The Dublin Evening Post, January 8th, 1839 carried this message:
"The annals of Ireland do not furnish anything in the remotest degree parallel to this hurricane -- nor has there ever been a visitation in this country attended with more tremendous, extensive and calamitous consequences."
I have a book called OICHE NA GAOITHE MOIRE, which means THE NIGHT OF THE BIG WIND.
The book received financial assistance under the Cultural Traditions Programme.
It is part history, with newspaper reports from the time, and part mythology, with memories of those who were there and explanations according to the perceptions of the time.
A wonderfully written, sensitive and empathetic description of an event which has moved into the realms of Irish folklore, but which was painfully real and devastated the lives of many.
I had never heard of The Big Wind until I found the book.
The more I learn about the world, the more I realise how little I know!
Let's begin with the story of that terrible night.
Anything in quotation marks is from the writing of someone who experienced the hurricane.
Many were left permanently affected by the power of it, and particularly the noise, as their familiar world flew off into the black sky.
THE BIG WIND
The morning of Sunday,the 6th of January, began well.
The sun rose on a landscape smooth and white from heavy snow the day before.
It was calm; some said later that the calm was unnatural.
"So unearthly was the calm that the sensitive flame of a rush candle burned in the open air without the faintest attempt to flicker, and so awe-inspiring was the stillness that voices in ordinary conversational tones floated to and fro between farmhouses more than a mile apart."
Everywhere, in houses around the country, the children were happy and excited, because it was Little Christmas, or Nollaig na mBan, Women's Christmas.
This day had been Christmas Day before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, after which it was celebrated as a day of treats, of good food and celebration, in all but the poorest of homes.
All over Ireland there was a great bustle in kitchens and an appetising aroma, as sweetmeats were baked and the festive meal was prepared.
In the villages dances and ceilidhs had been organised, and everyone was looking forward to the evening entertainments.
In mid-afternoon it began to feel uncomfortably close.
It became strangely and unseasonably warm.
In Belfast the temperature rapidly rose by 10 degrees.
"The night was very still and hot, the air felt like air in a hothouse."
In a house in Limerick it was observed that " The glass shewed the quicksilver under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer."
In Mayo a group of fishermen refused to put to sea because they saw a 'si gaoithe' or 'fairy wind' pass along a bank of fog.
But most people went happily on with their preparations, unaware that a deep depression was bearing in at great speed on the British Isles.
At about nine o'clock a light breeze blew up; this quite quickly increased.
The Dublin Evening Post recorded;
"About half past ten it rose into a high gale, which continued to increase until shortly after midnight it blew a most fearful and destructive tempest."
There are many accounts of what followed:
"Those who were in bed hastily jumped up and dressed themselves--many ran out of their houses into the fields, and their houses were soon after levelled to the ground."
No living creature was able to stand in the streets, while the spirit of the tempest was careering in all his might through the air, streaks of lightning illuminating the midnight darkness, and a shower of slates exposed to the blast, strewing the ground with broken particles, flying before the tempest like shreds of paper."
"So great was the light from burning houses, you could pick pins in the yards of houses two miles south of the town."
The gale, blowing upon the embers of household fires, created flames which rapidly engulfed the deserted dwellings.
In places the sparks were so thick that flames seemed to "fall from the clouds," and people
were blinded by airborne cinders.
Thomas Russell recorded that:
"There is another curious and undoubted fact relating to the great storm: it is that showers of salt water fell in many places.
I have heard this stated by many persons, among them one of my own brothers.
The showers would never last but a few seconds, and resembled small waterspouts more than showers."
In the towns and cities the church towers fell, whole streets lost slates and glass, great trees were blown down in the parks; castles and stately homes were reduced to ruins.
In the rural areas, there was chaos and complete destruction.
"The hens were blown out of the bushes and trees where they used to roost and most of them were never seen again."
People were drowned by being blown into dykes and bog-holes.
In Moate a man reportedly got into a barrel for safety and was blown around the town.
In Giviteen little Thomas Heaney was 'put under a big pot,' and in Tuam, a father whose cottage was blown down tried to reach a neighbour's house thirty yards distant, carrying his five little children on his back in a large basket.
Sadly, he lost one on the short journey, and the rescuers had to crawl on hands and knees against the wind for hours until it was found.
Families cowered in corners reciting their rosaries as the cottages crumbled about them.
Many poor families lived in small dwellings made of sods and mud, with the thatch roof simply resting on the eaves, anchored by its own weight.
Floors were of pressed clay.
The windows were not glazed; often an old coat or some rag kept out the draught.
Such houses were simply taken up by the wind and blown in pieces far away.
Hamlets became desolated deserts.
Crops were destroyed.
Haystacks blew off and disappeared, and the rivers were thick with stinking straw.
One of the worst and never-forgotten part of that dreadful night was the noise of the Great Wind.
Thomas Russell wrote;
"The most terrible thing that I have ever heard was the roaring of the wind on that awful night.
I can never forget it, nor can anyone who heard it forget it.
