Snowstorms through the centuries: a history of Irish cold snaps

Met Éireann publishes record of most outstanding snow events since 19th century

The front page of ‘The Irish Times’ on December 28th, 1962.

The front page of ‘The Irish Times’ on December 28th, 1962.

 

With the anticipated arrival of a severe cold snap, Met Éireann’s synopsis of some of the most severe snow storms on record in Ireland gives a sense of what may lie ahead.

The report: Snowfall in Ireland, published by the meteorological service in 2012, found that snowfalls of at least 10cm happen every 7-18 years in Ireland at midland locations, and every six or seven years in northern areas.

It found the record snowfall depth in stations 100m above mean sea level was 45cm at Casement Aerodrome on New Year’s Eve in 1962.

The report notes that a particular feature of snowfall in Ireland is the variation in depth from place to place, and it said that some very heavy snowfalls can be quite localised.

It adds that drifts of six meters or more can be reported in hilly areas.

Since detailed record began in 1941 snow has fallen on Christmas Day 12 times: in 1950, 1956, 1962, 1964, 1970, 1984, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2010. The statistical likelihood of snow falling on Christmas Day is once every 5.9 years.

Underneath is a record of the most outstanding snow events in the past two centuries.

19th century

1807: On November 19th and 20th, a disastrous blizzard swept the country and many people were killed. Two transport ships were wrecked on the east coast.

Heavy snow prevented the crews from realising how close they were to land. Records at the Phoenix Park detail heavy falls of snow during the winter and many people died.

1831, 1836-1838: Records at the Phoenix Park detail heavy falls of snow during these winters.

1853: In a violent snowstorm on February 14th, a ship, the Queen Victoria, struck rocks off Howth Head with the loss of 55 lives.

1855: February was a cold month at the Phoenix Park, with snow on the ground from the 7th to 23rd.

1881: The records at the Phoenix Park, recorded remarkable snowstorms in January.

1886: A great blizzard with snow depths up to 60cm struck Northern Ireland. Later between April 7th and 10th there was heavy snow, especially in the Tipperary area.

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1891/1892: This winter saw snowfalls which were greater than those previously recorded. Railway traffic was seriously disrupted in the third week of February. Snow to a depth of 46cm was recorded in Cork, the greatest fall since 1855.

1895: Heavy falls occurred in February, particularly in the west and south.

The 20th century

1908: Leinster was affected by heavy snow in late April.

1909/1910: The bulk of this winter’s snowfall over the British Isles came in two severe spells, the first between December 15th and 22nd and the second between January 25th and 31st. A depth of 33cm was reported in Sligo in the December snowfall. The January spell was more severe and counties in Munster, notably Cork, Kerry and Clare were snow covered to a great depth for several days.

1917: The most severe snowfalls of this century and probably of the last two centuries occurred. On January 24th, large quantities of rain, sleet and snow accompanied the southeasterly gale in the south of Ireland.

At Ballinacurra near Cork the measurement (of snow when melted) on the 24th was 52mm and on the 25th, 19mm. At Seskin the total amount of snow on the 25th and 26th yielded, when melted, 47mm of water. On the 25th, the wind strengthened to a gale in the south of Ireland, when there were heavy falls of snow covering the ground to 30cm or more, with drifts of 300cm or more.

Over a large area of Ireland railway traffic was stopped owing to the heavy snow. During the period January 28th-February 3rd, the low maximum temperatures prevented the snow which had fallen during the preceding week from thawing to any considerable extent. Little fresh snow fell during the week. East Clare experienced a great snowstorm on April 1st. Snow on level ground lay to a depth of 46cm.

1933: On February 23rd, a small depression appeared in the polar current over the extreme north of Ireland. This disturbance moved south and increased in intensity. Snow began in the west on the 23rd and spread eastwards during the 24th.

Widespread and heavy snowfalls were accompanied by strong squally winds. Snow depths of 30cm-60cm, with deep drifts, were reported. Heaviest falls were in the south and midlands. At 4pm on the 24th in Broadford, Co Clare, the snow was 30cm deep where it had not drifted. At Hacketstown, Co Clare, drifts of up to 300cm were reported.

1947: The early months of 1947 saw one of the most persistent cold spells of the century, with snowfalls affecting all parts of the country from late January until mid-March. Although heavier individual snowfalls have been recorded, notably in January 1917, at no other time in the recent past has there been such a period of continuous cold weather.

Following the disastrous harvest of 1946 and the extension of wartime rationing of food and fuel, the severe weather caused hardship for many people and disrupted the country’s communication and transport facilities for several weeks. By the beginning of February, there were reports of skating on frozen ponds and the unrelenting cold continued until the middle of March.

