Recalling the day Donegal was rattled to the core
BY KATE HEANEY
When Hurricane Debbie made landfall in Ireland on September 16, 1961 it became the only known tropical cyclone to do so while tropical. Katia, like Debbie began in Africa but Katia crossed the Atlantic before recrossing to hit Ireland.
Debbie however turned north east half way across and made landfall on the west coast here with severe consequences.
There was devastation across Donegal as the west coast bore the brunt of the hurricane which produced gusts of up to 98 knots or 181 kph.
Roofs were ripped of buildings, trees and telegraph poles were torn out of the ground or broke under the force of the wind, windows were smashed and slates flew about towns like sharply honed frisbees as fishing vessels were battered against sea and pier walls or broke their moorings.
A 23 year-old woman from Burnfoot, Susan McDermott, was killed by a falling branch while cycling home.
Reports from the time recall caravans at Portnablagh blowing in the wind like tumbleweed with some coming to rest at the water’s edge.
Very few homes in Donegal still had electricity or telephones after the worst of Debbie had passed by the evening of that fateful Saturday.
ESB workers worked right through the storm to render fallen electricity wires safe and Donegal was cut off from the rest of the country’s telephone network.
Havoc at St Conal’s
In Letterkenny the main street was littered with broken slates as several pedestrians managed to avoid serious injury. One young man was not so lucky when he was struck by a rush of slates which blew for 20 yards down the street.
St Eunan’s Cathedral had a stained glass window broken as well as ordinary windows and lost many slates of the roof with damage estimated at around £200.
Whole stretches of the roof of St Conal’s Hospital were ripped off with part of the surrounding wall knocked down by a fallen tree. The wind swept inside the building and caused damage to dormitories. Doors were torn off.
Letterkenny’s Court House lost a large section of its roof and the door of a telephone kiosk, having been torn off by the wind, flew along the street like a missile. Two of the many trees which fell, landed on two cars at Ballymacool owned by John McClintock and Paschal McDaid.
In Kilmacrennan the body of a lorry was torn from its chassis and thrown over a six foot wall such was the power of the gusts.
In the Lifford area many roads were closed because of fallen tress and poles and eye witnesses reported spray from the River Foyle travelling more than 100 yards.
I recall as a ‘very’ young child being in my parents’ bedroom as Debbie howled. My Dad was away working and my two sisters, my mother and myself and our dog Ernie gathered in the upstairs, front bedroom.
We watched out the window as the red-headed boy on the donkey and cart went down the road, as usual for a Saturday, selling fir (sticks for lighting the fire). As the wind screamed around us the dog hid under the bed because of the noise, joined by a sister.
A few minutes later we heard this almighty clatter and saw the donkey and cart racing up the road with no one at the reins, followed by a huge rattling, corrugated tin roof, almost the width of the road, which had blown off a shed further down – never have I seen a donkey and cart move so fast! I often wonder where that lad eventually found his terrified donkey and the cart!
While Monday was rough, it was a far cry from the unforgettable screaming sound of the winds of Hurricane Debbie!