'I saw a woman with eight sliced pans and eight cartons of milk. What was she thinking?'
There was no fuel and very little food, recalls 80-year-old taxi driver John Houlden
John Houlden was eight-years-old during the snow of 1947.
As people across Ireland took refuge from the Beast from the East in well-heated homes with well-stocked fridges and a steady stream of movies and boxsets to watch on smart televisions, many people who lived through terrible snows of the past could be forgiven for throwing their eyes just a little towards the heavens.
While John Houlden would not accuse anyone seen panic-buying bread or milk of being a snowflake, he has been unimpressed by the carry-on of recent days. The taxi driver is just shy of 80 and was eight years old when the snow began to fall on the small cottage in Dublin 4 that he shared with his large family at the end of February 1947.
“Now that was a terrible time,” he recalls. “You must remember it was only two years after the war and rationing was in full affect so we had virtually no fuel and very little food even when it wasn’t snowing. And to say our clothes were not of the best quality would be a real understatement.”
He and his siblings used to be sent to the Johnson Mooney and O’Brien factory nearby where they would get “pillowcases of stale bread for one and sixpence. My mother would turn it into bread and butter pudding by adding water and raisins and that’s what we ate,” he recalls.
No proper clothes
“We had no indoor toilets and our taps were on the outside in the backyard. Imagine how cold that was. But at least we had our own backyard,” he continues.
“A lot of our neighbours didn’t have that and had to share taps and toilets with other families. Sometimes I hear people calling people of my age mean but we’re not mean, just careful because we remember how hard things can get.”
He describes the response now as “a little bit ridiculous. I live in Prosperous [Co Kildare] now and was in a shop yesterday where I saw a woman with eight sliced pans and eight cartons of milk. What was she thinking? The bread will be stale and the milk sour before she can get through it all.”
While he accepts that it will snow a lot over the coming days he believes we are better equipped to cope now than ever before. “People have better homes with better heating and have the means of getting around in proper winter clothes,” he continues.
Something else that he remembers about the snows of 1947 was the sheer boredom. “There was only one library in Ballsbridge at the time and that was closed for weeks and we were left with nothing to do except sit around the fire – if we had fuel to burn, that is.”
Eamonn McGreevy is a farmer from just outside Carrick On Shannon and he too has very clear memories of the snows of 1947. His first memory is one of delight.
“I was serving mass at my local church when the priest told us the schools were closed for a whole week. I remember walking home that day delighted and the snow was blowing from one side of the road to the other, forming little drifts as I passed along the way. In one place, there might have been a foot of snow and in another it might have been five feet.”
He has some unhappy memories too. He recalls that there was an elderly brother and sister who lived in an isolated location near his family’s farm. A local poitín maker was passing their house to locate some poitín, which he had hidden nearby, when he he heard a “faint cry. He looked in and every stick of furniture had been burned for fuel and the brother and sister couldn’t get out the house.”
They were brought to hospital on a horse and cart but she died a month later, followed within a year by her brother. “I often think of them, even today,” he says.
He remembers the electricity wires leading to his home coming down due to the weight of the snow. “But the council could do nothing about it for days because they had nothing by way of equipment and couldn’t get through the snow to the wires,” he says. “Sure I don’t think there was more than three tractors in the whole county.”
Water was a problem too, both for the McGreevy family and their animals. “We had to melt snow for them and ourselves; the floors in the house were always absolutely soaking because we were traipsing through carrying the snow. I don’t know how my mother put up with it without going daft.”
Snow of 1963
Mr Houlden also recalls the snow of 1963. “Me and my wife were living in a flat on Pembroke Road,” he says. It was one Paddy Kavanagh had lived in. The snow started on Christmas night and by St Stephen’s Day the whole country was at a standstill. That was a bad one alright.
“But, as in 1947, we got through it because we had no choice. We had to show resilience. It is great to see people eating well and living well now and it shows the huge advances the country has made and it shows how far we have all come. People talk about the good old days but the truth is these are the good old days.”