A letter from Patrick McDonnell NT Ballinlough to his sister in Cortown

(24TH FEBRUARY 1933)

Monday Night 8.30pm
My Dear M & B,
I hope you are both well and that you did not experience the awful blizzard, which visited us on Friday last. We have just been through the biggest snowstorm in living memory. I believe the last similar one occurred in 1867. I had often pictured in my mind what it would be like to have the roads blocked with snow six to eight feet deep, but now we have the reality.
I believe this storm will rank in the minds of the peasantry with the big wind of 1839 and the lesser one of 1903. It will be a long time until all the episodes of the storm will be narrated and then of course they will all have to be told over and over again.
I should mention of course that we do not know yet how Sissie has faired, but of course we hope for the best.
Now to begin, we were invited down to Brady’s (the shop) for a card game on Thursday evening, but as it commenced to snow about six o’clock Ma and Gretta would not set out. I was glad after that they didn’t as it was snowing heavily at ten o’clock and eleven and we would have got it very hard to get home.
On Friday morning we awoke to find the ground covered with snow, only about an inch, however, and it was not snowing then. When we were eating our breakfast at nine o’clock it commenced to snow again, rather fine snow with a driving north wind.
I started out to school and was overtaken by Mrs. Kelly at Peter Garvey’s Cottage, she was a sight. Her coat and hat being covered with frozen snow. As we proceeded down the exposed portion of the road, we felt the full force of the icy blast and I was forced to cover my ear with my hand as I could not stand the cold.
Fourteen children answered the roll call and I made up my mind that I would dismiss them at 12 o’clock, I expected the priest down then to hear confessions. We could see through the school windows that it was snowing heavily all the time and that the wind had increased but we had no idea it was so awful outside.
At 12 o’clock the children got their cocoa and I went round to the little house to tell Mrs. Kelly and Miss Plunkett that I would let them home. At this time it was impossible to see more that two yards ahead of you on the road and as I was going into the school again I thought I saw a load of fodder or something at the churchyard gate. On closer investigation it proved to be a mound of snow about seven feet high.
I then marshalled the kids and told them how to proceed on the homeward journey. I gave them strict instructions to keep together and to go into the nearest house when they could proceed no further.
Peter Gaynor called in then and said that he got it very hard to get down. He took his own children in tow and also all who were going his way. Sissie Reilly went with him too and as she was to go up to Keogh’s for the milk, I told her to wait for me at Keogh’s gate.
I then locked up, muffled up and proceeded homewards with two wee cans of water from the pump. The snow was heaping up on the left hand side of the road and even on the right side it was 10 feet deep in places. I was almost winded when I got to Keogh’s gate and was glad of the shelter. I saw that there was a small tree right across the road a few perches ahead.
Since Sissie Reilly was not appearing I had to go up to Keogh’s for her. The yard was filled with Sheep and Cattle all covered with snow, the weirdest thing you ever saw. Sissie Reilly and I then started for home. When we got on to the road we honestly could not see one yard ahead of us with the driving snow, while the icy wind almost took our breath away. I got the wind up in more senses than one and Sissie Reilly became hysterical. I judged it better to stand awhile to draw our breath. Thus fortified we started off again, often floundering through snowdrifts two and three feet deep.
At last Peter Gaynor’s cottage loomed ahead and I went into see did they all get home safely and what became of the two Mulvany’s from Seymourstown who had also been at school. I found that Peter had them inside and I took them up to our house. I met Paddy Nulty starting out to meet Sissie and when he left Sissie in, he came up after me to tell me how he was going down to tell me not to let out the children until someone called for them.
I then got the wind up about three children who had to go on beyond the little new cottage on the Virginia Rd. Station road. I know that if they were overcome I would be partly to blame. Paddy Nulty volunteered to inquire after them as he had to go down to tell the postman that he could not drive him into Kells.
I could hardly eat my dinner with the excitement of my journey home and my anguish about the children. However, Paddy Nulty reappeared in about an hour and a half with the following story.
He found that the two girls remained in Finnens but that the little fellow had started out on his own! Paddy then started out with the two girls (I should mention that Frances Nulty was with them too). They inquired at Daly’s and found that young Walshe had passed there anyway. They then entered the next collage and found him sitting at the fire. It appears he went on a little farther but getting a bit bogged had the good sense to come back.
The Nulty’s, having collected him, started out again, but on being confronted with a wall of snow ten feet high, they returned and defrosted the children in the last mentioned cottage. They were not removed from there until 9.30 that night although within a quarter of a mile of their own home. This story eased my mind regarding the children and I started to enjoy the comforts of a good fire. I should mention that I gave Paddy Nulty a glass of whisky for his trouble. I had a mouthful when I came home myself as I was shivering like an aspen, not so much with the cold as with fright.
Gretta in the meantime was looking after the needs of our two protégés. Their father arrived about half four, dead beat. It took him three hours to do the journey and he was nearly lost in a snowdrift at Johnny Smiths gate. It appears he began to shout for help on approaching our house but of course was not heard above the howling of the storm. We could not of course allow him face home again and so we had three for the night.
The back door could not be opened with all the snow that was against it (it opens out you know) and so I went out with a shovel to relieve matters. I found no table, no paraffin tanks, but a big heap of snow up to the latch of the door. I had a nice job to shovel it away while the storm still raged. The open shed was filled almost to the roof with snow while there was about a foot of snow on top of the car in the shed. The house had a peculiar appearance on the outside, every window was completely blocked up with snow and there was a fringe of snow about six inches wide all round the frames of the front door. Mrs. Kelly and Miss Plunkett got as far as Keoghs where they remained for the night. The postman remained in his little tin hut all night. It was very weird to be sitting inside at the fire listening to the howling of the storm, while we could see nothing, as all the windows were blocked up with snow.
The hens did not put even their beaks out all day. They had to be fed inside in their house and locked up again immediately, they only got one feed. As poor Judy and Pearl would have no place to lie outside they were kept indoors, both that night and the next and I must say they behaved very decorously indeed.
Ma and in fact we all were troubled about Sissie, afraid she would be so foolish as to try and brave the storm in her endeavours to reach Piercetown. As I said before we do not yet know how she fared. The storm eased off about nine o’clock. We heard on the wireless that it was pretty bad in Dublin too. All traffic stopped etc.
The Shannon Scheme Wires were broken down, all communication with the provinces was cut off both by road, rail and wire and there were several pathetic S.O.S’s
Well we slept but on Saturday morning what a sight met our eyes when we ventured forth. I should say here that I was up and out at 8 o’clock and after a preliminary survey I armed myself with a shovel and started to excavate passages from the various doors and sheds etc.
The road from our house to Peter Gaynor’s was pretty clear, there being only about two feet of snow on it, but from the pump right across the road to Nulty’s garden, there was a hill of snow seven feet high at least. I could not look across it. This hill continued up to John Lynch’s shed, here there was a valley and beyond that again the snow was eight feet deep almost to Brennan’s Cottage. The surface of the snow was not level, but in places took on the most fanciful shapes like curling waves or the curved backs of old fashioned furniture.
On the Chapel side the snow become deep below Gaynor’s Cottage and from that down to Keogh’s was eight feet deep all the way. Neddy Quinn from Barney Hill was the first wayfarer to pass by. He was going to look after Cattle at Condy’s Cross. It took him three hours to reach our house and as he breasted the snowy waves armed with a short shovel, which he plunged in the snow at every step, he looked like an intrepid Polar explorer or a bold Swiss Mountaineer. Mrs. Kelly came next escorted by Johnny Keogh (Miss Plunkett faced home across the fields with another escort), then came the postman, trudging his weary way to Kells. Paddy Nulty and I then faced for Finnens for water and of course cigarettes, I resurrected by leggings for the occasion.
It was comparatively easy to walk on top of the snow and in places we walked into the fields and on to the road again just for the fun of it. From Keoghs to Finners the road was not too bad and on the left side of the road there was a pass all the way only about one foot deep. When we arrived, old Finnen was busy cutting a pass from the shop door to the pump. Here the snow was 2 feet deep.

