The Big Snow 1947

Ena McWilliams, nee Davis (1923-2013), my mother, worked in SJ Gillmor’s shop in Dromahair during The Big Snow of 1947, when she was twenty-four. The Gillmor’s were cousins on her mother’s side. Her memories of that time form the basis of this story.

Ena Davis and ? McTiernan in yard at Gillmor’s Shop circa 1947.

“Cassie! Cassie! Come into my bed I’m freezing I can’t sleep. Bring your blankets!” Ena called across the dark room.

It wasn’t the first time I slept in Ena’s bed that winter. Our attic room above the shop, under the slates, the water jug frozen in the basin, the little roof window covered by Jack Frost, and outside the moon lit village deep under snow. And the next day we were going to Ena’s place, if we could make it through.

Ena and I worked in Gillmor’s in Dromahair, in the shop and yard.  Sometimes she looks after the Gillmor childer, she’s well used to it with plenty at home. I come from Fermanagh and had been there for about a year.

Last December, before Christmas the wind came hard from the East and soon everything was frozen and white, day and night.  I thought the turn of the year might bring a change but devil the bit of it! We wore our heavy coats all the time, often two pairs of stockings, warm tea in the kitchen was always bliss.

Then in the middle of February the snow came. There was a blizzard for a full two days. Everything stopped. The shop stayed closed. The roads and railway were blocked. No one ventured out at all, you couldn’t. The day after it stopped a few hungry souls started to move about, dug their way out probably, came in for what supplies we had. It was another 2 weeks before we got deliveries again, the train was the first to bring bread from Coyle’s bakery in Manorhamilton a few miles away.

I went out after the blizzard, but I couldn’t get far.  There was a wind that would cut you to the bone and I didn’t recognise the village in the dazzling light, deep snow everywhere. Drifts were 10 foot high, up to the eaves of the bigger houses.  Some cottages were completely smothered, a chimney’s wispy smoke rising above the snow.

Mr. Gillmor kept us busy clearing snow to keep the front and back doors open, in case anyone came, each night a good deal of it would be blown back again. In the yard, the snow was up to our waists, that took a couple of days to clear but the work kept us warm, and we had fun in it when the old man was out of the way. We were lucky having the electric light, it came from Jeiter’s mill on the river, it rarely went out. In the evening we stayed in the kitchen listening to the radio for as long as we could, and then went off to our cold beds.

A scene from 1947 The Big Snow – Donegal Weather Channel.

After a good breakfast eaten in the warm kitchen, we put on plenty of clothes and set out to Ena’s on the snowy roads.  Ena filled her pockets with sweets for children and neighbours met along the way, a regular Wednesday routine when she would cycle home on the shop’s half day. I had met some of her brothers in Dromahair, big handsome fellas they were. We sent a message on the bus that we would be there for the 1 O’Clock dinner on Saturday and we’d stay the night. I was excited but fretting about the six mile walk through the snow. Ena told me not to worry, she’d cycled home many’s a time in the pitch dark. Still, it wasn’t like this, I thought at the time.

The day was bright, no snow had fallen for a few days, the sharp wind had dropped. We left the village, passed the castle and crossed the bridge over the Bonet River, thrilled to be away from the shop and the village where we’d been cooped up for so long. A few wee boys threw snowballs at us from behind the walls of the bridge, but we ran past them not wanting to delay.

Two long weeks it had been, waiting for the roads to open, with the men’s constant work clearing the drifts, many to appear again by the next morning. We met few cars that day, those we did zig zagging around the drifts trying to keep on the hard road. Near the railway station we helped push out of a drift. Warm work it was but some sweets helped us recover.

We thought about going a longer way past Carrigeencor lake. It had long frozen over and there were usually a crowd of young people playing there. Some of the boys were now walking all the way across it. But we decided to stick to the main road.

Along Sox Line the drifts were deeper, and we pushed each other down into the soft snow, shouting and laughing. The few houses along the road heard us coming and came out to greet us and exchange news, Ena knew them all. The offers of hot tea were sadly refused, we were taking longer than we’d expected. Our supply of sweets running low, the first signs of tiredness set in as our feet dragged in the deeper snow.

“The Bonet runs deep and dangerous just over the hedge there.” Ena said as we walked on. 

“A few have drowned in there.”

“I can see nothing, hear nothing. Don’t be scaring me.” I replied, the silence now eerie, on such a beautiful day.

Another mile or so on we stopped to rest at Ena’s old school at Mullaghduff and sucked the last of the sweets. The black summit of O’Donnell’s Rock stood stark against the white landscape, the snow blown to drift on the lower slopes.

“Only another mile now.” Said Ena as we saw a group of five children playing on the road ahead.

“It’ll be the Giblins and Kellys – trouble.”

“Here comes Ena with the sweets!” they shouted when they saw us.

“No! No! I have none today!” she called as we got closer.

“Ye are not getting through if we don’t get sweets!” they chanted over and over.

We stopped a short distance off. Snowballs are thrown at us. Half-heartedly we threw a few back, but we’re very tired now, so in the end we made a dash through them, taking a good few hits as we did.

They heard the ructions up at the Larkfield farmhouse, they told us later.

