The Night of the Big Wind
The Night of the BIG WIND
Oi'che na Gaoithe Mo'ire_ (The Night of the Big Wind)
is the name given to the night of
The Night of the Big Wind by Peter Carr ISBN 1 870132 50 5
Publ by White Row Press 1993,
gives descriptions from newspapers of the time about the ravages of
Sunday, January 6-7, 1839
'KILLARNEY" County Kerry: "In Killarney and its neighbourhood the hurricane
raged with terrible fury. The town sustained much damage and many houses
were shattered. Mr. James Goggin's chimnies were blown into the stret, and
caused that gentleman and the whole neighbourhood much alarm - Mr. Michael
McCarthy had a similar cause of terror, the roof of his house being laid
quite bare. The windows of the Victoria Hotel were shattered to pieces and
many aged trees...were laid prostrate, in every quarter and in all directions."
and at PALLAS in County Kerry: "The house of an opulent farmer, named John
Sullivan, at Pallas, near Killarney, was blown down, and having taken fire,
was totally consumed together with a valuable haggard, three cows, and twenty
firkins of butter destroyed..."
and in GALWAY in County Galway: "Never, probably in the memory of man, has
this town been thrown into such awful consternation as on Sunday Night last,
and had the storm been accompanied as on a former occasion with a spring
tide..the inundation and destruction of at least half the town would have
been the consequence. Seven lives have been lost, and there are four lying
From eleven o'clock at night to five in the morning the streets were
impassable, as slates and stones were flying in all directions in rapid
successsion, chimneys falling, the roofs of houses giving way, windows
smashing, men, women and children screaming and crying, seeking in vain, in
many instances for a safe retreat....."
Damage to shipping was estimated at half a million pounds, an unimaginable
sum of money in those days. In Dublin, the Liffey rose many feet to
its walls, and the elms along the main road in Phoenix Park were completely
leveled. Farmers throughout the country were devastated by the loss of
virtually all their cattle feed. Many of Ireland's great houses were
destroyed, and more than a hundred people lost their lives, crushed by
falling masonry or swept away in the floods that accompanied the raging
We now know that the "Big Wind"' was caused by a deep depression that
originated over the Atlantic and passed eastward just to the north of
Ireland and Scotland.
In the early hours of Monday, January 7th, the storm lay over the northern
Hebrides, and it was the very strong westerly winds that it generated over
Ireland which caused the problems - all the more frightening because the
storm was almost entirely confined to the hours of darkness.
Other views, however, were more popular. Some saw the violent storm as a
precursor of the Day of Judgment- a sharp reminder on the part of the
Almighty of the wrath of God which may await us all when the final trumpet
sounds. Others thought the Freemasons were behind it - that they had called
the devil out of hell and failed to get him back again. Still others blamed
the fairies. They believed English fairies had invaded Ireland, and
Ireland's little people had to raise a ferocious wind to blow them out again.
With the enactment of the Old Age Pension Act in 1909, those who could
establish that they were over 70 years old or more were entitled to a
generous pension of £13 a year. Since many Irish people of that generation
had no written proof of age, other evidence was sometimes acceptable.
Anyone who could convincingly describe the events of Oíche na Gaoithe Móire was
assured of a comfortable old age.
"I found this about the Big Wind in my grandfather's parish. The mention
of the church in 1839 demonstrates the problem with missing records. The
sacramental register extant begins in 1861. The Parish Priest told me
the earlier books were "just gone." Kiltimagh - Our Life and Times is a
book published by a local historian who assembled old newspaper
articles. This was one of those stories:
"The Roman Catholic Church of Killedan Parish, located in Kiltimagh town,
was badly damaged during The Big Wind, 6 Jan 1839. Four windows were
blown in and destroyed. A large portion of the roof on the western side
was blown off and the damage was estimated at £100 - far beyond the
means of its impoverished parishioners.
"A large proportion of the cabins which housed the subsistence level
tenant farmers and labourers were completely destroyed in many cases
leaving thousands homeless until new cabins were constructed. Many
received injuries which necessitated the amputation of limbs. This often
led to death. Exposure to the elements led to illness among the frail,
particularly the young and elderly. Many lost their savings when the roofs of their cabins blew
off: the thatch was a favourite hiding place for money, but few had the
foresight to remove it when the storm came.
"Tenant farmers were
particularly badly effected. In the countryside stacks of corn and hay
were blown completely from their haggards and were scattered in the
fields. That which was recovered had been drenched causing it to
subsequently rot, leaving farmers without winter feed for their
livestock. Boundary walls of dry stone construction were blown down
allowing animals to stray and mix with other herds and flocks.
High orchard walls on rural estates fell in long sections. Sheep on
mountains were blown to their death and killed by loose stones tumbling
down hillsides. Hill farmers were depleted of their chief source of
Ellen CLARK Naliboff, descended from Michael CLARKE and Ellen DURKIN of
The Big Wind hits Eire
A disastrous storm struck Ireland Sunday, January 6, 1839. The day began well enough. The children were
outside playing in the snow. Indoors was hustle and bustle as everyone was looking forward to the
evening's festivities of Little Christmas. At about three o'clock in the afternoon it became unnaturally
still. So calm that voices floated between farmhouses more than a mile apart. Something strange was
happening but no one knew exactly what. Maybe it was just as well for what followed was the most
terrifying night of their lives. The violence of the storm, its sheer brutality, horrified those who
lived through it; many counted it the most extraordinary experience of their lives.
