The Limerick storm of July 1956 that still lives on in memory

An Irishwoman’s Diary

File photo: Gareth Fuller/PA

File photo: Gareth Fuller/PA

 

It’s a strange kind of day in Limerick city. No sign of the sun but the weather is hot. Silent. Still. Not a breath of air. Not a whisper of a breeze. Our Lipton’s of Limerick calendar reads Friday, 31st July, 1956.

Sultry, Mam calls it and complains of a headache. The baby is cranky. I’m counting the seconds until it’s time to go swimming. Dad comes in, smelling of honest sweat, his face and arms bronzed from working on a roof all day.

I don’t think you should go swimming this evening, Mam says, look at the sky.

I look at my Dad. He pauses. I hold my breath until he winks and nods at me.

And before Mam can say a word, I’m off on my bike pedalling furiously out Corbally and down Mill Road. By the time I reach the outdoor swimming pool on the Shannon, perspiration is raining down my face and my heart is pounding. Seconds later I dive in for the Shannon Swimming Club training session. Over and back, over and back we go using the red wooden floats for support while pounding the water with our feet.

There’s frantic whistling. It’s our coach, Frank Prendergast: “Out, out,” he shouts, “quickly, all of you into the storeroom.” All 20-plus of us haul ourselves out from the water and make for the concrete building.

Suddenly there’s a clap of thunder so loud I’m knocked backwards off my feet. Somebody pulls me into the shelter as thunder runs across the roof like a steam engine. I watch transfixed as something huge and invisible rolls across the lawn flattening the grass as it moves towards the water.

It ploughs a wide furrow across the pool, clattering and displacing water all the way to the other side and then seems to lift, still invisible, up and away. A huge purple cloud in the sky explodes with crackling noises to release forks of silver-blue lightning. The steaming air is filled with the smell of sulphur.

Somebody whimpers and another begins to wail. There’s a threat of mass hysteria until our coach takes matters in hand. He finds some blankets, tells us to wrap ourselves up and sit in a circle in the middle of the room. Then in his own inimitable way he diverts our fear by entertaining us.

“I will now sing with my very own voice the quartet from Rigoletto.”

And he begins. Line by line, in a pseudo-Italian accent, he screeches soprano, howls the alto, his tenor is perfect but the bass is lost in a peal of thunder and the crackle of lightning. But now our fear has dissipated and we’re laughing.

He encourages us to sing too while all the time the storm does a war dance, zapping and clapping directly overhead until it has nothing left to do but rain. Rain comes in a deluge. It pours down from the flat roof like a waterfall and seeps in under the door. While we sing the latest Gogi Grant hit record, “The wayward wind, is a restless wind…”

I have no idea of how long the rain lasts but as soon as we are dressed and ready to leave it’s still bright as day. Because of the flooding on Mill Road, we leave our bicycles in the storeroom and walk the Red Path up to the Athlunkard Bridge. There we meet several people coming up from Lanahrone and the Shannon Fields. They tell us of taking shelter in McNamara’s – the only house on that side of the river. Mrs Mac’s way of entertaining her packed house was to get them on their knees to answer 15 decades of the rosary.

News would come the next day of a boy killed further up the Shannon at Plassey when he was struck by lightning.

People in Limerick still talk about the spectacle of the storm that night. But the aftermath is far more precious in my mind: the brilliant greenness of the grass, the smell of drenched earth, the sound of a thrush warbling defiantly on a dripping chestnut tree, and best of all the sight of my father coming out Corbally Road, the bike and himself all covered over in an old army rain cape like a moving tent. “Your mother sent me,” he said, “she was worried about you.”

I remember that best of all.

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