1816 is known as the Poverty Year or, more bluntly, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. Put simply, the weather in the northern latitudes remained wet and wintry for most of the time between May and September, leading to the destruction of many crops and widespread famine. Ireland initially escaped the worst ravages of the volcanic winter but the island was nonetheless subject to much woe and the horrific typhus epidemic that followed.
The eruption of Mount Tambora on 10 April 1815 was the biggest in recorded history. It was 1000 times more powerful than the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010, which caused the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II.
Just over two centuries ago, a cloud of ash and sulfate gasses billowed up from Tambora to a height of nearly 30 miles, slamming into the stratosphere and plunging the wider East Indian region into darkness. The coarser particles fell down again over the next couple of weeks but the finer ash was to remain there for over a year and would bring on the dreadful summer the following year.
London was blissfully unaware of this meteorological calamity when the city began to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in June 1815. If anyone suspected anything, it might have been William Turner, the Romantic artist, whose landscapes from this period brilliantly capture a series of strangely beautiful and dusty sunsets in southern England which, we now know, were a direct result of the volcano.
It was not until November 1815, over six months after the event, that the first reports appeared in the British and Irish newspapers.
‘A volcano broke out at the mountain of Tomboro [sic] in the Island of Sumbawa, near Java,’ wrote one. ‘The eruption was by far the most violent that ever happened in the history of the world, far exceeding in the extent of its effects, any of Vesuvius, Etna, or Hecla.’
The explosion had been heard over 2500 miles away and rattled windows in Jakarta (then Batavia), 780 miles away. A town in Java, 180 miles away, was covered in ash to a depth of 8 inches. Elsewhere ships over 200 miles away suddenly found their decks covered in ash while the dust also fell as far as 800 miles from Tambora. Closer to the volcano itself, the devastation was absolute: forests, paddy fields and towns utterly consumed, the contours of the coastline reshaped and tens of thousands of humans and animals swept into ‘a whirlwind occasioned by the eruption … and never heard more of.’ The death toll was put at 12,000 but a further 60,000 Indonesians would die from starvation and disease as the long-term effects of the volcano began to make their mark.
Ghastly as it sounded, no one can have imagined quite how far the impact of this eruption would extend. Mount Tambora is 8000 miles from Dublin and nearly 10,000 miles from Montreal. And yet the volcano’s effects would be felt in both cities.
The Americans were the first to notice something unusual; a persistent ‘dry fog’ in the spring of 1816 that both reddened and dimmed the sunlight, making sunspots visible to the naked eye. As the phenomenon spread to Europe, fears were stoked by a prophecy, seemingly initiated by an Italian astronomer from Bologna, that the sun would be extinguished on 18 July 1816 and all life destroyed.
The sky was certainly disconcerting in Ireland where the Dundalk-based diarist Henry McClintock noted ‘Dreadful lightning and thunder in June 1816’. For many, such storms were a reminder of the deadly tempest that blasted the south coast of Ireland on 30 January 1816 when the Sea Horse transport ship was wrecked in Tramore Bay with the loss of 363 lives. Two more ships were wrecked near Kinsale in the same storm, bringing the total loss of life to over 570.
July brought more heavy rains and intense storms to much of Britain and Ireland and, while the “Bologna prediction” did not come to pass on 18 July, the Dublin Evening Post reckoned ‘the present aspect of the atmosphere is ominous in the extreme’. On 23 July, the same newspaper reported that the ‘heavy rains, unnatural at this period of the year … have occasioned much damage by the swelling of the river [Liffey] over the low grounds between Lucan and this City.’ By the autumn, much of Ireland would be contending with a failed harvest.
At Bologna, where the portentous prophecy originated, the weather in June was ‘so cold there that people wear double shirts, cloaks, and warm gloves.’ 1816 was the coldest year in recorded European history, and the 1810s would transpire to be the Northern Hemisphere’s coldest decade. Both facts are directly attributed to the eruption of Mount Tambora.
Still recoiling from the devastation wrought by the Napoleonic Wars, northern Europe also bewailed the enormous damage ‘by storms of hail and rain, by lightning and … such horrid bursts of thunder, such groans of roaring winds and rain.’
All across France and Germany, rivers burst their banks and vast tracts of fertile land were inundated. In Frankfurt, the ‘incessant rains’ caused the corn to rot; ‘the early fruit is watery, insipid, and unwholesome.’ By mid-July, thousands of square miles of ruined winter corn had been ploughed up. ‘The loss in grain, hay, tobacco and other vegetables, is incalculable’, lamented the papers. At Montauban in the French Pyrénées, a ‘tremendous hail storm … completely destroyed the hopes of the harvest’.
Similar calamities were reported by travellers in Turkey, Hungary and throughout Eastern Europe. Switzerland was also flooded with shattering consequences on the country’s corn and potato crops but there was a curious upside to the shocking weather. Mary Shelley was on holiday with Lord Byron and others at a house near Lake Geneva. Unable to go outside because of the volcanic winter, the party opted to stay indoors and challenged each other to write a new ghost story. Mary Shelley invented ‘Frankenstein’ and Byron came up with a creepy vampire tale, as well as his apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, about the sun going out.
The situation was no less dramatic in North America where Québec experienced an hour long snowstorm on 6 June, followed by four days of severe frost. Elsewhere in Canada, humming birds, martins and scarlet sparrows were so ‘benumbed’ by the ‘extraordinary cold … as to be taken by the hand’ and ‘great numbers … perished.’ Snow also fell on the streets of Montreal and New York; the latter was still contending with hard frosts on 15 June while large icicles were reported in the upper part of the state. In Vermont, food was so scarce that people took to eating hedgehogs and boiled nettles.
The appalling weather also engulfed Ireland where 31 inches of rain fell over 142 days, destroying both the grain harvest and potato crop and making it almost impossible to dry turf so that the people were cold as well as hungry. Flood damage was particularly bad in Galway, Roscommon, Westmeath and ‘the lower grounds’ of Limerick and Cork, as well as ‘all the lower parts in the northern counties towards Belfast’. The lands around Athlone were covered with so much water that ‘an acre of wheat was hardly expected within 10 miles of the place.’ In Drogheda, ducks were seen swimming across a field planted with oats and potatoes.
Distillers would also bear the brunt of the failed harvest from October 1816 when the Lord Lieutenant prohibited the distillation of spirit from grain ‘in consequence of the unfavourable state of the harvest’. The price of ‘Spirituous Liquors’ sky-rocketed accordingly.
Things were a little better in the sunny-south east with Waterford and Kilkenny farmers managing to save a good dead of their harvest. Nonetheless, as winter arrived so the first signs of famine stole in upon many parts of the land, accompanied by a horrific epidemic of highly contagious typhoid, carried by lice, that ultimately killed 65,000 people in Ireland. In response, Robert Peel, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, empaneled a national fever committee to distribute government relief to victims of the epidemic; this was to become the first Board of Health in the British dominions.