Wednesday, 30 December 2015

River Shannon Floods 1920 to 1950 - A Timeline

When more than 100 homes flooded in Athlone in 2009, homeowners were told that it was a once-in-100-years event. Six years later a similar event has unfolded - Irish Times, 12th December, 2015.

1930 Newspaper Headline (Irish Times)

I have researched newspaper archives and other reliable archive sources to verify the accuracy of the above quote. Are storms and floods like we are getting now "one-in-a-hundred-events"?. From the research I have done, I think that most Irish people who lived through the 1920s, 30s and 40s would balk at such a suggestion, especially those who lived around the Shannon Basin. Between 1920 and 1930, there were five exceptionally wet years - a-five-in-an-eleven-year-event - almost a one-in-two-year-event. Rain - Rain -  and more Rain was the constant weather pattern for this period, putting serious pressure on food and heat sources and putting the country on the brink of famine on a number of occasions for the first time since the 1840s.

By all accounts, we have been very lucky in the 21st Century. 

1923 - Heavy rains in October left thousands of acres of farmland around the basin of the Shannon waterlogged. Many crops were destroyed or unable to be harvested. Bogs were inaccessible meaning that turf could not be drawn away.

1924 - One of the worst flooding events in the Shannon region occurred in August after it rained continuously for 4 days.  It was reported that it was the worst flood in the Shannon region for forty years. The river burst its banks for many miles and large quantities of hay floated away. Potatoes turned black, corn was destroyed and turf unattainable. In the worst areas, there was talk of famine. The heavy rains affected other areas of the country aswell from Donegal to Dublin, completely destroying any hopes for a good harvest season in most places around the country.

By November of the same year, farmers threatened the Government with a "No Rent Campaign" if they did not maintain the Shannon at a "proper level". At the same time, it was agreed by all that it was an abnormally wet year.

1925 - Building of Ardnacrusha Hydro Dam begins. Locals at Lough Derg form a committee to oversea it's effect on river levels during and after construction.

1926 - In February, after four days of rain, the Shannon begins to flood again leaving "a great number of farm hands idle".

1927 - In July and August, some parts of Leitrim suffered severe flooding destroying three bridges and damaging many more. On the evening of October 28th, a major storm off the West coast of Ireland claimed the lives of 45 fishermen at sea.

1928 - In March, heavy flooding was reported around the Pullagh area with the local priest travelling one and half mile to church by boat.

However, things got much worse in November with the Shannon region suffering its worst floods since 1924. An experienced boatman drowns in the floods while rowing a boat from Shannonbridge to his home in Clonfert. People had to temporarily move out of their homes in Banagher. Railways, roads and large areas of crops were submerged.

The ESB dam at Parteen flooded and the water level at Killaloe was 10 feet higher than anytime in the previous 10 years. All low lying areas between Clonlara and Mountshannon were completely flooded leaving potatoes crops and hay destroyed.

Heavy rain and snow swept the country once again after Christmas bringing more floods and people had to move out once again.

There were also reports of dykes bursting in Belgium and Holland and the army being called in to assist with flood damage.

1929 - This year began with a drought after the much heavier than normal rains of the previous year. In April, it was reported that salmon were scarce and that fishing was at a "standstill". However, by September, the Shannon rose six feet over it's summer level. At Tarmonbarry, the country is described as like an "island sea". Athlone's athletic grounds are under three feet of water and Shannonbridge's famous potato crop is destroyed. Farmers around Carrick on Shannon and Roscommon area are the worst affected, with rainfall so heavy that many farmers find themselves in a serious situation.

1930 - After 1930, the idea of an "abnormally wet year" becomes a thing of the past as periods of very heavy rainstorms becomes the climate norm around the Shannon and elsewhere. There is no talk of "climate change". In January, people are once again leaving their homes around the Shannon. In Cork, the River Feale suffers it's worst flooding for 50 years due to a mixture of melting snow and heavy rainstorms, causing considerable destruction to property. The flooding gets so bad that the river changes course at one point, leaving an island two acres in extent, and destroying one of the best salmon pools. An electric pole only just erected some 15 feet from the bank was dislodged by the floods as it ate it's way under it.

The flooding eventually gets so bad around the Rivers Suck and Shannon that houses not flooded since 1924 are inundated with flood water of depths of up to twelve inches high. It is reported that houses "miles away" from the river Shannon are flooded and "rendered uninhabitable". The floods remain at an abnormal level for at least two months. The water rose so fast over a period of two days in January, that families who had moved back in to their homes had to move out once again after these two days. In Killaloe, water reaches the bedside of a sick man who had to be evacuated to safety.

