Contributed by Peter Rigney
While some people are complaining about transportation in the current cold snap, consider conditions in Ireland during a far worse Arctic experience in the winter of 1946/ 1947. The following is an account given by a young locomotive fireman (firemen were in due course promoted to driver) called Val Horan who was based in Athlone and worked throughout Connacht. He gives an account of clearing the line between Claremorris and Sligo in a period when the railways were worked exclusively by steam locomotives.
Working a steam locomotive in falling snow is a miserable experience. The suction caused by the forward movement of the locomotive makes the swirling snowflakes penetrate everywhere. They got down your neck and into your eyes. When the Mayo line was cleared I worked the first goods train into Ballina. In the twenty one miles from Manulla to Ballina not one telegraph pole was left standing. The town was short of food, bread was very hard to get and there was no electricity. After 1947 I never wanted to see snow again.
On Tuesday 25 February a fierce blizzard occurred and the west of Ireland was cut off completely. During the blizzard a farmer died on the railway line between Ballymoe and Castlerea. His body was found under a bridge, with his coat over his head and his pipe on the ground beside him. An elderly man he regularly walked the line from Castlerea to his home a distance of seven miles. He was unfortunate enough to be caught by the blizzard.
The blizzard caused great damage to telegraph wires and poles. There was no communication between stations because wires were broken. The snowplough arrived in Claremorris from Athlone on 25 February to clear the line to Sligo. The train consisted of a locomotive with a snow plough fitted, with two coaches for staff who were equipped with shovels and a van containing yeast and flour for Charlestown. Good progress was made with the locomotive driver uncoupling the locomotive from the train and charging snow drifts where they were encountered. When the engine would become embedded in the drift the men would dig her out, whereupon the charge would be repeated.
Charlestown was reached the next day on Friday 26th. The worst drifts were encountered between Charlestown and Tubbercurry. One drift, three quarters of a mile long took nine hours to cut a passage through. The engine was now running short of coal but luckily a goods train was abandoned and coal was taken from its locomotive. Tubbercurry was reached on Sunday.
Extract from ‘1947 and the oilburners’ by Val Horan Journal of the Irish Railway Record Society, vol.15 (1985), pp 337-351 . For more details on the storm and roads click on a history of the west on track here.