Tuesday 3.00 pm
The children’s father faced home after breakfast on Saturday morning, but he did not bring them with him so we had them on Saturday night too. After dinner on Saturday Gretta and I faced for the well at Brennan’s. We had quite an exciting journey and while the snow was for the most part hard, we now and again sank down to our knees. Barney called down to see us. He said that the road from his house to Condy’s Cross was even worse than ours.
The question now was how long would the snow remain and how long would the food supply hold out. Well we were lucky to have a good supply of bacon, butter, tea, sugar, flour and some bread, while we could procure fresh mutton from Keoghs.
I had to dispense some bags of coal to the neighbours so as to keep the home fires burning. On Sunday morning we were up betimes, but the snow had abated very little. We were not sure whether the priest could come or not and we were in and out watching him.
We could see the people walking across the snow clad fields from Balgree and Ballyhist and then a lot of people appeared in the field beyond Nulty’s garden (it was easier to go by the fields). Then Father Drake appeared breasting Mt. Blanc at John Lynch’s shed and behind him in single file came 15 or 20 others.
Gretta and I went down to mass which was short and sweet. We met Mickie after mass and he told us that both Matt and Alick were again confined to bed and that Alicks breathing was a bit short. Matt too is very feeble and has to be helped in and out of bed. They have a hard job nursing them both. Unfortunately I cannot go over to see them until the snows clear. We sent the two Mulvany’s home with their friends after mass on Sunday. I went down to school on Monday, but only a few scholars turned up so I packed them home again. I did the same to-day (Tuesday). It is much harder to travel to-day as the snow is soft and treacherous and I’m thinking it will be even worse to-morrow.

