History of Major Dargle Floods
...1905, 1931, 1965, 1986...
The lowlands of Bray have always suffered from flooding, since the first poor people settled there, on the land that no one else wanted to claim at the time. It was Bray's Connaught.
Bray Bridge was completely destroyed in a huge flood in 1741, and the seafront in Bray was flooded five times between 1860 and 1877, resulting in the Town Commissioners decision to build a huge concrete bulwark against the sea, which they called the Promenade.
If the seafront was flooded, you can be sure that Little Bray also suffered from a swollen Dargle River pushed back by the high tides, but the lowlands here were never so important as to merit real flood protection.
In the last 100 years, there have been four major floods in Little Bray, causing one death from drowning, huge damage to homes, and much human misery. In between, there have been other, lesser floods.
Most people in the lowlands of Little Bray lived through the flood of 1986; many lived through the flood of 1965 also; and some of the older people remember the flood of 1931, as well. After every flood they were told: 'It will never happen again...'
On Thursday, August 24th, 1905, rain began to fall over most parts of Ireland, leading to above average rainfalls for the month being recorded in various locations, and flooding in others.
In Bray, Co. Wicklow, the steady downpour began after 9pm. on the Thursday night and lasted until Saturday.
As the River Dargle began to rise, swollen with flood water, the residents of the district known as Little Bray kept an anxious eye on it as the danger time for the expected severe flooding was believed to be around 6pm. on Friday, August 25th, when high tide occurred.
6pm. came and went, no flooding occurred, and the residents gave a sigh of relief, believing that the danger was past since the receding tide would reduce the risk dramatically.
However, this relief was ill founded. At 9pm., the river bank walls collapsed some distance above Little Bray, and the river came down the road, swamping the whole of Little Bray to a depth of several feet to the Golf Links, and right to the railway.
The entire area of Little Bray was devastated, and hundreds of people had to be evacuated in a very short space of time. As the scale of the disaster was revealed, word was sent to Mr. J. W. Reigh, Chairman of the Bray Urban District Council, who immediately began to direct the rescue operations.
In the course of this work, Mr. Reigh risked his own life to try and save a labourer, James Plunkett, but was unsuccessful and in turn had to be rescued himself.
That unfortunate labourer, James Plunkett, was trying to reach his home when he was swept by the flood from Castle Street down the lane beside Kavanagh's pub to the side of the golf links. The wall of the golf course eventually gave way under intense pressure of the flood waters trying to reach the sea. James Plunkett's body was found on the golf course the following day.
Mr. Reigh, who received an Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for his attempt, wasn't the only one honoured for his rescue attempts on that night. The R.H.S. also awarded testimonials on parchment to twenty-three year old William Mulvey from Bruce's Terrace on the Upper Dargle Road, along with John Thompson, Hugh O’Carroll, T. Harold, Sergt. W. G. McDonough, and Constables W. Vance, D. Clear, R. Fennell and M. McLoughlin, all of whom were involved in going from house to house, rescuing people.
They were part of a proud and honourable tradition that has been maintained in every flood in Bray, and without them many, many more lives would have been lost in Little Bray.
1986 - the late
On Thursday, September 3rd, 1931, the Dargle burst its banks again. It rained all that day and between one and three in the morning there was a full tide and disaster struck the area.
In their issue of September 13, 1931, the Wicklow People reported:
'When the Dargle overflowed its banks on Thursday night last, following hours of torrential rain, which raised the level of the river six or seven feet within a marvellously short time, disaster was spelled for the majority of the residents of Little Bray.
'The released water burst down the roadway in a torrent, and soon, in the streets in the lower lying areas, the water was several feet deep. When the houses were flooded, the occupants were driven almost to panic. People were forced to evacuate and find shelter from the raging elements where they might. All night long the work of rescue went on. Town officials, Civic Guards, clergy and civilians all lent a helping hand, and brought women and children and the old and the invalid to safety.
'Darkness added to the weirdness of the scene as the water surged through the laneways across Castle Street. Hundreds of people in twos and threes emerged from the stricken area, carrying children or whatever few belongings they could pack together at a moment's notice, all wet to the waist. The drenching rain poured down unceasingly on the crowd which stood on the higher ground, watching the rescue work with interest.