I was too small a boy to go out with my brothers to assist in saving cattle and horses from tumbling down stables and outhouse, and every one of them was levelled -- so, I dont know how the wind sounded outside; but in the house it was the most dreadful thing I ever heard, and it made the stoutest and bravest that heard it quail.
The biggest battle that was ever fought since gunpowder and cannon came into use, might have been waged a hundred yards to the lee of the house and not a soul in it would have heard a single shot.
This is no exaggeration.
No one who did not hear the horrible sound-- something between a howl and a roar -- that the wind made on that night can form even a remote idea of its unutterable awfulness.
It was hardly to be wondered that almost everyone thought that the end of the world had come.
Those who had probably not felt fear in all their previous lives were like babies, and wept like them."
In the morning nothing remained; all was desolation and destruction.
The newspaper reports give some idea of the damage sustained.
"The catastrophic storm has destroyed ships, tore apart harbours, decimated crops and farmlands, killed thousands of livestock, birds and wild animals, destroyed homes, knocked down walls, collapsed thatched roofs (many catching fire), destroyed an estimated 25% of homes in Dublin, left hundreds dead, uprooted hundreds of thousands of trees, and cost millions."
"Trees, bushes and hedges bent or lying level-- whole stacks of turf, ricks of hay and corn blown clean away into space--the very grass of the field was lying flat as if cowed."
“Herrings have been found six miles inland—lifted bodily out of the sea and blown through the air the whole way...”
"Salt has been tasted off trees forty miles from the sea."
Stormy petrels "were found dead everywhere in the middle of the country."
Fish were found high in the hills around Lough Sur, and were gathered up and salted.
It was reported that the Rivers Shannon and Boyne became so thick with hay and oats that it seemed as if they could be walked across.
Smaller rivers gagged, flooding the countryside around them.
In Corraslira a lake was 'taken' by the gale, and hundreds of perch were scattered over the surrounding fields.
The future for poor farmers and smallholders was bleak.
The fields were bare.
There would be no bread.
Much of the harvest was blown into the Atlantic and the Irish Sea.
The peat stacks were gone, so there would be no fuel for the fire.
Hard weeks of digging and stacking were wasted.
A gaelic scholar wrote of one of his neighbours, a farmer, staring at his devastasted fields:
"Suddenly he raised his two hands--palms open-- over his head, and looking up at the sky, he cried out.... "Oh God Almighty, what did I ever do to You that You should thrate me in this way!"
The little group of people were struck dumb with awe; and as for me, though little more than a child...i was so frightened that I turned round without a word and ran straight home."
“We would say that, for the violence of the hurricane, and deplorable effects which followed, as well as for its extensive sweep, embracing as it did the whole island in its destructive career, it remains not only without parallel, but leaves far away in the distance all that ever occurred in Ireland before” (Dublin Evening Post, January 12, 1839).
Many years of hardship followed for many people, particularly the rural poor.
MAKING SENSE OF THE STORM
How did people think of the storm in the following years?
Certainly, many at the time thought the end of the world had come.
Irish folklore held that Judgement Day would occur on January 6th, Epiphany night.
Later, when it was all over, there were attempts to explain the Great Wind.
It is human nature to rationalise, to look for reasons when we experience things we do not understand.
The 'Big Wind' gave the country a new year zero, a new date from which to measure things.
Thomas Russell wrote:
"Just as the Greeks used to measure from the Olympic Games and the Romans from the foundation of their city, the peasantry in my young days reckoned events from the 'Big Wind.' "
An important thing to remember is that in 1839 there was no available meteorological explanation.
The people interpreted the storm in all kinds of ways, according to their understanding of the world.
Very few saw it as a climatic event.
In parts of Kerry it was said to have been sent by priests to punish unbelievers.
Some said it was an earthquake.
Others suspected the fairies.
It was said that while celebrating the feast of Saint Ceara on January 5th the fairies held their last great assembly, during which violent disputes arose; a large portion of them left Ireland, never to return, and the hurricane was caused by their exodus.
(We must remember that the modern concept of fairies as pretty, sparkly creatures with gauzy wings was inknown in Ireland at that time.
The 'Wee Folk' were ugly, wizened, mischievous creatures, capable of malicious acts.)
Some said the Freemasons brought the Devil up from Hell, and the storm ensued as the Masons were trying to drag him back to the underworld...
In the countryside people held fast to their ancient beliefs.
If a cow became sick, it was not because of a virus, it had had the evil eye put on it.
It is noted that The Big Wind was so memorable that it became a milestone in Irish history.
“Can you remember the storm of 1839?” was a common question asked of pensioners missing documentation as the pension system was introduced in 1909.
Very few records of birth could be offered as proof of age by the aged poor at that time.
The Pensions Act entitled anyone of seventy or over to a weekly five shilling pension.
How did you tell who was seventy when there were no written records?
If they could tell personal stories about that night, their birth date was accepted and they qualified for the " pinshin."
Interestingly, an estimated 128% of Ireland's pensionable population managed to get on the books!!!
This is the first day of the old age pension, January 1909.
Good luck to the extra 28%!