Ireland’s Great Hurricane of 1839 – “The Big Wind”

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Shattered boat image - The Big Wind
Shattered boat

Background

On the night of 6th January 1839, Ireland was hit by a hurricane that caused devastation throughout the island. Nothing before or since has come close to the ferocity of the storm that smashed the country that Epiphany night. For those who lived through it, “The Big Wind” was never forgotten.

The Epiphany or Little Christmas was a day of special celebration in Ireland at the time. A festive meal would be eaten and there would be dances or ceilis in the evening. This feast day symbolised the revelation of Christ’s birth to all the nations of the world. It also represented the last day of the festive season so was particularly relished.

The Hurricane Strikes

People woke that morning to find a heavy blanket of snow. The day was unusually calm and as the afternoon approached the temperature began to rise. It was so still that voices could be heard floating on the air between houses more than a mile apart. The snow melted and the air became sticky with heat.

Around 9pm a light westerly breeze sprang up. Suddenly the breeze turned into a howling gale. The tempest increased in ferocity, battering countryside and town alike. In some areas, like County Tyrone, it was accompanied by lightening; others reported seeing the Aurora Borealis. The power of the storm was like a tornado and earthquake rolled into one.

“At intervals dense clouds obscured the sky, and added to the horror of the scene by the gloomy darkness which they produced; but when driven by, the heavens did not appear less ominous; for the Aurora Borealis burned brightly a great portion of the night, mantling the hemisphere with sheets of red, and corresponding well with the lurid gleams which ascended to the zenith from the flames of burning houses, that the tempest threatened to fan into a general conflagration”

Freeman’s Journal 8th January 1839

Belfast News Letter 8 Jan1839 - News of The Big Wind
Belfast News Letter 8 Jan1839

The Hurricane’s Impact

Towns & Cities

Towns and cities were plunged into darkness. People fled their homes as roofs were ripped off and chimneys blown down. Hundreds of buildings collapsed. In Carrickfergus sheeted lead roofing was “rolled up like an ancient scroll” (Northern Whig 10th January 1839)

Furniture, bricks and slates were sent flying down the streets. Fires broke out adding to the chaos. In some regions torrential rainfall, like waterspouts, caused flooding. In Dublin the Liffey overflowed, the great Shannon burst its banks and in Limerick the tide was so high that it left the beach covered with fish and eels.

Factories, churches, schools and public buildings were damaged or demolished. It seemed to people that nowhere was safe.

“Chimnies were blown down – houses unroofed, walls lay prostrate, trees torn up by the roots, and consternation and alarm universally prevailed. In many parts of the town the houses rocked as if shaken by an earthquake, to such an alarming degree as to compel the inmates to abandon them and seek shelter in places of greater security”

Belfast Newsletter 8th January 1839
Belfast News Letter 8 Jan1839 - More news on The Big Wind
Belfast News Letter 8 Jan1839 2

In Belfast the chimney of Mulholland & Co, flax spinning factory, fell into the building causing severe structural damage. The chimneys of Falls Flax Mill, Howie & Co bleach works and the funnel at Graymount bleach green all met a similar fate. The tower of the old White Linen Hall landed near the gasworks and the roof of the Bank Buildings fell in Arthur Square. It was the same story all over the cities and towns of Ireland.

In Ballymena six people died when the chimney of the flax mill fell on them. A church spire in Ballynahinch was toppled and the Catholic Church flattened. In Comber the distillery of Messrs Johnston & Miller was severely damaged as was the Court House in Derry, the Market-House in Draperstown and the Royal Portora School in Enniskillen.

Cottages destroyed
Ruined cottage

Countryside, Ports, Harbours & Shipping…even the Mansions

The countryside did not escape the devastation either. Barns were torn asunder and stored foodstuffs and hay lost. People escaping their cottages tried to find shelter huddled by hedges or in caves or ditches. Cattle and sheep were swept away by the mighty wind or drowned in overflowing rivers. Trees were uprooted, crops lost and turf piles disintegrated.

In ports throughout the island ships and boats were smashed against harbour walls or swept out to sea. The cruiser ‘Diligence’ was shipwrecked off the Giant’s Causeway with all crew lost. The Earl of Caithness with a cargo of salt and the Wellington full of oats and barley, both bound for Belfast, were destroyed. The Ann, the Juno, the Trial and the Eliza all ships either sunk or washed ashore at Belfast or nearby Holywood.

In Donaghadee, County Down, eleven vessels were sunk and all the small fishing boats destroyed. In Larne Lough five vessels were run ashore. Two boats at the quay in Portaferry were wrecked and six beached at Ballyhenry Bay. At the town of Newry, the local paper recorded:

“several ships, it is said, have been driven on land, more or less damaged; reports add that some dead bodies have floated in with the tide”

Newry Examiner

The list of damage caused goes on and on.

 Belfast News Letter 11 Jan1839
Belfast News Letter 11 Jan1839

The mansion houses and grounds of the wealthy were smote as well.  The estate of Thomas Waring Esq. at Warringstown in County Down lost all its beech trees. The Donard Lodge at Newcastle was damaged and several trees in the Park uprooted. In Lurgan the Brownlow demesne lost around 300 trees. Loughgall House in County Armagh suffered considerably and trees over 200 years old torn up.

