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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
Sunday, January 6-7, 1839


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 the storm:

'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 dangerously wounded...

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 overflow 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 winds.

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 income."

© Ellen CLARK Naliboff, descended from Michael CLARKE and Ellen DURKIN of Killedan parish


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 Vol.1, No.1 February 1994




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