'Convents and public institutions were thrown open to shelter the homeless, and, in spite of their unpreparedness for the disaster, hot meals were quickly prepared. By three am. everyone had been put under a roof. Most of the people, especially those in one storeyed houses, of which there are many in this area, left early. Those in the smaller two-storeyed dwellings, however, could not be induced to move until late, with the result that boats, three of which were brought from the harbour, had to be requisitioned to bring them to 'dry-land'.
'When the waters subsided, they left behind a thick layer of ooze and sewerage matter, which was forced through the pipes. Homes are naturally in a very bad state of dampness, and many people were left without bed or clothing. These are being kept for the time being in the International Hotel, and, fearing a premature return might result in an epidemic, will not be permitted to return until their homes are thoroughly cleaned, dried and disinfected. At the present time meals are being supplied by the Relief Committee formed on the evening of the disaster and clothing is also being provided.
'When the first houses were flooded between 9 and 10pm. the occupants began to leave, and soon it was seen that the flood would be of large proportions. Maitland Street, Back Street, Captain's Avenue, and other streets in that immediate locality were the most badly affected, and the work of rescue became dangerous as the water was raised waist-high. Considerable difficulty was found in taking old, bed-ridden, and sick people from the small houses. Many civilians joined council officials and the Civic Guard in the rescue work.
'The refugees were first removed to Ravenswell Convent. The Town Hall was then opened, and later Mr. F. Bethell, Bray Head Hotel, gave the Town Clerk permission to accommodate the people in the vacant International Hotel. Others were brought to the Little Flower Hall, and others found shelter with their friends living in other parts of the town.
'On Friday, when those who had remained the night in the Town Hall had been transferred to the International Hotel, a census showed the refugees as follows:- in the International Hotel 350; in the Little Flower Hall 100; and in Ravenswell Convent 70. Meals and dry clothes were provided for all these, and in preparation for a long spell of occupation, all were transferred to the International, to which mattresses, provided by local traders and sent from the army and the Civic Guard Depot were brought. The catering arrangmenets were taken over by Mrs. Stokes and Mrs. Delino.
'In addition to the homes that were evacuated, the water found its way into many others, wetting furniture, destroying the bedding and causing grave discomfort and inconvenience to the occupants. It is estimated that when everything is replaced, and the bills for food and clothing come to be met, that the flood will have cost several thousands of pounds.'
The newspaper found the story so enthralling that they also rang a piece about the flood by 'a special corresondent' in the same issue:
'On Friday morning, Bray awoke to find hundreds of its inhabitants seeking shelter from the floods. At least one thousand people were driven from their homes before the onrush of the swirling, roaring waters.
'Without warning and with great rapidity the waters began to pour into the streets about 9pm, and by 10pm. the people were compelled to leave their houses, some by boats from the upper windows. In one house in Back Street, the waters reached to six feet, and the occupiers escaped by the merest chance.
'The civic spirit displayed by the people in this crisis was truly remarkable. Despite the late hour and the raging storm, hundreds of people rallied to the work of rescue at the first call. Volunteers arrived with buses, private cars, lorries and vehicles of all descriptions to convey beds, bedding and provisions to the various centres.
'In the inky darkness and driving rain, the scene was terrifying. Women and children screamed as they were taken from their beds and, covered with nondescript garments, carried to the waiting motors. Above the roar of the waters was heard the sharp commands of the Gardai, the screams of frightened animals, the babel of voices.
'At the relief centres, staffs of ladies had already taken up their positions and soon hot tea was being served to the sufferers. When daybreak came, the scene was pitiful. Without was nothing but a dreary waste of murky, turgid water: within, groups of shivering, miserable, homeless humanity.
'As a result of a circular issued by the Town Clerk, a large and representative meeting was held in the Town Hall on Friday evening and a relief fund formally opened. The catering and housing of the victims is now being done entirely in the International Hotel; the supplying of clothing for women and children in the Florence Hall, and for the men in the Little Flower Hall, in which is also the headquarters of the Inspection Committee. The stricken area has been divided into twelve districts, each in charge of a visiting member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and two ladies.
The floods of November 17, 1965, were recorded by local historian, James Scannell:
'The risk of flooding from the River Dargle during the winter months is a hazard which the people of Little Bray have to live with, as much of this part of Bray lies below the level of the river and is built on some of the former watercourse, which followed a more northerly route than the present course of the river.