1951: Considerable snow fell on March 8th in midland and eastern areas and was followed by a spell of cold easterly winds. Mullingar recorded a depth of snow of 15cm.

1955: A very cold northerly or easterly airstream dominated the country from the February 10th-25th giving wintry showers and outbreaks of snow with prolonged periods of icy roads. There were 10 consecutive days with snow lying at Dublin Airport from February 18th-27th where a depth of 13cm was recorded on the 22nd and 25th.

1958: A cold northwesterly airflow set in on January 19th, bringing wintry showers with it, especially in the northwest and west Munster. Malin Head recorded a depth of snow of 20cm on February 21st. A depth of 17cm was recorded at Belmullet on the 24th, the greatest depth of snow recorded at this station.

1960: Snow fell countrywide on a large number of occasions in February. Dublin Airport had nine days with snow lying from February 11th-19th where a depth of 11cm was recorded on the 13th.

1962/63: This winter was one of the most severe in recent times. The winter of 1963 was the coldest of the 20th century. The second coldest was 1947, when more snow fell, but average temperatures were not as low. Bitterly cold weather set in around the Christmas period and persisted with only brief milder periods until early March. During this period easterly winds were directed over Ireland by a large Scandinavian anti-cyclone, with occasional depressions bringing falls of snow, some of which were heavy. On the morning of December 31st, 1962, a depth of 45cm of snow was recorded at Casement Aerodrome.

1973: Widespread snow fell from February 14th-17th, heaviest in the Midlands. A snow depth of 25cm was recorded at Clones, Co Monaghan.

1977/78: This winter had some notable snowfalls. Snow fell in most places in the period February 8th-20th. The south and southeast were most affected, particularly on February 18th and 19th when heavy falls of snow accompanied by strong winds contributed to the formation of large drifts. A depth of 26cm was recorded at Cork Airport, the greatest depth recorded at this station.

1978/1979: Appreciable falls of snow between December 28th and 31st, 1978, were followed by frosts of unusual severity. This cold spell ended on January 6th but there were further snowfalls later in the month. The highest depths of snow recorded during this spell were Casement Aerodrome, 26cm, Claremorris, 16cm, and Cork Airport, 15cm.

1982: On January 8th, there was widespread snow, heaviest in the east, where there was considerable drifting due to strong easterly winds. A severe cold spell followed and snow remained on the ground until January 15th. Dublin was badly affected. Snow was reported at most synoptic stations with the greatest depths as follows: Dublin Airport, 25cm, Casement Aerodrome, 16cm, and Kilkenny, 16cm.

1987: This spell started on January 11th. By the 14th, appreciable depths of snow were reported particularly in the east and midlands. Moderated north- easterly winds caused drifting. Temperatures rose a little above zero on the 15th and a slow thaw set in.

Highest snowfalls recorded were as follows: Dublin Airport, 19cm; Casement Aerodrome, 12cm; Birr, 12cm; Mullingar, 12cm. Roche’s Point lighthouse in Cork recorded its highest ever depth of snow at 12cm and a minimum temperature of -7.2, the lowest there since records began in 1867.

Outstanding snowfalls since 2000

2000: On December 27th, a shallow polar depression crossed the north of the country, bringing outbreaks of snow, heavy in parts of the west and north. Snow showers were widespread in all but the southeast on the 28th, giving significant accumulation of snow in many places. A depth of 19cm was recorded at Knock airport.

2001: Bitterly cold northerly winds brought falls of snow on February 26th-28th, heaviest in the north and east. Snow depths up to 10cm were recorded in the east and northwest, 75cm of snow was measured in the Mourne Mountains on February 27th.

Children in Ormond Square in Dublin play in snow at the end of November 2010. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Children in Ormond Square in Dublin play in snow at the end of November 2010. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

2009/2010: This was the coldest winter since 1962/1963, temperatures were around two degrees below average. There were between 20 and 30 days with snow in many places, mainly in the form of showers, but snowfall accumulations were generally slight except on high ground.

2010/2011: Following the middle of November 2010, the weather turned progressively colder.

By the end of the month, there were accumulations of snow over most of the country, accompanied by extremely low temperatures. Both Dublin Airport (-8.4) and Casement Aerodrome (-9.1) had their lowest November temperatures on record on the 28th. The very cold weather continued into early December with further sleet and snow, accompanied by daytime temperatures close to freezing and night-time values dropping below -10. After an improvement in temperatures for five or six days, although still cold, it became extremely cold again from the 16th with snow at times leading to significant accumulations and record low December temperatures. Snow depths of between 10cm-25 cm were recorded at many locations. Casement Aerodrome recorded a depth of 27cm. Ice and snow covered the top of Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo, on New Year’s Day, 2010.

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