Sean Kerwick - The greatest flood in living memory - 1947

For the younger generation, last year’s snow was probably the most unusual weather event in their lifetimes, but the flood of 1947 which left houses in Kilkenny almost completely under water was perhaps the greatest freak weather event for the over 70s. Even today, I remember that flood as if it were yesterday and often ask myself whether global climate change really is a new phenomenon. The heavy snowfalls of late January and February of that year had melted quickly which caused the rivers to swell alarmingly. March 16 of that year saw the greatest flood in living memory hit Kilkenny.

For the younger generation, last year’s snow was probably the most unusual weather event in their lifetimes, but the flood of 1947 which left houses in Kilkenny almost completely under water was perhaps the greatest freak weather event for the over 70s. Even today, I remember that flood as if it were yesterday and often ask myself whether global climate change really is a new phenomenon. The heavy snowfalls of late January and February of that year had melted quickly which caused the rivers to swell alarmingly. March 16 of that year saw the greatest flood in living memory hit Kilkenny.

The Breagagh river (i.e. ‘the deceitful river’) cascaded down Dean Street like a miniature tidal wave, sweeping around Monaghan’s corner at the end of Irishtown and on joining up with the flood waters of the Nore rose rapidly. Many residents in flooded areas had no time to save their few household possessions and retreated upstairs, or in some cases onto the roofs of their houses.

The late Dean Cavanagh, (later to become a Canon of the R. Catholic church) who was the Adm. of St. Canice’s parish, gathered around him a handful of parishioners from houses on higher ground, and began reciting prayers for the safety of those trapped in flooded houses. Low lying houses in places such as Green Street in the city were in a perilous situation. But several small boat owners immediately braved the flood waters to rescue stranded families from the roofs and upstairs bedroom windows of their homes.

Names such as the late Barney Kelly from the Butts area, Mick McGuinness (father of John McGuinness TD), Jimmy Crabbe and Jerry Dunne of Green Street, Pearse Clooney and Kevin Shortall from Maudlin Street, etc. all took their boats into the flood waters to help rescue residents trapped in their homes.

One boat did overturn in John Street and as the crew of the fishing cot hung onto an ESB pole, approximately where Daly’s B&B and ‘The Two Dames’ coffee shop now stands, a man by the name of O’Neill who lived in the street, knotted several sheets together and hauled the boatmen up from the raging flood waters which threatened to sweep them into the river Nore.

A teenage girl in Green Street became hysterical on being lifted into a boat and almost capsized the small fishing cot. Fortunately the boatman managed to bring the girl to her senses by giving her a sharp slap and on steadying the boat got all to the safety of high ground.

John Street, Bateman Quay, John’s Quay, Green Street, Friar’s Bridge, Blackmill area and Irishtown were probably among the worst affected in the city.

Shop windows collapsed and goods such as tins of sweets, biscuits, ice-cream fridges, chairs, tables, pig’s heads, turf etc. were all swept along the streets by fast flowing flood waters. Billy Gaffney’s sweet and ice-cream shop in Irishtown – where Mrs. Quinn’s charity shop now stands was completely gutted, Kennedy’s Butchers, King’s and Walsh’s grocery/pubs and Forte’s Fish and Chip Shop were particularly badly damaged. One of the oldest churches in Kilkenny – the Black Abbey – was also badly flooded. A brave Dominican priest, the late Father Gaffney, actually donned a swimming trunks and swam across the inside of the church to retrieve the Communion Vessels.

One of the best known landmarks in Kilkenny – ‘The Suspension Bridge’ – which spanned the river Nore at the Bishops’ Meadows – was washed away by the flood waters in ‘47and unfortunately never replaced. This bridge was originally built by Lady Desart to facilitate workers living in the Talbot’s Inch hamlet who worked in the Woollen Mills on the opposite bank of the river. It became a hugely popular walk for courting couples, young families with children etc. to meander out the Bleach Road, cross the bridge and home by the Bishops’ Meadows.

Many houses in the city were subsequently condemned as unsuitable for human habitation after the flood and the residents were housed in the old Workhouse at Ossory Park and in the Married Quarters of James Stephens’ army barracks.

Two years later in 1949 a new housing scheme was completed by a local building firm – The Dowling Brothers. Priority in allocation of these houses was to be given to victims who had lost their homes in the ’47 flood. Of course, as always, political strokes were alleged to have been pulled and some people who appeared to be ineligible were installed quickly in the new houses. This aggravated many flood victims who were still left on the waiting list. Subsequently, a letter, published in the ‘Kilkenny People’ and signed by several flood victims, resulted in an uproar at a Corporation meeting. Elected members demanded that the County Manager find out who had sent the ‘Kilkenny People’ to the Minister for Local Government.

Subsequently two representatives from the Local Government Dept. in Dublin arrived at City Hall unannounced and the allocation of houses was taken out of the hands of the elected members of Kilkenny Corporation. This action was described by furious councilors as ‘an inquisition on the Corporation’. Many councilors complaining that it was a slur on their personal character. Allegations of political cronies jumping the queue, and those in authority abusing the power they held was spoken of in hushed voices around the city. But of course we all know that these accusations had to be untrue – sure politicians would never do anything like that!!!!