'Surprisingly, out of the five major floods during the last 100 years, only one life has been lost directly due to the floods, and that was James Plunkett who was drowned in the 1905 flood, despite a heroic rescue attempt by J.W.Reigh, the then chairman of the Bray Urban District Council who was later awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for his gallant efforts.
'In the mid 1950s, some members of the Bray Urban District Council became aware that parts of the Upper Dargle posed a potential flooding threat and, while the attention of Wicklow County Council was drawn to the matter, in the hope that they would seek funds for a flood prevention scheme, no definite action was taken.
'The week commencing Monday, November 15th, 1965, began with a nationwide series of storms which consisted of hail, rain, sleet and snow, and gusts of wind up to 70mph with widespread damage being caused to road, rail, electricity and telephone services.
'County Wicklow suffered snow in the first part of the week which quickly turned into torrential rain late on Tuesday evening (November 16th), melting snow which had fallen on the lower slopes of the mountains. Very quickly rivers went into spate and by early on Wednesday morning a watch was being kept on the rising level of the River Dargle - danger time for flooding being expected around 6.30pm. that evening at high tide.
'On the Strand Road, householders were having to endure a second day of flooding due to the easterly gale, which was catapulting the sea over the promenade onto the Strand Road, and householders were forced to barricade the entrances to their houses while workers from the BUDC and the Bray Fire Brigade did their best to ease the flooding.
'Throughout Wednesday afternoon, the level of the Dargle continued to rise, due in part to the easterly gale, and around 5pm. the BUDC went on alert as reports began to come in of minor flooding in the Little Bray area. These calls were attended to by the Council's workforce and the fire brigade, and at 5.30pm, County Wicklow Civil Defence Officer, Jim Brophy, was asked to place the Civil Defence on 'stand to' as some minor flooding was expected later that evening around tea time, but nothing of a serious nature.
'Very quickly the Civil Defence mobilisation plans were implemented and the organisation went on to a 'stand to' basis with key personnel ready to go if called upon.
'In Little Bray the water continued to rise, backing up from shores and drains, and reports of minor flooding still continued to come in. By 7pm. volunteers were needed to sandbag parts of Little Bray and, while Civil Defence members were being called out, just before 8pm. the banks of the Dargle collapsed in several places and a wall of water inundated the area.
'Very quickly members of the Civil Defence and the Red Cross were mobilised and headed for this stricken area to help those affected as best they could. The full scale of the disaster which was unfolding was conveyed in person to Jim Brophy in the Civil Defence office beside the old fire station at the rere of the Town Hall, when Section Leader Louis O'Rourke reported in with an ambulance full of evacuees. A full mobilisation of the groups within the Civil Defence organisation then took place, and, as news of the unfolding disaster spread throughout the town, other voluntary organisations turned out and placed themselves at the disposal of the Civil Defence organisation.
'To monitor the situation in the Little Bray area, a forward headquarters was established in the Park Lodge where the caretaker, Mr. Murray, relayed messages by telephone between Civil Defence workers and the Civil Defence office. As the flood waters rose, a dramatic message came from Mr. Murray: 'I am now forced to move upstairs and I can't get any more messages through. The water is right up to the first floor.' A new forward headquarters was then set up in the offices of Tommy Murphy's garage which was at the eastern end of Gertrude Tce., manned by local Post Wardens, Pat O'Toole and Tom Shortt, while throughout the flooded area the work of rescue continued at a frantic pace with boats being brought up from the seafront to assist in rescue operations.
'In places the flood waters rose to 5 feet and nearly 400 houses were affected, the people in single storey houses suffering severe hardship as they had no upstairs to retreat to as the flood waters rose.
'As people were evacuated in a massive operation, a number of people placed premises at the disposal of the evacuees. These included the Mother Superiors of Ravenswell and Loreto Convents; Kevin Doyle of the Sunnybank Inn, who provided food and accommodation; the Earl of Meath; Cllr. Doyle who opened the Glenhilton Guest House; the Legion of Mary who allowed the use of the Fatima House as an Emergency Centre; Rev. Rooke of Christ Church who opened the Rectory to evacuees, and householders all over the town who did likewise.
