Oughterard Newsletter May 2012
Saturday 16th September
Saturday 16th September 1961 began as normal as any autumn day that anyone had ever seen. It was a dry, fresh morning, overcast with a slight breeze. I was a bus conductor working on the Galway – Sligo bus which left Galway Station at 8.05 that morning. My driver was Willie Mahon. Our trip would take us to Castlerea, Co Roscommon where we would be meeting with the Sligo – Galway bus and exchanging buses and passengers. The Sligo crew would return to Sligo and Willie and I would return to Galway. Normally we would be back in Galway at 12.45 pm.
Returning from Castlerea
After a brief stop in Castlerea, where we transferred buses, checked passengers and parcels for the return journey, we were ready to begin our trip to Galway. As we departed Castlerea, we noticed that it had become very windy and twigs were beginning to fall in our path. I was standing on the little stairway in the front of the bus – it was a single-decker bus with a front door. As we moved through the town we noticed that the twigs falling were getting bigger as well as heavier. Soon we both realised that this wind was no longer just a breeze, it now resembled a gale. As we slowly drove through the town, the scene had changed completely in just a few minutes. Many trees were being blown down all around us. This was getting more serious by the second. Willie very wisely decided to pull in off the road where there were no big trees, just a few light bushes and he parked there, deciding to sit it out for the duration. We had 15 passengers on the bus and they were very glad to be parked and out of any danger.
We sat there looking and listening as this unexpected nightmare unfolded before our eyes. It was just unbelievable. The sound of cracking and splitting timber filled the air. Trees of all shapes and sizes came crashing down. About a hundred yards in front of us there were huge mature trees possibly hundreds of years old. As we watched them they crashed to the ground one by one.
Getting to Ballymoe
We waited for over two hours. It was only after all this time that we noticed a slight calming. So we began to think of moving from this safe haven, but what would we do next? All main roads in front of us were blocked. We decided to go into Ballymoe town and see what would happen. We told the passengers our plans – we’d go to Ballymoe on foot. So we began to move, through fields and in 20 minutes we got to Ballymoe. It was unrecognisable! It was like a bombed out town! All of the electricity and phone wires were covered with straw and hay that had been blown away as the old sheds were deprived of their roofs, utter devastation all around. The whole place had taken on the appearance of an old wild west film. We made our way to Flanagan’s pub which was the bus agent and made some arrangements to get the passengers to their destinations. The Flanagan family very kindly offered accommodation for Willie and myself which we accepted gratefully.
After our tea, Willie and I strolled over to Dominic O’Connor’s shop and told them our tale of woe and they kindly invited us over the following Sunday to have dinner with them. What kindness and generosity by the people of Ballymoe.
The following day, Sunday, after dinner, Willie and I decided to make a break for it. So at around 2.30 we made for our parked bus through the fields again. As the roads were still blocked by fallen trees on the Galway side we decided to head for Castlerea. We got there alright and Willie decided to make for the Galway road via Curragh West and the Fishpond. We were fairly lucky as most of the fallen trees had been cleared but at Barratt’s Wood we had to wait while workmen cleared the last tree on our way. From there it was plain sailing all the way to Galway.
What Awaited us in Galway
What an experience? On arrival in Galway at 5.45 pm we were confronted by more devastation. The streets were littered with debris, broken slates and tiles that were ripped off buildings and many roofless buildings were on view too. Sheer devastation everywhere, the whole city was a shambles.
We were very disappointed that we were unable to contact anyone during our horrifying experience but everybody understood. We were delighted to be back home again after such an unusual happening. What would we have given for a mobile phone that day but alas it had not been invented then.
We were the only crew that were unaccounted for that day and we were missing for two days. Reading the papers the following day we soon learned that our big blow up was called Hurricane Debbie. Nothing like it had ever hit our shores before. It was really a very frightening experience for everybody. It took workmen up to three years to repair the damage and of course it robbed us of many beautiful trees around the country. That was our first taste of a hurricane in Ireland and we never wanted to experience another.