“At Annadale, the oldest oaks were torn up by the roots… indeed scarcely a gentleman’s seat, within many miles, respecting which we have not received similar disastrous intelligence”.

Belfast Newsletter 8th January 1839

Wildlife Impact

Even the wild birds were decimated. In Galway heaps of dead seabirds were found at the base of Ceann Reanmhair, where they had been thrown against the cliff face. Crows became nearly extinct in some parts of the country so great was the number of their deaths.

The Human Cost of The Big Wind

As usual in times of trouble it was the poor who suffered the most. Thousands of folk were left homeless ‘scarcely a roof, in the wide boundary of Belfast, unscathed by the unsparing tempest’.  In Clough a row of houses were unroofed, in Granshaw near Dromara a woman and her three daughters were killed when the house fell down around them. In Lisburn whole neighbourhoods were “thrown down and the poor inmates left in the most deplorable situation”  (Northern Whig 10th January 1839)

The town of Newry was similarly afflicted:

“On Sunday night, about eleven o’clock, the wind, which had been previously blowing hard from the north-east, rose suddenly to a pitch of fury rarely paralled in this latitude, and, resembling the hurricane which so frequently spreads devastation and ruin among the West India islands, continued increasing in violence during the whole night. There is hardly a single house in the town unstripped, and a number of cabins have been, we understand, completely wrecked”

Northern Whig 10th January 1839
The Big Wind - Northern Whig 10 Jan 1839
Northern Whig 10 Jan 1839

Why did the storm happen?

Meteorologists have explained the physical causes of the terrible storm that afflicted Ireland that night. The cold air of 5th January which resulted in the snowfall was replaced the following day by an Atlantic warm front, which caused the deep calm. With heavy cloud cover, temperatures rose. Why they rose so quickly and so high in the month of January have not been explained. Later a deep Atlantic depression formed a cold front which moved over the island bringing wet stormy weather. By midnight the speed of the winds had reached dangerous levels.

“Ireland was in the throes of a ferocious cyclone that would continue unabated until 6am. The hurricane had roared over 3,000 miles of unbroken, island-free Atlantic Ocean, gathering momentum every second” 

Irish Times 16th October 2017

Public Reaction

Of course to the ordinary folk at the time, the storm seemed the work of divine or supernatural forces. Many understandably, feared it was the end of the world.

In Ireland, particularly in south Ulster and north Leinster, the Epiphany was associated with an older pagan festival when the veil between the living and the dead was very thin. Such stories were alive and well in Gaelic Ireland and in the midst of such a terrifying tempest it is easy to see why some people believed this doomsday scenario. This would have been reinforced in some areas where uprooted trees in graveyards brought coffins and corpses to the surface and in the Boyne valley where the soil was stripped off the earth revealing the bones of long perished soldiers.

Fallen trees image
Fallen trees

“The roar of the wind was like an uninterrupted cannonade, and every person in this neighbourhood thought that this terrible night would have been their last”

Impartial Reporter

Others believed that the storm was caused by a battle between the fairies. Irish fairies use whirlwinds, sidhe gaoithe, to fly. In local folklore 5th January, St Ceara’s feast day, was the day the fairies held their traditional celebrations

“…believers would have had no trouble in seeing the timing of the storm and the whirlwinds as compelling circumstantial evidence that ‘The Wee Folk’ had some part in it”

Peter Carr  – The Night of the Big Wind   1993

The Aftermath of “The Big Wind”

Monday 7th January dawned calm and bright, the people of Ireland looked at the ruins and desolation in horror.

“In the morning the streets were covered, and in many instances entirely choked up with ruins, so as to be nearly impassable, and the scene of desolation which presented itself was truly frightful”

Belfast newsletter 8th January 1839

With no state benefits or government assistance the work of clearing and rebuilding was down to hard work and dogged determination. For all its ferocity the storm claimed relatively few lives, it is estimated around 300 souls died. It was such an unprecedented occurrence that people who lived through it dated events as either before or after ‘oiche na gaoithe moire’ (The Big Wind).

“The ‘Big Wind’ of 1839 is now passing into tradition, but there are still those left, scattered up and down the country, who date many events of their lives therefrom”

Samuel McSkimin   History and Antiquities of Carrickfergus 

An unexpected Outcome

One unexpected outcome of the storm came nearly 70 years later, when the English government introduced the Old-Age Pension Act 1908. As there was no legal requirement to register births in Ireland until 1864, many people did not know their true age.

One of the questions asked to establish proof of age and therefore eligibility for a pension was “Do you remember the night of the big wind?” If you answered appropriately then you were officially a pensioner!

Legacy of the Big Wind

The night of 6th January 1839, calamitous and destructive as it was, has largely been forgotten today perhaps overshadowed by the terrible days of starvation and famine that followed only a few years later. However, it is an interesting story worth telling if only to remind us that we are all vulnerable to the vagaries of nature.

The Big Wind – More Information

For more detail and information please see: The Night of the Big Wind by Peter Carr (1993)

The Night of the Big Wind by Peter Carr
The Night of the Big Wind by Peter Carr

The Big Wind Gallery

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