered with a thick blanket of snow for three months. Temperatures fell to -14°C, and rarely rose above freezing for weeks on end, so each fresh snowfall formed another imposing layer on the previous ones.

Food supplies shrivelled to a dribble. Shivering under siege in their homes, the population had long hours to dwell on the fact that it was the centenary of Black '47, the worst year of the Great Famine.

Stricken with its own problems, Britain suspended exports of coal to Ireland, at a time when this country's turf stocks lay deep under snow, or too sodden for use. Britain relented and released small quantities of coal and coke as relief aid, but these were dwarfed by a US pledge of 34,000 tons of emergency coal. Saint Patrick's Day heralded the thaw the nation prayed for. However, this produced a massive deluge of meltwater, causing severe flooding.

Nothing in living memory, however, comes close to the twin catastrophe of 1740-41's Great Frost and Year Of Slaughter. When Ireland froze hard in the first days of 1740 following a storm of rare ferocity, the novelty was an excuse for celebration. The Dublin Evening Post reported an open-air ball held on the surface of the Boyne, where grandees participated in "several country dances on the ice, being attended by a large band of music".

The party mood didn't last as the cold snap outstayed its welcome. With the ports frozen, the coal supply to east coast households dried up. When the ice eased and imports resumed, coal prices spiked putting it beyond many. This sparked an orgy of illegal tree felling, with 14 arrested for chopping in the Phoenix Park alone. The coal merchants were accused of stockpiling and profiteering.

A series of failed grain harvests in the 1720s had pushed the poor into an ever deeper dependence on potatoes, which by 1740 had become the dietary mainstay of much of the populace. Before the Great Frost had even lifted, noting that the potatoes were frozen in the ground and in storage, Cork estate agent Richard Purcell chillingly predicted: "The eating potatoes are all destroyed, which many think will be followed by a famine among the poor, and if the small ones, which are not bigger than small peas and which be deepest in the ground, are so destroyed as not to serve for seed, I think this frost the most dreadful calamity that ever befell this poor kingdom."

By the end of February the frost had finally vanished, only for the weather to confound and dismay with another cruel twist. The big freeze continued, but it was a bone-dry freeze. As spring turned to summer, temperatures struggled upwards, but there was little respite from the drought, which was felt over a large part of Europe.

The failure of the potato crop caused a big jump in demand for grain, but the drought severely damaged the grain harvest so that wheat, oat and barley prices skyrocketed. For the ordinary person, the soaring grain prices could be directly measured in the shrinking size of the loaf of daily bread. As they had often done before in desperate times, the poor took to eating nettles as a proven source of nourishment. In Dublin, Drogheda and other towns, there were food riots and the looting of shops and storage depots.

The weather played more cruel tricks as Christmas 1740 neared. Blizzards in October and November were followed by torrential rain in December which in turn was followed by a sudden deep freeze. Billions of tons of water locked up as ice were suddenly liberated by a sharp warming which caused flash floods, propelling deadly miniature icebergs into the paths of boats and buildings.

The catastrophe came to a horrible head in the spring and summer of 1741, dubbed Bliain an Áir, or the Year of Slaughter. Starvation compounded a range of diseases and led to epidemics of 'flux' (dysentery), typhus and other ills.

David Dickson, the leading authority on the cataclysm, estimates that up to 20pc of Ireland's population, or 480,000 people, may have perished between the Great Frost and the Year of Slaughter.

Puts this week's slightly longer supermarket queues in perspective.

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