In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the part of Donegal that Michael Fitzgerald called home (go to the Glenveagh National Park website to get an idea of the locale) was prone to extreme weather events. Lightning strikes that tore up the hills and torrents of rain that washed away mountainsides were not uncommon, according to Fitzgerald’s records.
But the events of 6 August 1868 surpassed anything he had experienced before. In fact, they were beyond what most people would have experienced before. The members of the Royal Meteorological Society were intrigued, and an account of Fitzgerald’s fabulous encounter was read at their meeting of 20 March 1878.
“Notes on the occurrence of Globular Lightning and Waterspouts in Co. Donegal, Ireland.” By M. FITZGERALD (Communicated by ROBERT H. SCOTT, F.R.S.)
The following is my experience of Waterspouts and Lightning:- On the 6th of August, 1868, this neighbourhood being free from the dense black clouds that hung over the mountains of Glenswilly and Glendoan, I went up the latter glen to note anything worthy of observation. On arriving at Meenawilligan, the sky was so black over Bintwilly (Bin Tuile, the height of the floods), where lightning and thunder were following each other in rapid succession, that I turned homewards in case the rain should overtake me. When I reached Folbane, on looking behind, I noticed a globe of fire in the air floating leisurely along in the direction of Church Hill. After passing the crown of the ridge, where I first noticed it, it descended gradually into the valley, keeping all the way about the same distance from the surface of the land, until it reached the stream between Folbane and Derora, about 300 yards from where I stood. It then struck the land and re-appeared in about a minute, drifted along the surface for about 200 yards, and again disappeared in the boggy soil, reappearing about 20 perches further down the stream; again it moved along the surface, and again sunk, this time into the brow of the stream, which it flew across and finally lodged in the opposite brow, leaving a hole in the peat bank, where it buried itself.
If it had left no marks behind, I confess that, as I had never seen anything of the kind before, I should hesitate to describe its movements, which surprised me much at the time, but the marks which it left behind of its course and power surprised me more.
I at once examined its course, and found a hole about 20 feet square, where it first touched the land, with pure peat turned out on the lea as if it had been cut out with a huge knife. This was only a minute’s work, and, as well as I could judge, it did not occupy fully that time. It next made a drain about 20 perches in length and 4 feet deep, afterwards ploughing up the surface about 1 foot deep, and again tearing away the bank of the stream about 5 perches in length and 5 feet deep, and then hurling the immense mass into the bed of the stream, it flew into the opposite peaty brink. From its appearance till it buried itself could not have been more than 20 minutes, during which it travelled leisurely, as if floating, with an undulating motion through the air and land over one mile. It appeared at first to be a bright red globular ball of fire, about 2 feet in diameter, but its bulk became rapidly less, particularly after each dip in the soil, so that it appeared not more than 3 inches in diameter when it finally disappeared. The sky overhead was clear at that time, but about one hour afterwards it became as dark as midnight. Thunder and lightning accompanied the darkness, and such torrents of rain fell as I have never seen fall before or since, except on the 5th of August this year (1877), when another waterspout fell on the village of Church Hill. On the 20th June, 1877, two waterspouts fell near Bintwilly, which is 1,112 feet above sea level. From time immemorial this hill has been famous for waterspouts, as its name indicates – The Mountain of Floods. Flying clouds passed by it till about 11 a.m. After this they settled upon its summit, and gradually darkened until the mountain became obscured in pitch darkness, lit up occasionally by lightning, succeeded by thunder.
About 12.30 a vivid flash of lightning struck and tore up the hill-side for a considerable distance between the Bintwilly and Meenirroy road. This was immediately followed by a loud peal of thunder, and succeeded by such a torrent of rain that the flood came rushing abreast down along the whole mountain side about 6 feet high, carrying everything before it. The rain lasted only 15 minutes, and then the sky and the mountain became as clear as ever. The brightness was, however, of short duration, for the clouds soon collected again over and around Bintwilly; but this time the darkest clouds (some of which were as black as ink) rested over Glendoan until about 1 o’clock p.m., when a flash of lightning tore up the solid rocky bed of Crologhy River. Thunder and torrents of rain followed immediately. The rain of the first waterspout was confined to the south side of Bintwilly, while that of the second extended from the summit of Glenveagh Mountains to Bintwilly. The area of the first rainfall was about half a mile square; the second followed the south side of the mountain range through a space about three miles long and a quarter of a mile wide. The second waterspout lasted about 20 minutes; and both in the course of 35 minutes destroyed over £2,000 worth of county property on the roads.
Fitzgerald, M. (1878) Notes on the Occurrence of Globular Lightning and Waterspouts in County Donegal, Ireland, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 4 (27), 160 - 161