Some Items of the Storm:
The children set “elephant” traps in the snow and were well rewarded to see some travellers plunge into them.
Gaynor’s white goat did not become visible until Monday, she was covered up in a drift alongside our field. She is going strong.
Keogh’s had a goat, which only thawed out yesterday also they had been walking across her for two days in a big drift. She also is alive.
A few fields over beyond Nulty’s a bullock was smothered in a huge snowdrift. Several people had to dig sheep and lambs out of the snowdrifts.
I don’t know how the poor birds survived the storm but anyway they turned up quite perky on Saturday morning and gladly availed themselves of the crumbs we put in the window sills.
We have, or rather the Nulty’s have, rediscovered a new well down a bit from John Lynches shed. It may turn out useful now that the pump is undrinkable.
All roads from Dublin are passable to-day, except the Dublin to Kells road. The postman walked out from Kells to-day, but I hadn’t my letter ready for him. In any case it would get no farther than Kells as the Dublin road is blocked and the trains are not running on account of the railway strike.
In front of our door the snow was level with the window sill. Some of the fields were hardly covered with snow while all the roads were blocked. It is raining heavy now (3.30pm Tuesday) so that will cause the snow to melt much faster.
Katie Keogh was to have been married in Dublin this morning to a man called Fallon, a native of Multyfarnham. He has a garage in Clare Street, Dublin. Father Lynam was to go up to marry them and Mrs. Keogh, Johnny, young Seán and Miss Plunkett were to be there too. I suppose the wedding had to be postponed. Katie herself is in Dublin and may, however, have been married.
Father Drake was saying mass in Johnny Tully’s on Friday morning. He had to leave his car there on the road and walk home. Several cars were snowed up between here and Oldcastle. Lynch’s big Lorry was the last car to pass on Friday morning. We shall anxiously await its return from Oldcastle, as it will be the dove with the olive branch, which will show us that the snow has abated from the face of the roads.
I hope Jimmie has by this time recovered from the flu. I suppose he is in the continent by this time. You cannot say at any rate that this is a short letter or an uninteresting one. I hope it will absolve me from writing again until after Easter in any case. Am not posting until tomorrow, Wednesday.

Your affectionate brother

Late News:
The postman has just arrived with your weekly bulletin. We were glad to note that you all got over the storm ok. No word has arrived from Sissie yet. I am dropping her a line now as postal communication has been restored.
G and I were at mass this morning. We brought some ashes home to Ma. No school today either. We heard there were 9 or 10 lives lost in the storm. It is reported that 5 children were lost in the storm but the report is not confirmed. It appears Dr. Mulvany, our bishop, was on his way from Navan to Athboy on Friday last. He was forced to take refuge in a little shop outside Athboy (it must be near Moyaugher) and stayed there all night. He is still held up in Athboy. We heard to-day that K. Keogh may have been married as Fr. Drake walked into Kells and wired instructions to proceed with the marriage.

So long

There is still 3 feet of snow on the road to chapel.

Courtesy of Ballinlough-Kilskyre Historical Society