Weathering the storm of 1961: We watched 30 large trees uprooted

Ryle Dwyer recalls the last time a hurricane hit with Debbie back in 1961, killing 15 people.

Weathering the storm of 1961: We watched 30 large trees uprooted

Ex-hurricane Ophelia has been categorised as one the worst storms to hit this country since Hurricane Debbie, a category 3 hurricane, which struck on September 16, 1961. Unlike, the recent storm, there was comparatively little warning of Hurricane Debbie.

Weather forecasting was not nearly as sophisticated then, as it has become.

“A south westerly airstream covers Ireland,” the Cork Examiner reported that morning. It went on to forecast: “Bright periods and scattered showers, Fresh, occasionally strong, southwesterly winds, with gale gusts in western coastal areas. Average temperatures.”

The further outlook was for “rain spreading from the southwest, followed by bright showery weather.” This was not the kind of warning that one might have expected for the “storm of the century.” Sixteen people were killed around the country in that storm.

Catherine Keoghan, 60, and her daughter Eileen, 29, had collected another daughter, Margaret Hyland and her new baby daughter, born a week earlier, from St. Phelim’s hospital in Cavan, and the four of them were killed near Ballinagh, Co. Cavan, on their way home, when a tree came crashing down on the car in the midst of the storm.

On that Saturday morning, I cycled to the Green School in Tralee. The wind was already blowing and I decided to take a shortcut through the Town Park, rather than cycle the long way around against the wind. Cycling was prohibited in the park, so I had to walk through it to the school. That would have been shortly before 9am I certainly felt no sense of danger.

The full force of the hurricane seemed to hit around 10am and the classes overlooking the park began watching the spectacle as more than 30 large trees were uprooted. It was September and all the leaves were still on the trees, so they were top heavy. “Tralee Town Park was a shambles after the storm,” The Kerryman reported.

On the other side of the school, the roof of the bicycle shed was ripped off. Classes finished at noon, and we went home. By then there was hardly a puff of wind. We were apparently becalmed in the eye of the hurricane.

There were several days’ warning for the approach of hurricane Ophelia. While it was still south of the Azores last Wednesday, weather forecasters were predicting that it would probably head up towards Ireland. It was depicted as a ferocious storm that would probably modify somewhat at it cross the colder waters of the North Atlantic.

The warnings our Meteorologists gave were undoubtedly justified in the light of what happened. Three people lost their lives in tragic storm-related accidents.

But some people seemed to ignore the danger. There were reports of people swimming off the west coast, and walking on the boardwalks, despite the warnings.

Nobody should be lulled into a false sense of security by the stupidity of those people. People should realise that the storm had modified before it actually hit this country. It was being categorised as “an ex-hurricane.”

It had been feared that the eye of the storm would strike the south coast and that the front of the storm would extend from Kerry to Wexford. Yet the eye of the storm merely glanced along the west coast, while most of storm remained out in the Atlantic.

So those who went swimming should be warned of how much more dangerous it could have been, if the full force of the storm had struck the country Enhance satellite photographs, which were tracing the storm for pilots on the Foreflight Application, provide a graphic reminder of the close call.

The photograph at 4.30am showed the storm off the south west coast. At 6.04am, the eye of the storm was on the Kerry coast extending north through Limerick, Clare Galway and Mayo, while two hours later it had almost cleared the Connaught coast, with a spur jutting inland into the central counties.

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