The Big Snow of 1982: When Ireland came to a standstill

Some 100,000 homes and businesses lost power. Buses stopped. There were bread riots

Snow fall on the Naas dual carriage way near Rathcoole, Co Dublin, on January 10th, 1982. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

Snow fall on the Naas dual carriage way near Rathcoole, Co Dublin, on January 10th, 1982. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

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Under heavy snow and amid the worst winter storm the country had seen in years, a car skidded into a drain near Kilteely, Co Limerick, and overturned. The two men inside the vehicle - father-of-five Frank Berkery (48) and Thomas Deere (53) - became casualties of the Big Snow of 1982.

“Normal life throughout much of the country was brought to a complete standstill last night as a result of the worst winter snowstorm for many years,” reads the lead story on the front page of The Irish Times, written by Frank McDonald, on Saturday, January 9th, 1982.

‘Communities still cut off’: Winter storms covered on page 4, Monday, January 11th. Photograph: The Irish Times
‘Communities still cut off’: Winter storms covered on page 4, Monday, January 11th. Photograph: The Irish Times

Reports said about 100,000 homes and businesses were “thrown into darkness” by power cuts. Trains were cancelled. Buses stopped. Dublin Airport closed and shipping operations at the capital’s port effectively halted.

Covered with about 25cm of snow and drifts of more than 2 metres in places, roads became impassable.

“In the face of snow drifts up to 10 feet high and with road signs practically obliterated by the blizzard; many motorists simply abandoned their cars and walked the rest of the way home,” reads the report.

Storm strengthened

As the storm strengthened in the days before McDonald’s report, a panic swept consumers. Stocks of milk and bread would dwindle and become scarce over the weekend.

In Howth, Co Dublin, “bread riots” sparked as word spread through the crowd outside the village bakery that loaves were again available.

“Get your bloody hands off that loaf,” shouted one “proletarian voice” from the back of the shop, according to another Irish Times report, “ye louser ye, how many bloody loaves are you buying anyway? Are you burying them at the bottom of the garden or something?”

A woman in the queue lambasted the taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, who had been on holiday in the Canary Islands while the country felt the worst of it.

The taoiseach returned on the Sunday to join up with the emergency committee. To combat the milk shortage in the capital, 50,000 gallons - initially in powdered form - were requisitioned to be made available in Dublin by Monday, January 11th.

Days after the worst of the storm, entire communities, particularly in around Wexford, east Waterford and parts of Wicklow, remained cut off due to snow drifts.

UK Met Office explains 'The beast from the east'

Three days after the snow started falling, 10,000 homes and businesses remained without power, 8,000 of those were located in the southeast.

Part of the food scarcity was due to the stranded delivery trucks left among the snowbound, abandoned vehicles.

Pictures of snowed-under GAA pitches and fields sat on news pages beside images of empty cars at odd angles, strewn across some of the busiest roads in the east.

Opportunistic thieves emerged: “Some cars had had their wheels removed and glass broken. The most spectacular robbery was of £1,000 worth of chickens from Castlemahon taken from a lorry near the Roadstone offices.”

Stranded

Drivers of frozen goods would be fine, in terms of their stock - the refrigeration would keep the food from spoiling for seven days - but for farmers, business was badly hit. Any normal duties were nearly impossible to carry out and animals were left stranded for days.

“It is estimated that several thousand sheep are isolated in hill areas,” reads a report on the Monday by agricultural correspondent Ella Shanahan. “As many as 50,000 are caught in the Wicklow Hills and ‘a couple of hundred thousand’ (were) caught in the hills in Kerry, where 95 per cent of the flock are mountain sheep.”

Dublin’s main maternity hospitals; Holles Street, the Rotunda and the Coombe, remained open, but “reported difficulty in discharging or admitting patients”.

Patients were advised to hail taxis to the hospital on the street, while others arriving to St Vincent’s from outside the city were transferred to the maternity hospital by helicopter.

Another facility with no choice but to keep going was St Ita’s Psychiatric Hospital in Portrane, north Co Dublin, where nurses were forced to work 72-hour shifts.

“The hospital was without electric power from Friday until Saturday night,” reads an Irish Times report. “Up to (Sunday), some units were still without heat.”

Dublin hotels reported a spike in business that weekend, attributed to shift workers left stranded at the last minute.

Air Corps resources were badly stretched, with crews completing a record number of rescues from isolated areas throughout the weekend. Among the rescues was that of Margaret Walshe, a heavily-pregnant woman from county Carlow.

After Ms Walshe went into labour early on Saturday, her husband, Michael, waded through the snow to a neighbour’s house to sound the alarm. “Snow drifts of up to 14 feet were reported in the area of the Walshe home, which is in the shadow of Mount Leinster,” according to the story.

An air ambulance arrived “in the nick of time” and Ms Walshe gave birth just 10 minutes after arriving to a hospital in Kilkenny.

Garda criticised

Other rescue efforts were not successful. By Saturday, hope had faded in the search for two brothers in their 40s and their three teenage sons. Carpenter Thomas Walsh, his sons Thomas (16) and Vincent (15), along with Patrick Walsh (43) and his son Thomas (15) had not been seen since embarking on a duck hunting trip on Lake Tacumshane on the day the snow began.

Fine Gael TD Hugh Byrne criticised the pace of the Garda response. “We could have done with the Garda sub aqua divers two days ago,” said the TD, as reported in The Irish Times on Monday, January 11th.

“One would have thought that if five lives are lost it would rate as a priority.”

By the 15th, all five bodies had been recovered from the lake. At the inquest on January 29th, the coroner said he was “satisfied that the police did everything humanly possible in very adverse conditions”.

On Tuesday, coverage had turned to the thaw. Bread and milk stocks just about returned to normal flood warnings began to fill news columns. Local authorities launched a defence of their response to the crisis, which had been criticised from many corners as too slow.

On the same day, Ireland’s record low grass minimum temperature of -19.6 degrees was recorded at Glasnevin.

On Monday, January 18th, schools reopened after 10 days of inactivity caused by the Big Snow. Main roads were passable, but the work of the local authorities was far from done.

A lack of running water endured in some places and councils were still fielding more than a call per minute from members of the public by Sunday evening, according to an Irish Times report.

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