The scene at Heathrow airport in London yesterday

Irish emigrants are likely to face difficulties coming home for Christmas this week as severe weather conditions across Europe and the US disrupt air travel.

While strenuous efforts are being made to keep Ireland's airports open, flight restrictions in other airports, particularly in Germany and the UK, are causing major problems for travellers.

As a result, ferry companies operating between Britain and Ireland reported a surge in bookings.

Meanwhile, the army was yesterday sent to dig out snowbound towns as the country braced itself for the winter's second severe cold spell.

And with the extreme weather system due to last until the end of the week, the country may yet secure that elusive white Christmas.

Forecasters said temperatures will remain extremely cold across the country for much of the coming week and in some places will not rise above 0°C.

Met Éireann said this month is set to be the coldest December since records began. The coldest so far was in 1950 when average temperatures were 2.2°C. The average temperature recorded so far this month is 0.1°C.

Snow showers are forecast across Ireland until tomorrow when the weather will become drier.

By Tuesday and Wednesday night, freezing temperatures are expected to reach as low as -10°C and frost, ice and fog will persist in dry areas.

The north of the country took the brunt of the cold snap over the weekend with parts of Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim covered in up to six inches of snow.

In Donegal, the army was brought in for the second time in recent weeks to help clear roads and footpaths.

With salt supplies running low in the county, the number of roads that could be treated was significantly limited.

In the west, Mayo experienced some of the heaviest snowfalls and the local authorities there also reported salt shortages.

In the south, Kerry and west Cork had heavy snow showers.

Local authorities around the country were advising the public and businesses to clear footpaths of snow before it turned to ice.

Cold comfort for gamblers

INCREASING chances of a white Christmas are bringing out the gamblers with punters betting hundreds of euro on the likelihood of a snowy Christmas Day.

Paddy Power, which took a single bet of €1,000 last week, said its potential payout on successful wagers could be huge.

And if it snows this weekend, that record level of betting – which is based on 1mm of snow falling in either Dublin, Cork or Belfast weather stations – is expected to increase.

"It's odds-on for the first time that I can remember," said spokesman Paddy Power.

"It's 6-4 – that's about a 60% chance. People usually bet €5 or €10 but this year they're betting €50 or €200 because rather than doing it for a joke they are taking it quite seriously."

Bets are also being taken on whether or not we will see a record sub-zero temperature recorded this month.