Hurricane Debbie 50 years on

IT is 50 years since Hurricane Debbie blew into Londonderry and lifted the lid off Clondermot High School.

Despite the passage of time, many of the townsfolk still have vivid memories of the day Debbie breezed in and caused chaos, and of how a protest was mounted to have the school rebuilt.

Prior to achieving Category 3 hurricane status, Debbie actually formed as a Tropical Storm off the coast of Africa on September 6, 1961. She was upgraded to hurricane status the following day and raged until September 16, thankfully mostly out to sea, tracking steadily north west and then north east until she hit the coat of Ireland.

At the peak of her power, Hurricane Debbie reached an intensity of 120mph on September 11, and it was because of a trough of low pressure that Debbie changed direction and raced towards the British Isles, causing heavy damage across the UK, including demolishing Clondermot High School, and, tragically causing 11 deaths across Ireland.

Lynn Buchanan was a 13-year-old second year pupil who was just about to go into third year at Clondermot High, when Debbie lifted the lid off the school.

She recalled how, because progress on re-building the school had taken so long, a protest march was organised and protesters took their upset to the then doors of the education authority at Brooke Park.

“I remember it was a Saturday afternoon and I was on Carlisle Road buying a pair of shoes at Campbell’s Shoe Shop. I can remember that it was stormy and when I went home I remember the school had been damaged.

“But what I remember most about the thing was that we protested about not getting the school fixed. We had to go to the Model, Templemore out at the Glen and to Ebrington. We were bussed to the three schools and I remember not being able to go to school at Clondermot for a long long time, I am sure it was a year or more,” she said.

“I remember we protested at the education authority offices at Brooke Park,” she says, adding: “We all marched up there carrying placards. I remember going up there with Joan McClarence.”

Lloyd Magee, of Bonds Street Community Association, was a boy of 10 when Debbie came to town.

He had vivid memories of playing with the wind with his friends, clinging to lamp posts trying to resist being blown back up Bonds Street and trying to stay upright as the big wind blew.

“I just remember the wind picking up that day as I was outside playing in Bonds Street. There was a definite build-up of wind, but to us kids it was just a bit of fun and we did not think anything of it.

“We pressed ourselves flat against the wall of houses and once you stood out from the wall and the wind caught you you got blown about. It was just fun to us. We didn’t realise the dangers,” said Lloyd.

“It wasn’t that serious to us until we were in lower Bonds Street and the slates started flying off the roofs of houses. I remember we had to hold onto the telegraph poles and lamp posts the wind was that strong, but we made it a game trying to hold on. There were a couple of friends of ours and their mothers were terrified and went out to try and pull us inside before we blew away,” he recalled with humour.

Once Debbie had left, he could not resist having a peek at what was left of the school.

“When you are 10 years of age what else do you do? I went up to the school to have a look. I remember the roof was off the school and part of it was down at Bann Drive. Papers and everything were lying everywhere. Just after that, when I was leaving Ebrington Primary School to go to Clondermot we could not go to the school because of the damage, so we were all bussed to the Model and Templemore school. It upset your education because we were moved between two different schools. One day we could have been at the Model and the next we could have been bussed to Templemore,” he said.

One of Lloyd’s playmates that day was Waterside man Bertie Adair, who grew up in Roulston Avenue. At the time he was 12-years-old, and a second year pupil at Clondermot.

“I remember there was substantial damage caused to the school and that we were taken to a different school for classes. I remember I was in Ebrington and the Model and others were taken to Templemore Intermediate.

“I think that’s where the prefab buildings came from at Ebrington; that they were brought in for pupils from Clondermot,” Bertie said.

Recalling the physical damage to the former Clondermot school, Bertie said there was debris lying everywhere, and the assembly hall and gymnasium were demolished and a blue-coloured building was also raized to the ground

“I went up to the school to have a look with Peter Alexander and Billy Leslie. We just wanted to see the state of it and we were laughing because we knew there was no way we would be going to school with it in the state it was.

“The smiles were soon wiped off our faces because a week later we learned we were to be bussed to school and we ended up at the Model.

“I remember there were different classes and pupils were sent to different schools, but me, Peter and Billy ended up at the Model. I remember they used the buses that were used for Foyle College.”

Now the grounds of Clondermot are vacant and silent once again, the school having closed its doors permanently. In another 50 years’ time the hill where the school stood proudly may have a quite different function within the life of the Waterside.

Only time will tell...