Counties braced for Storm Rachel
Hurricane force winds of 150km/h are expected to batter Ireland's western counties tonight and tomorrow as the first major Atlantic storm of the year swept in.
Met Eireann upgraded its weather warning to a code red and said exposed coastal and mountain areas of Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry would be worst hit.
Schools across the region have been told by Government they should close tomorrow if the gales threaten parents or children as they are travelling to and from home.
The rest of the country was under an orange warning with Storm Rachel, as it has been dubbed, expected to bring winds gusting from 90-130km/h and up to 35mm of rain in some parts of the west.
High seas are also expected to hit coastal areas from the south and west.
The code red weather alert is issued if there is a risk to life or property with forecasters at Met Eireann warning winds will gust from storm force 10 to 12.
Forecaster Evelyn Cusack said damage may be limited as this is the first major Atlantic system to hit Ireland this winter.
"We don't expect to be as bad as the major storm last February and in terms of damage it's always very difficult to forecast but we don't expect it to be storm of the century," she said.
The storm is expected to batter parts of the north-west, Donegal in particular, for up to 24 hours.
As it moved in from the south the Kinsale gas platform off Cork recorded a gust of 64 knots - 120km/h at 5pm.
The wintry conditions - including several centimetres of snow in some parts of Donegal, Galway and Mayo - moved in last night and disrupted Irish Rail services with 90 minute delays on Westport/Galway services due to frozen points on the track and heavy snowfall.
A number of schools in rural parts of the country including Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal did not open today due to snow and education chiefs urged principals to consider closing tomorrow in the areas worst hit by storm force winds.
A spokeswoman for Donegal County Council which expects to experience some of the worst conditions urged people to exercise caution.
"Members of the public should not place themselves at risk on the road or on exposed areas like coasts or hills and should ask themselves if they really need to travel. It is likely that there will be some traffic disruption from fallen trees and localised flooding in areas," she said.
Clare County Council, which suffered millions of euro worth of damage during repeated Atlantic storms last winter, opened an emergency call centre for people reporting fallen trees, blocked roads and flooding - 1890 252 943.
"While the entire county will be affected, the most extreme impacts are likely to be along the coastline. The advice is not to venture out or to drive on exposed roads while these conditions prevail," a council spokesman said.
Forecasters warned the stormy conditions will continue into tomorrow morning. Winds will gradually ease during the afternoon and evening and there will be heavy and prolonged showers, Met Eireann said.
Sea area forecasts are warning of violent storm force 11 winds on Irish coasts.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, urged farmers and people working at sea to take all safety measures in the storm.
"2014 proved to be the worst year for farm accidents since 1992 with 30 deaths reported, while tragic incidents in our fishing industry in recent years resulted in the sad loss of many lives," he said.
"It is important that these appalling figures focus our minds in respect of farm and fishery safety this year and particularly during adverse weather".
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said: "The advice to schools is that they should consider not opening where a status red weather warning related to wind is forecast to coincide with the periods during which students and staff would be expected to be travelling to and from school."
Trains running between Athenry and Ennis were also suspended for a while but the biggest disruption hit Heuston Station in Dublin where an early morning train from Cork suffered mechanical faults at Newbridge. The knock-on effect saw all services out of the station severely delayed for a number of hours.
Senior officials from several Government departments met to examine the threat from the storm at the National Emergency Coordination Centre in Dublin.
Motorists were also being warned that melting snow and ice followed by heavy rains caused spot and localised flooding in parts of Clare, Galway and Mayo.
With the risk to power supplies in the storm, ESB Networks said the forecast suggested there will be a significant risk of blackouts.
"In the event of damage occurring we will assess the scale of the damage when it is safe to do so and develop a restoration plan based on prioritised power restoration needs," a spokesman said.
ESB Networks said safety is paramount and warned customers not to approach or touch fallen or low-hanging wires and power lines.
The company said all staff are on stand-by to respond to warnings of fallen lines and additional staff from Northern Ireland Electricity and contracting firms will also be called in if needed.
The ESB Networks website, Twitter feed and Powercheck App will post regular updates of expected restoration times.
Tim O'Leary, countryside chairman of the Irish Farmers Association, called on all local authorities to work closely with farmers and communities to keep rural Ireland moving during the storm.
"The past 24 hours have been extremely challenging for farm families, particularly along the west coast of the country. Heavy snow showers and rapidly falling temperatures resulted in many roads becoming impassable," he said.