Along the western seaboard people made their peace with God, convinced that the end of the world was
at hand. The morning after, the sun rose on a wasted land. Familiar things were unrecognizeable.
Known landmarks were gone. The country came to a standstill. People were dazed and bleary from lack
of sleep and nervous exhaustion. The storm had been an ecological disaster. Nothing was where it should
be. The produce of the land was in the rivers and the rivers were in the fields. Boats were put out to
gather hay. Much of the harvest ended up in the Atlantic and the waters of the Irish Sea swept into
"old scaws and bog holes". Grain was killed by frost or eaten by birds and grew where it dropped.
People survived by helping each other. There was an outbreak of something close to brotherly love.
Folks opened their homes, sheltering, and where necessary, feeding and clothing relatives and neighbors.
This warmth was so universal that it is almost shocking to read of the clergyman in County Cork who took
refuge in a hotel. Had he no friends or neighbors? Did no one love him?
All did not suffer equally. Ulster, the West and Midlands bore the brunt of the storm. Almost every
class of building was damaged; factories and barracks were ruined; windmills were decapitated and set
on fire. Agriculture, industry, commerce and communications were all seriously disrupted. Belfast's
great cathedrals of manufacture were hard hit. Given the storm's ferocity, the death toll was
surprisingly low. Perhaps 250-300 people lost their lives, most at sea in the disastrous wrecks.
There were many lucky escapes.
The story of the relief effort reads like a dry run for the Famine. What did the administration do?
Nothing! At first glance this may seem to reveal the British indifference towards Ireland's suffering
but it was not. Liverpool and Manchester, equally devastated, received no help either. The explanation
runs deeper. Even if the government wished to intervene, the mechanism to do so was lacking. In most
places, it was down to self help and charity. Schools were opened as shelters, soup kitchens were set
up and straw was distributed for thatching. Another problem was the contract between landlord and tenant.
This required the tenant to make good on storm damage. In the crowded West the situation was critical.
Food shortages, typhus and cholera were feared. The price of food was high even before the storm.
Potatoes were "at a famine price" in January and the storm decimated reserves. In Connemara, where
provisions were already scarce, fears of famine were widely voiced. A natural disaster was the last
thing these people needed, particularly in the south-west. The countryside had secret societies with
interclass and factional outrages a daily occurrence. Rural violence was an important part of the
background of the storm. Although it heightened many of the pre-existing stresses in the social order,
it did not upset it, at least not enough to require reform. Ireland did not profit from the experience
but marched toward the Famine. The Big Wind of 1839 was a landmark experience, a horror that was in its
way comparable to the Famine. What the Wind did to property, the Famine did to life. More people were
made homeless during the night of the Big Wind than were evicted during the years 1850-1880. It straddled
Ireland and England, did great damage to parts of Scotland, the northeast and Midlands of England, and
the coast of Wales. It crossed the North Sea to Denmark, then dominated the eastern Baltic for several
days before dissipating.
The storm generated a mass of lore. Stories by the millions circulated. Why did
it cast such a spell? The answer is probably fear and people's sense of helplessness in the face of it.
Even though it was common experience, the storm was essentially a personal affair.
It had a life in the hearts of the men and women who experienced it, in the detail of personal
experience. The storm came in the night, climaxing in its darkest hours, and totally without warning.
There was a profusion of weird wind effects. The losses were not only measured in pounds,
shillings and pence, but in the personal tragedies of homelessness, lost limbs and deaths. Effects were
subtle and delayed. The full impact was registered in the spring when people went to market. The towns
looked patched and the fields were overgrown with wheat and oats and mongrel crops.
A great source for
historians is newspapers. In 1839 some 83 newspapers were being published in Ireland, seventeen of them
in Dublin. While Ireland was viewed from a range of political perspectives, it was covered from a high
and relatively narrow social base. All the papers grieved over the condition of the country, but few
took the trouble to send out correspondents. Editors depended on letters from subscribers, borrowed
copy and lurid travelers' tales. From Sunday night on, horrendous reports flooded in the newspaper
offices. But within a fortnight the disaster disappeared from the newspapers. Memories of the Big Wind
were rekindled in 1909 when the Old Age Pension was initiated. Everyone aged seventy and over was
entitled to a weekly pension. How do you prove your age if there are no birth records? If you could
remember the Big Wind, or make a good show of remembering, you were eligible for the pension. One reason
the storm was so memorable was the extraordinary sound of the wind.
What else happened because of the
Big Wind? Building standards changed. Thatching was pegged. Houses were placed with the gable to the
west. Implementation of the Poor Law was hastened by the need for disaster relief. Historians have
mostly ignored the Big Wind. It had no social origins, few social consequences and it did not topple a
government. No one could use it as a political weapon as they did with the Famine.
Reprinted with permission from The Celtic Knot
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