'A mobile feeding unit was established beside the Court House (now the Heritage Centre) and provided hot drinks for the cold and wet rescue workers who were suffering badly from the inclement weather.
'The worst affected areas were Maitland Street, Ardee Street, Adelaide Villas, Lower Dargle Road, St. Brigid's Terrace, and the Greenpark Road, where water levels rose to between 4 and 5 feet.
'There were countless heroic rescues of people trapped in their houses by the swirling water. Bill Clarke helped to rescue a child in Castle Street. In another, William Hall of 21 Dwyer Park dragged a young mother to safety while she was being carried away by the flood waters. Section Leader Louis O'Rourke of the Civil Defence, with Red Cross officer, Dermot Cranny, and Fireman Eamonn Shanley carried old people to safety while up to their waists in water. Garda Tony Shaughnessy was another who distinguished himself that night in rescuing people. In another incident, Padraig Savage had to enlist the aid of a fire tender to push his ambulance through the flood waters to take an expectant mother to hospital.
'The full scale of the devastation to Little Bray became apparent at first light on Thursday morning when a survey of the damage was carried out by the Town Engineer, Michael Healy, who was later to report to the Council that 401 houses had been affected by the flood waters of which over 230 had been classed damagewise from 'bad' to 'very bad', while the remainder sustained only minor damage.
'Priority was given to the sandbagging of the breaches in the River Dargle, while the work of pumping away the water continued and the task of clearing up and drying out the houses commenced.
'At a special meeting of BUDC on Tuesday, November 23, the Town Engineer, Michael Healy, gave his report into what caused the flooding:-
'"On the evening of Wednesday, November 17, it seemed that the continuous heavy rain, combined with a rapid thaw of the snow which had fallen in the higher area outside Bray on the previous day, might cause flooding. At 6pm. the Fire Brigade started pumping operations in the Lower Dargle Road area. At this time the flooding was merely local.
"At 8pm. there was a sudden impact of water from the Dargle River which overflowed its banks at a number of points. There had been a strong easterly gale and at about 6.30pm. was high tide. The combination of gale, river in unusual spate from rain and thaw, and the high tide caused the flooding. Immediately the serious flooding occurred, all Fire Brigade units (including the Auxiliary Fire Service) and council workmen were called out. Voluntary assistance was also readily forthcoming. The water rose so rapidly that many persons were cut off in their homes and a number of boats had to be got from the seafront to assist in taking people from their houses."
'Two days later, on Thursday, November 25, the Emergency Centre in Fatima House was closed and the Civil Defence operation was wound down, leaving the task of distributing the funds collected nationwide for the relief of those affected by the flooding to the Co-Ordinating Committee.
'The scale of the flooding ensured that flood prevention work was carried out on the banks of the River Dargle in the expectation that flooding on this scale would never happen again.'
Local newspaper, the Bray People, gave over the front page of its August 29th edition to coverage of the 'Hurricane Charlie' flood, which hit Bray on the night of 25th August 1986.
Much of it was taken up with a huge photograph of the late Mrs. Margaret Curley, then 74, shown sweeping some of the sludge and debris out of her one-storey home in the aftermath of the flood. Its caption reads: 'Life's Labours Lost - the numb shock of Bray's nightmare night is etched in the face of 74 years old Mrs. Margaret Curley, whose entire belongings and home at Ardee Street were destroyed in the flood.'
The opening words are not strictly true: Mrs. Curley could only lose what had not already been taken from her in the floods of 1931 and '65... What was taken in '86 was what she and her family had painfully rebuilt after each of the previous disasters.
Inside, further vivid photographs by the late Dave and Marie O'Connor show people like Maurice and Kathleen Tinsley, who also lived in Ardee Street. Kathleen was suffering from cancer at the time, and Maurice from bronchitis.
Inside also, Jan Van Embden and Niall Martin gave a graphic hour by hour account of the flood, beginning with huge waves crashing over Bray's seafront and - shortly after 6pm. - over a dozen boats destroyed in the harbour by pounding seas.
'7pm. The alert is sounded as the Dargle River begins to rise at an alarming rate. Shortly afterwards, the first distress calls go in to Bray Civil Defence from anxious residents looking for sandbags to protect homes close to the river.
'8 pm. By this point, the River Dargle has burst its banks in the face of a massive tide surging upstream from the harbour.
