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The Great Glenelly Flood of 1680

July 31, 1965

This account of a Tyrone catastrophe three hundred years ago when "the powers of Satin opened the floodgates, prompted by the evil designs of some witches," is contributed by G. M. Macnamara - Ulster Herald


The recent cloudburst in the Killeter area of this county, and its consequent train of destruction, brings to mind the story of another Tyrone catastrophe, The Great Glenelly Flood, which happened on the 26th June, 1680, one bright Saturday afternoon,when "the powers of Satan opened the floodgates, prompted by the evil designs of some witches!"

Apart from the alleged causes and promptings, the occurrence, is an historical fact. The record of this catastrophe is preserved in a pamphlet of letters in the British Museum, received from eye witnesses in many surrounding areas, Derry, Strabane, Limavady, all couched in-to present-day readers- quaint phraseology.

The cloudburst began about four o'clock in the afternoon, and lasted about three hours, yet tradition has it that it caused death by drowning of over one hundred people. Bodies were washed out to sea; some were never recovered, others turned up on the coast of Norway, and one unfortunate woman's body was recovered many months afterwards on the shores of the Shetland Islands. The records also say that the loss of livestock and property was correspodingly large.

According to tradition only one spot in the Glenelly valle escaped. It appears that while the torrents were surging along this valley the floodwaters by-passed "The Wee Kill" or "The Saint's Grave" located at Alt-a-Loraan in Upper Badoney, the reputed burial place of St. Patrick's cook, St. Aitchen, alias St. Cormac. A letter from Derry stated:

"In the afternoon a great thunder with hail and rain. It hath not only tore up a mountain of near 200 acres, but the cloud breaking thereon 200 acres, but the cloud breaking thereon hath carried away several houses and families inasmuch that of men, women and children already above thirty crop are found and many more are believed to be lost. All fish for several miles up the river is destroyed by the blackness and muddiness of the waters which the surface of the mountain made, of salmon alone 700 or 800 already found dead on the shore; of eels and all other freshwater fish infinite numbers destroyed; nor can it be believedthat in those rivers one fish is left alive."

Many people drowned

A correspondent from Stravane wrote:

"The thunder clap, forced the bowels of a great mountain belonging to one Glaine Hamilton after which ensued the fall of a great cloud which entering the cavities of the said mountains made by the thunder, its weight bore the greatest part of the mountain before it which made such deluge or puddle that part of it fell into the Glenelly water which flows towards Newtown Stewart drowned nineteen persons in their houses, turned the whole valley for eight or nne miles in length that were meadows into a desert of dirt a foot thick and hath killed all the fish in the river for twenty miles in length. The other half of the cloud fell into the Row (roe) that runs through Londonderry, hath drowned thirty-one persons and forced away the stone bridge at Limavady. The thunder and rain continued for hours."

A Bridge was lost

The following account was written from Limavady:

"The river swelled suddenly and did so overflow all banks that I never saw so great a flood, and coming down so impetuously it brought with it an infinite deal of timber, sticks, straw and rubbish, and having no vent set iy over and not one stick left and so the prettiest bridge in Ireland was lost. I understand since that the thunder began above Dungiven, ad there a thundrbold fell upon a hill and tore it down which mingling with the rain which rather fell like a great spout, it came tumbling upon a house belonging to Aveny O'Cahan, the father of Chan O'Cahan, the tory, and a moment overthrew it and carried all away with it, and Aveny and his wife and five children and four friends were drowned with all their own cows, sheep and horses and amongst them a child in a cradle, which cradle, along with many other

household goods and timber of houses, did help to choak and overthrow our bridge."

Storm at Newtownstewart

In a letter from Newtownstewart a wtiter describing the storm states:

"A boy told me he saw a thunderbolt fall which , with great flames and flashes, tore the ground and all the day after none could go near the place for the smell of brimstone. He says there fell also hailstones of a strange size and shape, some like pieves of candles and some like buttons with sharp points. Within a few miles of that place eighteen persons were found drowned in one heap. My curiosity took me to the place where this kind of deluge began, and truly I was amazed to see a mountain torn in ten several places and all the low ground by the river for ten miles together covered with the ruins, the corn fields buried and people groping in the mud and earth for the bodies of their friends and cattle. I cannot yet learn how many have perished, but by the account that is given here are lost in several places fifty souls and abundance of cattle. After this it is a small thing to tell you that all the meadows about this town are spoiled and all the corn from here to the river mouth and what is wonderful, about Derry and Coleraine nothing but an ordinary shower at Maghera and there about clear weather."

Present-day Evidence

Such are some of the accounts by authentic writers of one of the most devestating deluges in the history of Ireland. The effects of this flood after 285 years can be traced along the rivers involved. The most noticeable is the Glenelly as from Sperrin village to Plumbridge, a distance of about nine miles, it flows through a narrow defile. Right along the course of the stream one can see where the banks have been washed away in some parts sixty feet high. The field where the sheep dog trials are held in Plumbridge, a holm of about ten acres alongside the river, is evidece of the havoc wrought by the waters. On both sides of this field are banks thirty feet high, a lasting monument to the forces of nature.

From the Roe Bridge at Limavady traces to where the waters surged through the sandy soil can be seen; these are visible in the ridge running veside rhe Myroe road. The same is noticeale at Faughan Bridge on the Derry-Limavady road. All the dwelling-houses build adjacent to these streams since this great rainstorm stand on ground above what may be termed "high water marks." Prior to that they were erected in sheltered nooks on the bring of the rivers, hence the great loss of life and property.

A Scots grazier tricked the landlord

After this cathastrophe the majority of the inhabitants left the district as it was believed by many in those credulous days that there was a "curse" on that part of the valley laid desolate. Consequently for some years the district around Sperrin and Goals was almost uninhabited until a hard-headed Scotsman named MacDermott took a lease of part of the mountains for a period of ten years.

The conditions were that the landlord was to stock the mountain with sheep, the price of which MacDermott was to pay by instalments, together with the rent. He was to have three years' grace before any money became due for stock or rent. At the end of the first three years a substantial sum was to be handed over to the landlord. Accordingly he arrived with his shepard, a young man was named Duffy, and took possession.

MacDermott was a tip-top sheep man who knew his business, and his flocks did remarkably well. He sold his lambs yearly in "The Cross" fair and was reputed to be "a very decent man an' makin' money han' over fish."

On the 3rd November, a dew days before his first instalment was due, not only did he sell his lambs at a good price bit also their dams as well. He also disposed of three cows, their calbes and pony.

On the appointed date, which was a few days after he had parted with the remainder of his worldly goods, the agent arrived to collect the first instalment only to find Duffy very much perplexed on account of the absence of his master, who, he said, had left three days previous instructing him to tell the agent that he was sorry the Sperrin did not agree with him; his health was not what it should be owing to so much snow, rain, and mist. Consequently on that account he reluctantly compelled to seek pastures new.

He was also to inform the agent 'that he need not worry unduly, as the payment was always in front of him'.

But according to my informant, whose veracity I have no reason to question, Mr McDermott is still posted as missing.

Duffy, his servant, on the contrary settled in the land of his adoption, and, like the pastoral patriarch of biblical times multiplied and replenished the earth to such an extent that now there are in the Goals district something like a hundred inhabitants answering to the name of Duffy, all of which are the descendants of this shepard."