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The winter of 1963 … homesteads isolated by snow drifts in the Wicklow hills

Writing about weather at this time of year is fraught with the potential for embarrassment arising from the possibility that in the interval between these words being typed and the newspaper appearing in print the weather may change dramatically. At time of writing the weather over north Kildare is grey and wet – an unwelcome contrast to the hardy bright days of earlier in January. In terms of temperature it is not chilly but neither is it balmy. Either way there is general sense of relief that so far the winter of 2012/13 has not unleashed a prolonged blizzard or spell of freezing weather.  The optimists among us are already pointing to the lengthening of the evenings and asserting that if we reach St Brigid’s Day unscathed then the worst of the winter may be over. However it might be a bit too soon to be putting away the scarves and gloves. There can be a background chill well into the spring and this column can recall a year in which there was snow to be seen in the fields as late as Punchestown week.

This time fifty years ago there was no such relief about seeing off another winter as the country found itself in the prolonged grip of a three month long freeze. January 1963 broke all records in terms of winter conditions and was the coldest since 1740 according to meteorological records. The freezing temperatures lasted right through to March. The Shannon at Limerick froze over for the first time in living memory.Each locality sprung its own folklore from the winter of 1963: a man is said to have ridden a motorbike across the frozen Boyne near Navan, another drove a tractor across a lake in Mayo. Even those who did not believe in miracles found that they could walk on water – so long as it was in the form of four inches of ice.

There was chaos nationwide but the hamlets and farmsteads of west Wicklow were particularly vulnerable. The population living in the terrain on the mountain side of the Blessington to Baltinglass road was cut off for days. Communications and rescue resources were basic – few houses had telephones, four-wheel drive vehicles were even rarer. Wicklow County Council’s roadmen wielded a hundred shovels to try and make roadways through the snow. Unemployed men were taken off the dole queues and given shovels in their hands so as to help shift the drifts.

However the onslaught of that winter was sustained and severer. No sooner had men spent days clearing a road but a fresh ice-storm would bear down setting at nought days of heavy shovel work. The Army was called in to help in a number of locations. However two trucks with troops attempting to reach Blessington had to turn around so deep was the snow on the road from Naas. New methods of reaching in-accessible communities were tried: the Irish Parachute Club flew a number of missions from Weston airfield near Celbridge dropping parcels of supplies to isolated households in Wicklow.

The plight of rural residents became a heated political issue with Dáil deputies accusing the Government led by Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, T.D., of not doing enough to secure relief for isolated communites. One of those critical was M. J. O’Higgins who used an adjournment debate in the Dáil on 22 January 1963 to highlight the plight of some of his Wicklow constitutents. He said that the situation had approached crisis proportions. And he pointed accusingly to the Government benches: “Surely the people were entitled to look to the Government for some leadership, for some activity, for some assistance? What leadership did they get from the Government?”

However a Government TD Padge Brennan took a sanguine view and pointed out that Wicklow people were no strangers to hard winters: “We have come to expect these things and the people in the areas referred to by Deputy O'Higgins are accustomed to these conditions. Only yesterday I was speaking to a man from Hollywood who told me that every farmer in that locality expects a snowstorm after Christmas that can last for two or three weeks.”

He said that there had been previous severe storms in 1933 and 1947 and people would be hard pressed to say which was worse. He said that Wicklow folk were neighbourly people and did not stand idly by and allow their neighbours to suffer. In this instance what happened is that Wicklow County Council was on the job right from the word “go” and within a few days routes had been cleared to most of  the villages in the county. It took a little longer to reach a few smaller hamlets such as Ballyknockan, Lacken, Manorkilbride, and Knockananna.

It was to be another two months before the snow on the Wicklow hills thawed and life returned to normality. It was not the last time that winter emergencies triggered controversies in the Dáil – the winter of 1982 was to prove embarrassing for the Garret Fitzgerald-led Fine Gael-Labour coalition with accusations of lack of preparedness being directed at local and at national government. In the years since response to emergencies has improved and pride of place must go the County Councils who have upgraded their winter clearance resources. Driving across Kildare in the late hours of a wintry night it is reassuring to meet the orange beacon emerging from the winter dark and to hear the slap of grit across the windscreen as a County Council gritting truck goes on its way.

In another week or so, St Brigid will begin to work her magic and, while the Irish weather can bite back when least expected, a gradual rise of temperature will engender relief that at least the severity of winter has been left behind. At time of writing (and those could be famous last words!), the winter of 2012/13 does not look as if it will emulate the chilly records set by its predecessor of fifty years ago when householders in the Kildare and Wicklow hills were cut off from the outside world by the most ferocious winter seen for a generation. Series no: 315.

Liam Kenny recalls the harsh winter of 1963 in no. 315 of his Looking Back series. Our thanks to Liam

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