Elsewhere, large areas of land in Offaly become so saturated that no winter ploughing can be done and there is much crop devastation around the River Barrow where it rises three feet above normal levels. Much of the sugar beat crop is lost around Leighlin Bridge and Borris, where weather is described as the "worst for many years". Wide areas are also flooded in North Galway.

After this 1932 had some flooding in areas while 1934 had very low levels of rainfall, the lowest since 1887.  Winter 1936 sees the return of widespread flooding around the Shannon Region while the floods during the winter of 1938 are regarded as the worst since 1924 with floods lasting for over 2 months.

1938 - The year begins with heavy flooding in February and March but by December 1938, the Shannon is at it's highest level since the ESB hydro generation scheme was built. Postmen deliver letters by boat, schoolchildren also travel by boat, food becomes scarce and cowsheds are raised using peat and plants. Like in 2015, many families are left stranded over Christmas. Many farmers are forced to sell their stock for "want of hay". It was reported that over one day, on the 2nd December between 9am and 1pm, 150 tonnes of water fell per acre- "Not within the memory of any old people was such a deluge experienced".

After this, 1942 and 1944 were reported as above average wet years.

1946 - The worst August weather "for a generation". Heavy rainstorms during August force the Government of the day to issue an appeal in September to save the harvest and there are calls for the army to brought in to help. Many crops, including potatoes, had to be imported from Canada and elsewhere as a result of the flood devastation.

Photo of floods in October two month after the initial storms in August (1946)

Things got so bad that the Bishop of Galway ordered that prayers be said for fine weather at all masses in his dioceses on Sundays. Dublin has its heaviest rainfall since 1932.

1947 - Very heavy snowfalls from late January till mid- March, the most persistent cold spell of the century. Five feet depth of snow in some places in the North. On top of this comes heavy rainstorms. The Shannon floods once again but also the River Erne and River Boyne in Co.Meath.

Flooded lands in Co. Meath where "flood waters stretch as far as the eye can see" (1947)
It's reported that it's "the worst outlook for farmers yet". Tractors are equipped with lights for the first time to allow them to operate during the night to save crops. 

 In April, farmers take the ESB to the High Court accusing them of contributing to the "annual flood damage". I would like to find out more about the results of the case but from what I can make out the case was rejected.

1948 - Widespread flooding during January including Cork, Tipperary, Carlow and Meath. However, this time there was not much damage done to crops. Banagher suffers from flooding later on in December.

1949 - Heavy thunderstorms in August followed a day of "oppressive heat" resulting in flooding of houses up to a depth of three feet. "Violent thunderstorms" hit the country later in October, with Dublin the worst hit. The record breaking rainfall for October in 1949 was broken in 2011 by around 2mm.

1950 - Terrential rain in February causes flooding in the Shannon. Wet weather ruins summer in July and the rain continues for ten weeks well into September. A strong storm in September blows down trees and telephone and ESB poles. A very wet year by any standards.


  1. In Holland they have commenced a total engineering solution approach to flooding.

    It's too simplistic to just dredge the bottom of the river. Also, one wonders what effect the Bord na Mona activities are having on the river.

  2. The weather reports from 1946 and 1947 are corroborated by people who lived through it. A local man who passed away last year told me in 2013 about the summer of 1946 and my late father told me about the Spring of 1947. In 1946 city people were brought out to the country to help with the wet harvest. They had to bring their own tea because it was rationed after the war. My father was driving a CIE lorry from Dublin to Kingscourt in early 1947, but was forced to abandon it in a blizzard. The tips of the electricity and telegraph poles were sticking out of the snow as a group walked to Navan where they lodged. Cattle died coming from fairs as the snow surrounded them.
    Many policy makers and media people now have no concept of historical weather, because it was not a topic of their upbringing. Some genuinely mistake extreme weather events as evidence of a new development blissfully unaware of the weather history. I remember seeing a US documentary about the settlement of the American West and seeing a modern man talk of how his great grand father's livestock farm was overrun by a flood which killed most of his animals. The problem now is that unscientific weather predictions are being used to overcome the defeat of maxistism, socialism and communism which were killed by the bitter experience of citizens who suffered from zealotary left wing undemocratic proponents.

    Climate is being used to attack the factors of production, land, labour and capital (fuel comes from land).. These zealots are much more dangerous to the world, than the weather which some claim to be able to change. A world first in ambition. People like me are labelled "deniers", this is being incorporated in government policy, keeping climate out of debate, ring fenced from analysis. Happy New year to you all.

  3. Thank you for sharing this historical data, do check out this post about flooding in North America.