The “night of the big wind” or as it is known in Irish “Óiche na Gaoithe Móire” was one of the worst storms ever recorded in Ireland leading to many deaths, mass homelessness, and apocalyptic levels of destruction around the entire country. The power of the storm and the resulting damage was so intense that people ascribed supernatural origins to it, with some believing that it was Divine retribution, and others thinking that the fairies were to blame.
The storm itself occurred on the night of the 6th of January (the 12th night/feast of the epiphany/Nollag na mBan) and the early hours of the 7th in 1839. The devastation of that night would be passed through the generations, with people recounting it to the next generation whenever a storm would break out.
The day started with snowfall, but throughout the day the temperature would rise by 10 degrees leading to the day becoming unnaturally warm and clammy by some accounts. A number of people noted that there was a sense of foreboding in the air and that there were ominous, motionless clouds and an unnatural absence of wind. As the evening pushed on, rain and hail started and the wind amped up in intensity from about 10pm onwards. The rudimentary weather measurements available at the time recorded extremely low barometric pressure, ideal for extreme winds, earlier in the day.
First-hand accounts of the event paint a picture of the absolute terror that must have been felt by people. One man, who was only a boy at the time tells how his brothers struggled to rescue all the animals before the outhouses collapsed around them. He tells us how the sound of the wind from that night stuck with him his entire life and that it was so loud that adults had to shout directly into each other’s ears for any hope of hearing each other. Other accounts tell us that it sounded like “a continuous peal of thunder” or the “bellowing of ten thousand bulls”. We can only imagine how terrifying this would have been, especially to a child.
The Newry telegraph was one of the first to report on the damage on the 8th and even though the full extent of the damage was unknown it reported that several ships and boats had been wrecked with a number of lives lost, houses decimated and unroofed, stacks of turf (the main source of fuel) destroyed, stored crops wrecked, livestock dead or missing and centuries-old trees uprooted (10,000 alone on the Ballymeyer demesne). In many cases, people lost everything.
To paint a picture of the conditions in the country at the time. The population was roughly 8.2 million (today it is 5 million) and the majority of houses were mud-walled thatched cabins, with an estimated 2 million people living in sod/mud cabins (like this). If you think of the fact that even the “big house”, stone churches, and castles were damaged, the ramshackle houses of the lower classes stood no hope at all. As you can imagine, the thatched houses brought their own problems. The wide chimneys and thatch were a disaster waiting to happen and fires broke out in many townlands, with varying degrees of destruction. More rural areas fared better than towns in this regard due to the houses being further apart. Loughrea suffered terribly with 87 homes being completely destroyed. The whole town might have been lost were it not for the wind suddenly changing direction. One policeman trying to help to quell the conflagration, received serious burns to the eyes from red-hot ashes blowing into his face. It’s hard to imagine the terror of the roaring winds, the screaming and abject terror and the pitch black of the night being broken by roaring fires and buildings falling around them. Outside of the losses to fire, 600 people in the area were left destitute. Many had to flock to churches and police stations in the following days for shelter. It was said that as a result of the storm “manys a one who lost their fortune and manys a one who found it” owing to the fact that many people kept their savings either stashed in the thatch roof, or in the chimney. For those unlucky enough to lose it, there were others who were unscrupulous enough to make their own fortune by gathering up the ill-gotten gains.
As I mentioned above, even the big houses weren’t safe. The large ornate chimneys of the mansions and stately homes of the landed gentry fell prey to the unnatural winds. Many deaths were a result of falling masonry and it is estimated that almost 5000 chimneys were knocked throughout the country (houses big and small). Some people were even forced to find shelter by hedges, hollows, and embankments. Eyewitness accounts tell how “huge limbs of oak flew like straws before the fury of the tempest”.
A number of anecdotal stories arouse out of the disaster. Herrings were said to be found 6 miles inland, supposedly carried by the winds after being pulled from the water. Salt brine was reported covering trees 12 miles inland. Waves were said to have come over the top of the Cliffs of Moher and the sound of waves crashing over was said to be heard miles inland, so loud that it could be heard over the thunderous roar of the wind itself. A canal was said to be stripped dry of water by the force of the wind. A pig was said to be carried a quarter of a mile and found safe and well stuck in a tree. And, given the vast destruction of trees and destruction of birds’ nesting and roosting spots (and the mass death of birds) the following spring was said to be almost devoid of birdsong. A massive tree was uprooted in a Carrickfergus graveyard, bringing “many of the dead to the surface”. An account from one area claims that the damage was so bad that it was the “big wind” that was the impetus for emigration and not the great hunger that would follow only a handful of years later. sand dunes formed from sand carried inland appeared in numerous areas. One account tells how years later while preparing to build a new house, an entire house was found 8 feet below the sand, having been entirely subsumed by the sand dunes.
As you could imagine, given the widescale destruction, it would come as no surprise that supernatural forces were blamed. Some gave divine retribution as a cause and that it may be a signifier that the world was about to end. The great scholar John ó Donoghue was spending the night in a hotel in Glendalough while carrying out fieldwork for the ordinance survey. As he survey the damage the following day, he remarked that the whole country looked like it had been “swept away by a broom” (ó Donovan was intimately familiar with Irish manuscripts, so I have to wonder if he is referencing Irish eschatological belief here, a tale where a giant broom will sweep the world clear on doomsday). Others ascribed the disaster to the sídhe (the fairies). A few different versions of this exist: invading fairies fighting Irish ones, massive groups of different factions fighting each other, or that it was the fairies finally leaving Ireland on magical tornadoes. An account in the national folklore collection tells us that a local spot normally associated with fairy music has been silent since.
The estimated damage done (in today’s money) is somewhere around the 250 million mark. The death toll is uncertain but is estimated at between 300 to 600 people. Thousands were left homeless, and many were injured. Stones were erected in some towns detailing the damage done. Interestingly, when the old age pension was introduced in 1908, the age of the people applying for it was determined by if they were alive at the time of the big wind.
We can only hope that we will never see a storm of this magnitude again in our lifetimes
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‘Night of the Big Wind’, Frank Watters, Journal of the Pontzpass and District History Society, 1994 (pp.73-82)
Irish Weather Online
‘The Calm Before the Storm’, Irish Times, 16th Oct 2017