'9pm. With floodwaters continuing to rise at the rate of one foot per hour, a raging torrent is sweeping through large parts of Little Bray.
'10pm. A full scale emergency is declared in the face of hundreds of pleas for help from residents who by now have taken refuge in the top floors of their homes.
'Under the direction of Civil Defence Chief, Bobby Crowther, the nerve centre for the rescue operation is set up at Bray's old courthouse in the Main Street.
'10.30pm. Volunteers from the Order of Malta and Red Cross set up emergency centres to accommodate evacuees in the Little Flower Hall and Ravenswell Convent.
'11pm. The Bray Civil Defence orders full scale mobilisation of sister units from all over Co. Wicklow and volunteers and vehicles set out from as far afield as Baltinglass and Blessington through appalling driving conditions.
'12 midnight. The floodwaters are now at a depth of over six feet in many places. The deluge has affected all of Little Bray from the line of the Upper/Lower Dargle Road to the coast.
'The commercial and shopping area of Castle Street, housing estates at Seapoint and Coburg and large residential areas off the Dargle Roads are all flooded. Dwyer Park off Castle Street is the most heavily flooded area.
'12.30am. Emergency personnel prepare for a further crisis following warnings that another high tide is due at 4.46am. There are fears that it could even sweep away Bray's main bridge. All main roads into Bray are now cut.
'12.39am. Rescue operations are hampered by a cut in electricity which plunges the Courthouse headquarters into darkness for the rest of the night.
'12.45am. Gardai face another hazard with reports of a potential time-bomb at the Lithographic Universal factory where five liquid gas tanks have slipped from their stands and begin leaking.
'There are serious fears that combusiton could result in a huge explosion and a "fireball effect on the water".
'2am. Rescue services reckon that about 500 people have been evacuated from their homes by this point. Some are cared for in the emergency centres but most go to stay with relatives and friends.
'3am. The crisis point is reached with the floodwaters reaching their highest point. Services are at full stretch with Civil Defence, Gardai, Red Cross, Order of Malta, Council workers, firemen and volunteers all fully mobilised.
'4am. The floodwaters are now receding and a fast flowing current is running through Superquinn, Castle Street and Bray Golf Club to the harbour.
'5am. The flood continues to fall rapidly.
'7am. Water levels are now down to a few inches in most places. The immediate crisis is past, but now the enormous task of mopping up and counting the cost begins.'
Another report in the Bray People pointed out that:
'Many of the victims of Tuesday's flood were people least able to make good the damage.
'A high proportion of the residents in the effected area are people on low incomes, unemployed or senior citizens.
'In many cases, householders do not even have any insurance cover to fall back on in the wake of the floods.
'Thousands of pounds worth of property was lost in individual houses as furniture, carpets, televisions, videos, appliances and other belongings were engulfed in water before families had a chance to move them upstairs.
'Particularly hard hit were old people living in single storey homes in Ardee Street who did not even have the comparative safety of a top floor to take refuge in.'
In this flood of 1986, many businesses in Little Bray were destroyed, including the Lithographic Universal printing plant at Dargle Vale, beside the Slang. Floodwaters had breached the wall at the rear of the premises and swept into the works. This ruined building was later demolished entirely, and River Dale apartments built on that site.
On the same page of the Bray People two other stories were published of locals and rescue volunteers who almost lost their lives in this flood.
Civil Defence officers, Bill Clarke and Marshal McElheron, Greystones councillor Jack Murnane, and Noel Poynton had set out in Noel's boat to move marooned householders to safety when the boat was overturned in the flood waters.
They had been sailing over the tops of cars, when their boat snagged on one and they found themselves up to their chests in the dark flowing floodwaters when they were thrown out of the boat near Castle Garage in Castle Street. They were forced to swim for safety up to Ravenswell. The boat was found afterwards washed up on Bray Golf Course.
Barman, Tony Mohan, was trying to get home by the People's Park when he was swept off his feet by the floodwaters - four foot deep at that point. He clung to the railings of the Park until he was rescued.
Tony celebrated his 21st birthday the following weekend. He was born in 1965, the year of the previous big flood in Little Bray, whereas the late Annie Murphy, who had lived in Dargan Street since 1914, had been through three. She was 81 when the floods of '86 invaded her home once more.
from Bray People