An Irishman's Diary


ON December 8th, 1954, gale-force winds ripped across Ireland, sometimes reaching hurricane force. Torrents of rain poured from the sky. Mountainous waves pounded the coast and sent boats and ferries scurrying for shelter.

A Swedish ship, the Heindal, ran aground on the Arklow Bank and a 400-ton collier, The Downshire, was grounded on the sands near Dundrum, Co Down. In Howth, fishing boats sank when they broke away from their moorings. All the lifeboat stations along the Irish coast were put on alert. The Howth, Wicklow and Arklow lifeboats were all called to the aid of vessels in distress.

Continuous downpours filled up the rivers until they were so swollen they overran their banks and turned into floods. Road and air services were compromised, railway lines were incapacitated and telephone communications collapsed. Electricity cables snapped under the force of the winds and lay strewn across flooded roads. Telegraph poles cracked like matchsticks and crashed to the ground. Trees were uprooted.

A 14-year-old boy, James Dunne, was killed in Co Meath when the branch of a tree blew off and fell on him as he was on his way to work.

A tree fell across the railway line between Malahide and Portmarnock and struck the Dundalk-to-Dublin goods train. Two wagons were damaged but no one was injured.

Road traffic was turned into chaos. Houses, factories and warehouses were swamped. Fields and parks were covered by water and converted into lakes.

In rural area, landmarks vanished under water, farms were submerged and crops were destroyed. The Army was brought out to drive cattle from low-lying land to higher ground. Troops and Red Cross workers used all manner of vehicles, including armoured cars, to move people out of their homes. The Shannon River rose to its highest level in living memory and 50 square miles of farmland between counties Cavan and Clare were flooded.

The government declared a state of emergency and launched Operation Rescue.

All over the land, engineers from the ESB worked frantically to fix broken high-tension cables that were strewn across waterlogged highways and byways. Corporation and county council workers donned fishermen’s apparel to withstand the torrents and remove trees that were blocking roads.

The Army, the Garda, utility workers, the Red Cross, the St John Ambulance Brigade and the Knights of Malta were out in force throughout the country, providing aid and succour to the old, the infirm, the indigent and the helpless.

In Clonfert, an elderly disabled man who lived alone was stranded in his bed for three days. When rescuers eventually found him, the water was swirling around his bed and he was practically starving.

On the east coast, Dublin’s north inner city bore the brunt of the catastrophe. The Tolka River burst its banks near Annesley Bridge at midnight and within hours a huge lake covered more than a mile of roadway. The Fairview Park was submerged under water. As the rushing waters of the river barrelled towards the sea, they undermined the foundations of the Great National Railroads Bridge at East Wall Road. The bridge toppled into the river and acted as a dam, blocking the water’s route towards the sea, swelling the flood and causing it to extend yet further towards the city.

In some parts of the North Strand the water was four feet deep. Basements of houses and gardens were flooded to depths of eight to ten feet. Firemen and soldiers rescued people from their swamped houses and the police issued an appeal to people with boats to come and help move the afflicted people.

Four hundred people scraped together whatever goods they could carry and were transported to safety. In one street alone, 50 people were taken out of their houses in boats. Many had to receive treatment for shock and exposure and a 70-year-old woman, Mrs Bridget O’Brien, was found drowned in her home at St Bridget’s Cottages in the North Strand.

The Army set up three field kitchens and served hundreds of hot meals with rations supplied by the Red Cross. Emergency shelters were set up at Marlborough Street School, which was turned into a displaced persons camp supplying hot meals, dry clothing and more than 100 beds for the night. The St John Ambulance Brigade headquarters provided accommodation for another 300 evacuees. A thousand hot dinners were served at two food centres set up by the Catholic Social Service Conference.

Alfie Byrne, the legendary mayor of Dublin, set up the Lord Mayor’s Distress Fund to help the victims of the flood. Arthur Guinness Sons donated £1,000. Kilmartin’s, the bookies, gave 500 guineas. The Evening Mail gave £500. The Dublin Stock Exchange gave 250 guineas. Cavendish Furniture gave £250.

The Adelphi Cinema held a midnight matinee and the proceeds went to the fund. The Abbey Theatre was filled to capacity for a fund-raising performance. The Dublin Grand Opera Company presented La Bohème in the Gaiety Theatre and donated the takings. Our Lady’s Choral Society gave a gala performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Theatre Royal and did the same.

The Irish Club in London launched a relief fund and collections were made outside Catholic churches in England for the victims of the flood. The Archbishop of Dublin gave £1,000 to the Catholic Social Service Conference to provide relief in the affected parishes.

Condolences were offered from all over the world. The American ambassador notified the government that his country was willing to provide food and supplies. The European Consultative Assembly in Strasbourg unanimously expressed sympathy for the suffering citizens of Dublin. The Northern Ireland Red Cross offered tinned milk and the use of an ambulance.

Army engineers moved in to blast and clear the rubble of the railway bridge that had fallen in East Wall. The Fire Brigade pumped the water out of the houses and disinfectant squads entered all the houses and fumigated them.

The cleansing department sent out workers to remove the debris and Dublin Corporation architects inspected the buildings for structural damage. The ESB warned that people should have the electric wiring in their houses checked as soon as possible.

The Corporation delivered free coal to everyone and the emergency food kitchens stayed open for a few days while people got back on their feet.

And so the great flood of 1954 entered the history books as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Ireland.