Northern Ireland

Tyrone 'Dorothy's' Wizard of Oz hurricane experience

Pauline Brannigan and her mother Mary hold a photograph of Pauline taken when she was two
Image caption Pauline Brannigan and her mother Mary hold a photograph of Pauline taken when she was two

The approaching anniversary of a deadly storm with the innocuous name of Debbie has been bringing back memories to many of its victims.

Sixteen people died and many more were injured when Hurricane Debbie tore across Ireland on 16 September 1961.

Border counties suffered most, although towns along the island's coast did not escape.

In Portrush on the north coast, seven boats sank, while windows in the town's shops and houses were blown in, such was the force of the wind.

Trees were uprooted, roofs were stripped from houses and boats sank at their moorings in winds gusting at more than 100 miles per hour.

The dead, 10 in the Republic and six in Northern Ireland, ranged from a baby killed along with her mother, to a 70-year-old Tyrone pensioner.

For one Tyrone family, however, an extraordinary incident involving a toddler had a happy ending.

High in the air

Pauline Loughran was just two years of age when she disappeared from the front of her grandparents' farmhouse at Shanmaghery.

Her family and neighbours believe she was lifted high into the air by the hurricane and deposited in a potato field a short distance away.

The child's miraculous escape has led, inevitably, to parallels being drawn with Dorothy's adventures in the Wizard of Oz.

Fifty years after the dreadful events, Pauline, now Pauline Brannigan, said she had few memories of an ordeal which came close to costing her life.

While she said she did not remember much about her particular adventure, she said she had picked up pieces of the story from others.

"People can tell what they were doing that day and who they were with," she said.

"It's Mammy who filled me totally in all the minor detail.

"People far and wide remember the wee girl who was blown away, but I just can't recollect anything. I was only two.

"It seems I was out with Granda (in our front yard). One minute I was there, and the next, I wasn't."

Pauline said her mother was not convinced that she was bodily lifted into the air, but may have been pushed along by the fierce wind at her back.


Whatever the circumstances, the child was missing for the next 24 hours.

"I was missing from, say ten o'clock on Saturday morning until after ten on Sunday," she said.

Looking back, she said, it must have been dreadful for her parents and grandparents not to have known where she was, especially when night fell and she was still missing.

Pauline said an aunt was sent to distract her mother and "not let on" about the bad news in the hope that she would be found.

"As night came on, they realised they had to tell Mummy the truth.

"Mammy tells that her and Daddy went out at five in the morning and just walked around."

Pauline said that at that stage her mother, who had almost entirely given up hope, believed the child would be found, "but would be dead".

The breakthrough came after a youth thought he heard a child crying as he walked across the fields to meet a neighbour who was to give him a lift to Mass.

Priests in surrounding parishes cut short Masses that Sunday morning and asked their congregations to help in the search for the toddler.

Hearing the appeal, the youth nudged the man who gave him the lift and told about his experience in the field.

Shortly afterwards, based on the boy's information, the search party found Pauline curled up asleep in the drills of a potato field.

"I don't remember a thing, and that's probably a good thing," she said.