“Ye better have sweets on the way back or yo’ll get the same!”  They shouted after us.

“We’ll be waiting!”

“Póg mo Thóin!” Ena shouted back at them.

We stopped briefly, taking off our coats to shake out the snow, then trudged on, the house now in sight.

Ena at her home spring 1947

Turning off the road onto the lane, it comes to us, stopped us in our snowy tracks, a waft of wonderful cooking smells drifting over the snowy field, from the house above on the hill.

We are laughing, giggling, with relief mostly, two silly girls, when Ena pushed me over in the into the deep snow at the side of the lane. I gasped as snow’s rubbed in my face and I hear her laughing.

“Come on! The dinners ready! Don’t forget to wash your face first.”

And she is running up the lane towards the house, towards the best dinner of my life.



The first picture is taken from the Donegal Weather Channel facebook site. For more see

The Black and Tans

Reco Davis (1921-2011) is my mother’s eldest brother, my uncle. In 1957 he married Dorothy McElroy (1925-1993) and they lived at Woodhill, Bunnanadden, Co Sligo, Dorothy’s home, where they had a mixed farm. We are on Christmas holidays at my Grandparent’s farm at Boggaun in Co Leitrim and make a yearly visit to Woodhill.

Reco and Dorothy Davis’s home Woodhill. Bunnanadden, Co Sligo.

On a Christmas visit to Bunnanadden in Co Sligo I first hear of the Black and Tans.

The days are short and the 25-mile journey from Boggaun in Co Leitrim is not one my father likes. We are visiting my Uncle Reco and Aunt Dorothy at Woodhill in Co Sligo. It’s always a journey with some winter hazard. The roads are often icy.  There’s fog or sometimes floods. By the time we return to our Grandparent’s farm that night we are fast asleep in the darkness of back seat, some of us lying across my mother’s lap.

Dorothy puts on a tremendous spread in the dining room, another Christmas dinner complete with a roast goose, ham, cold meats and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding and custard, mince pies and offerings of juice, sherry and wine.  She has lots of nervous energy and can’t do enough to make us welcome; when he’s not working Reco is easy going and draws on a regular Sweet Afton. Dorothy is very affectionate towards us; they have no children. Ned, hired by the previous generation as a farm labourer, is now part of the family but is away for the evening.

When we can eat no more, we go down to the lower room where a log is thrown on the fire to raise a flame. The room is warm and a single shaded-bulb casts a low soft light. Occasionally the wind moans in the chimney. I know a 2-fingered version of Chopsticks and I tentatively play it on the old piano.

Reco and Dorothy circa 1988

Dorothy comes into the room and quietly says

“I haven’t heard that tune for so long.”

Standing with her back to the piano and with a serious look on her face Dorothy tells her mother’s story of a Black and Tan search of the farmhouse, on a night just like this, a couple of years before she was born. This is Dorothy’s mother’s story.


I was the first to hear the motor coming up the lane and ran to look out.

“It’s the police. It’s the police!” I shouted.

My father opened the door to be told that they were searching for guns. They ignored his mild protest that we have no guns and anyway why would they be looking here. The house and sheds would be searched.

The rest of us were huddled in the kitchen, not knowing what was happening.  I heard the heavy boots clumping up the stairs, going from room to room, opening and closing doors, knocking on the walls. We were shocked and scared.

It was a few days after Christmas Day and my sister and her family were coming over that night, the lamps and fires were lit in the good rooms.

After they gave up searching, the six of them gathered in lower room, where the piano is, warming themselves around the fire. We were all more relaxed by then. Really, they hadn’t given us too much trouble and had stacked their rifles up against the end of the piano, hanging their caps on the muzzles.

“You play the piano luv?” one of them asked me in a strong London accent, but I just looked shy and when I didn’t answer he said.

“No? Well, some hot tea would be nice then.”

Daddy nodded at me and I went to make them tea. From the kitchen I heard them laughing, then somebody started to play a rough version of Chopsticks.

“Common Joey boy give us something to dance to!”

He just played it faster.

As I came in with the tea they pretended to dance, the floor and room swaying.

“Georgie! stop dancin your too fat, you’ll bring down the floor!” The loud one, Sam, says.

“Sorry luv, we don’t often get a chance to have some fun.”

“Cept when we’re shooting chickens, Sam, eh?” One of them says, raising a laugh.

Before taking up their mugs of tea I see some of them put their cigarettes down on the piano keys.

“Ahh, nice tea luv. U married yet?”

“In a few months.” I said, and with my heart beating fast I turned stiffly and left them to my father and brothers.

When I came in with fresh tea the cigarette butts had burned out on the ivory keys. I wanted to cry seeing the piano I played on, practiced my church music on, desecrated.


“There now!” says Dorothy in conclusion, pointing to the heavy brown stains on the keys.

“That’s what they left behind. Weren’t they the terrible blackguards?”

My eyes are fixed on the cigarette burns. A log crackles in the hearth. The wind rises suddenly, growling in the chimney as a gust passes, and then settles.



For an informative article on the Black and Tans and historical the context see Diarmaid Ferriter’s Irish Times, 7th Jan 2020, Black and Tans: “Half-drunk, whole-mad and” and one-fifth Irish.