The night of the Big Wind

THE Night of the Big Wind - Oíche na Gaoithe Móire - took place 179 years ago on January 6, 1839, writes Tom Gillespie. It was the worst episode of severe weather in more than 300 years and up to 300 lives were lost.

It caused damage to housing, including up to a quarter of all homes in Dublin, leaving thousands of people homeless. There was widespread flooding in coastal areas and 42 ships were wrecked.

Irish folklore held that Judgement Day would occur on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, and such a severe storm led many to believe that the end of the world was at hand.

In Dublin, crowds gathered at what is now the Bank of Ireland at College Green to shelter under its portico in the belief that it was one of the few buildings capable of withstanding the storm.

The storm developed in the mid-Atlantic region early on January 6, 1839, but really intensified as its associated depression moved up along the northwest coast later in the night, bringing death and destruction to the whole island, Irish Weather Online states.

Tens of thousands were left homeless as winds reached well over 115 miles per hour in a category three hurricane. Twenty-five per cent of the houses in Dublin were destroyed and 42 ships were sunk.

Stacks of hay and corn were widely destroyed, resulting in severe starvation among livestock in the following months.

The storm began after a period of very odd Irish weather. A heavy snowstorm on January 5 was followed by a balmy sunny day, almost unheard of for that time of year.

Some people claimed the temperature reached as high as 75°F and the heavy snow of January 5 totally melted.

During the daytime on January 6, however, the deep Atlantic low-pressure system began moving across Ireland where it collided with the warm front.

The first news of bad weather was reported in Mayo when the steeple at the Church of Ireland in Castlebar was blown down.

As the evening wore on, the winds began to howl and soon reached hurricane force.

A Freeman’s Journal account of the worst storm in Irish recorded history said the River Shannon burst its banks and parts of the country experienced torrential rain, flash-floods, and salt-water showers driven miles inland, and noted it was the most ‘violent’ weather event since the storm in February 1802.

The Dublin Evening Mail described Dublin as a ‘sacked city’: "Houses burning, others unroofed, as if by storm of shot and shell; a few levelled with the ground, with all their furniture within; while the rattling of engines, cries of firemen, and labours of the military, present the very aspect and mimicry of real war."

FE Dixon records that 38 houses in Dublin were blown down, 364 were partly demolished or unroofed, and an astonishing 4,846 were partly unroofed.

Countrywide, the destruction encompassed the cabins of the poor, big houses, and Belfast factory stacks. Three-hundred lives were lost on land and sea that night, and many injured victims died in the weeks that followed.

Newspapers surmised that 250,000 trees were destroyed, and folklore accounts indicate that the storm further altered the landscape by prompting the building of sturdier rural housing.

The storm’s impact may be gauged by the fact that the Freeman’s Journal covered the aftermath on every day bar one between January 8 and 17 of 1839.

The Dublin Evening Post editor worried that, almost a week later, he had not ‘as yet, however, heard anything from the exposed coast of Connemara, or from the north-western part of Mayo’.

These Irish-speaking areas constituted the island’s poorest and most isolated regions, so there is a double silence to their unrecorded and unrecordable suffering.

Due to a complex mix of logistical and linguistic reasons, the rural and the poor were generally left to enumerate their dead themselves, since the English-language newspapers from the principle towns concentrated on the losses of named landowners and substantial urban proprietors.

Equally harrowing reports of this terrible night were reported across the length and breadth of Ireland, as shown from these contemporary accounts in the Tuam Herald.

Armagh: Many houses stripped of their roofs.

Athlone: Storm continued with unabated fury from 11 p.m. ‘til 3.30 a.m. One of the hardest hit areas with much loss of life.

Ballinasloe: Much devastation, with great woods felled.

Ballyshannon: Great destruction of property and livelihoods.

Belfast: A violent westerly bringing death and destruction.

Birr: One boy and three females killed.

Carlow: Serious injury reported but escaped the worst of the winds.

Carrickfergus: Tree in graveyard uprooted forcing many of the dead to the surface.

Carrick-on-Shannon: The produce of the harvest lies scattered over the whole countryside.

Castlebar: Widespread damage with few houses left unscathed.

Coonagh: Three killed in storm.

Derry: Visited by a storm of extraordinary violence.

Co. Down: Much damage but escapes relatively well.

Drogheda: Never within the memory of man has this town and neighbourhood been visited with such an awful storm.

Dublin: The metropolis was, on Sunday night, visited by a hurricane such as the oldest inhabitants cannot remember. Two known deaths as a result.

Galway: At least seven dead. Men, women and children screaming, crying with raw terror.

Gort: Total devastation. One of the worst hit areas.

Kilkenny: Many houses burned down during the storm.

Killarney: Hurricane raged with terrible fury.

Kinsale: Destruction is not so terrible, as far as we can learn.

Co. Laois: The destruction of trees is prodigious.

Limerick: Badly hit. Lightning and wind made for an awesome sight.

Longford: Barely a house left standing.

Loughrea: Devastated.

Mullingar: Suffered severely - to the utter ruin of its inhabitants.

Roscommon: These immense plains have been swept through by a fury.

Sligo: To give a full description of the devastation would be morally impossible.

Tralee: Hurricane reaps disaster.

Waterford: Visited by the most terrific storm ever remembered.

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