On the morning of September 16 1961, gale warnings were issued because of a possible impending storm. Violent storms are almost never actual hurricanes by the time they reach Ireland, but all of that was about to change that morning. Hurricane Debbie was the only hurricane, that is known about, to have made landfall in Ireland as a Category 1 event. Gusts of more than 180 kilometres an hour were recorded, and while the winds were not as strong as the gusts, they were capable of causing a lot of damage. Eighteen people died in Ireland as a result of the storm, six in the North and 12 in the South. They were killed by collapsing walls and trees, one was drowned from a small boat, and a young boy was blown into a stream. Tens of thousands of houses and other structures were damaged, some were completely destroyed, some suffered roof loss, while others had lesser damage such as windows blown in, etc.
Debbie did much to change the face of Galway in a very short space of time. Buildings were damaged, some very badly; the Jes Rowing Club was completely destroyed. Trees were uprooted, electricity poles and telephone poles were knocked, walls knocked, roads were impassable, there was serious flooding in some parts of the city and Salthill, thousands of roof tiles and slates were removed resulting in very dangerous flying debris, caravans were moved 150 metres, cars upturned, the markets were closed as a precaution.
Galway resembled a bomb site. There was no electricity and the phones did not work. More than 1,000 ESB personnel countrywide worked to restore supply and there were many calls to build an underground cable system for the electrical grid. By September 23 officials in the city were appealing to the Government for funding to help deal with the aftermath of the storm.
To travel from the city to Salthill was extremely difficult because of roads blocked by fallen trees and poles. There was serious flooding in the Spanish Arch area, and in Salthill the areas worst affected were at the Warwick Hotel, around Seapoint, and on the Rockbarton Road where Leisureland is today.
The storm did not last very long, later that afternoon weather conditions were almost normal, but for anyone who witnessed Debbie, the memory will always be with them. There were lots of stories of near misses and miraculous escapes. Dr Seán O Beirne was driving down Shop Street when he saw an elderly lady in difficulties near O’Gorman’s bookshop. He stopped and after quite a struggle trying to open the car door into the wind, he eventually got her into the seat. He had just got into his own seat and closed the door when a large sheet of corrugated iron came flying around Holland’s corner and shot past the car where he had been standing seconds before. Had there been contact, it would have cut him in two. If one was walking in the street, one had to hug the facades of the building because of flying roof slates which were smashing into pieces on the street.
Our photograph today was taken across the street from Donnellan’s Pub (now Lonergan’s ) and Killoran’s Pub, and gives one an idea of the kind of havoc caused by Debbie. Some flooding is evident, the sea wall has been smashed, part of the street has been washed away by the high tide and violent waves, a car has been blown off the street and lies on its side, and it looks as if some kind of makeshift barrier has been set up to keep pedestrians and vehicular traffic away from the hazards.