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The Night of the Big Wind, 1839

‘Storm in the Mountains’ by Albert Bierstadt.

 

The Night of the Big Wind was the most devastating storm in recorded Irish history. The hurricane of 6-7 January 1839 made more people homeless in a single night than all the sorry decades of eviction that followed it.

The calm before the Big Wind struck was particularly eerie. Most of the eight million people living in Ireland at the time were preparing for Little Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany.

The previous day had seen the first snowfall of the year; heavy enough for some to build snowmen. By contrast, Sunday morning was unusually warm, almost clammy, and yet the air was so still that, along the west coast, voices could be heard floating on the air between houses more than a mile apart.

‘Notwithstanding the snow, the day was not cold,’ recalled Tomás Ó Néill Ruiséal (Thomas O’Neill Russell), who was on his family farm near Moate, County Westmeath when the storm blew in. ‘There was not even a breath of wind. But there was something awful in tile dark stillness of that winter day, for there was no sunlight coming through the thick, motionless clouds that hung over the earth.’

At approximately 3pm, the rain began to fall and the wind picked up. Nobody could have predicted that those first soft raindrops signified an advance assault from the most terrifying hurricane in human memory.

By 6pm, the winds had become strong and the raindrops were heavier, sleet-like, with occasional bursts of hail. Farmers grimaced as their hay-ricks and thatched roofs took a pounding. In the towns and villages, fires flickered and doors slammed. Church bells chimed and dogs began to whine. Fishermen turned their ears west; a distant, increasingly loud rumble could be heard upon the frothy horizon.

At Glenosheen in County Limerick, a well-to-do German farmer called Jacob Stoffel began to weep. At Moydrum Castle in County Westmeath, 78-year-old Lord Castlemaine decided to turn in early and go to bed.

In the Wicklow Mountains, a team of geographic surveyors headed up by John O’Donovan finally made it to their hotel in Glendalough; they had been walking all day, often knee-deep in snow.

Sailing upon the Irish Sea, Captain Smyth of the Pennsylvania studied his instruments and tried to make sense of the fluctuating pressures.

Rounding the north coast of Ireland in the schooner Venus, Master McFee decided his best course of action would be to drop anchor in Rathmullan, rather than risk his cargo of whiskey and sugar. All going to plan, he could complete the voyage from Glasgow to Sligo in the morrow.

By 10pm, Ireland was in the throes of a ferocious cyclone that would continue unabated through the night for at least eight hours. The hurricane had roared across 3,000 miles of unbroken, island-free Atlantic Ocean, gathering momentum every second. It hit Ireland’s west coast with such power that the waves are said to have broken over the top of the Cliffs of Moher. Reading contemporary accounts, the impression is that if Ireland did not have such magnificent cliffs forming a barrier along our west coast, the entire country would simply have been engulfed by water.

The noise of the sea crashing against the rocks could be heard for miles inland, above the roar and din of the storm itself. The earth trembled under the assault; the ocean tossed huge boulders onto the cliff-tops of the Aran Islands.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect was that all this took place in utter darkness. People cannot have known what was going on. The wind churned its way across the land, extinguishing every candle and lantern it encountered. The black night was only relieved by the lightning streaks that accompanied the storm and the occasional blood-red flicker of the aurora borealis burning in the northern sky.

All across Ireland, hundreds of thousands of people were attuned to the sound of the furious tempest, their windows shattered by hailstones, their brick-walls rattling, their rain-sodden thatched roofs sinking fast.

‘The most terrible thing I have ever heard was the roaring of the wind on that awful night,’ stated T.O. Russell. ‘I can never forget it, nor can anyone who heard it ever forget it … a horrible sound, something between a howl and a roar [of] unutterable awfulness … It was hardly to be wondered at that almost everyone thought the end of the world had come. Those who had probably never felt real fear in all their previous lives were like babies, and wept like them. ‘

As the wind grew stronger, it began to rip the roofs off houses. Chimney pots, broken slates, sheets of lead and shards of glass were hurtled to the ground. Rather astonishingly, someone later produced a statistic that 4,846 chimneys were knocked off their perches during the Night of the Big Wind.

Many of those who died that night were killed by falling masonry. Norman tower houses and old churches collapsed. Factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of Castlebar, Athlone and Dublin. The wind blew all the water out of a canal near Tuam. It knocked a pinnacle off Carlow Cathedral and the solitary remaining chimney off Carlow Castle. It knocked a pinnacle off Carlow Cathedral and wrecked one of the surviving towers at Carlow Castle. The north gable collapsed on the keep at Trim Castle. A gable also tumbled from the Bishop’s Palace on the Rock of Cashel; its remains can still be seen on the great lawn. It stripped the earth alongside the River Boyne, exposing the bones of soldiers killed in the famous battle 150 years earlier.

Fish were lifted from the lake at Farnham, County Cavan, and scattered across the fields of Farnham estate. Hundreds of fish were likewise reported to have blown out of Lough Ree and died upon its shore. Others were washed ashore at Warrenpoint. Stories would later be told of seafish found in the Slieve Blooms. A stormy petrel seabird was blown so far off course it was found at the Tuite family estate near Sonna, County Westmeath.

At four o’clock in the morning, Master McFie of the Venus stood horrified on board his ship as it was dragged from its anchorage in Rathmullan and pulled towards the Inch Bar, a notorious sandbank at the mouth of Lough Swilly. The ship struck the bank with such force that ‘she immediately filled with water and fell on her beam ends.’ In desperation, McFie and his crew clung to the main rigging and waited.

Roads in every parish became impassable. All along the Grand Canal, trees were pulled up by the roots and hurled across the water to the opposite bank. Thousands of timber cabins were destroyed. The wind blew under the half doors and swept the burning embers up from their fireplaces through the chimney to the thatch roofs, spreading the fire to neighbouring thatch, if there was any.

Surviving inhabitants had no choice but to flee into the pitch-black night in clothes that were presumably soon wholly drenched by the intense rains and snows that accompanied the cruel, piercing wind. Many sought shelter amid the hollows and hedges of the land. People in the midlands found themselves drenched in sudden torrents of saltwater, water that must have been carried on the tempest from the ocean.

Farmers were hit particularly hard. Hay-ricks in fields across Ireland were blown to pieces. Wooden fences and dry-stone walls collapsed, allowing terrified livestock to run away. Sheep were blown off mountains or killed by tumbling rocks. Cattle were reported to have simply frozen to death in the fields.

The next morning, one of Jacob Stuffle’s neighbour recalled seeing the distraught German standing high up on a hillock looking with dismay at his haggard farm, his stacks having been swept out of existence. Suddenly, he raised his two hands, palms open, high over his head, and looking up at the sky he roared in a voice that was heard far and wide, “Oh, God Almighty, what did I ever do to You and You should treat me in that way!”

Stuffle was not the only man who believed that the hurricane, occurring on the night of the Epiphany, was of Divine origin. Many saw it as a warning that the Day of Judgment would soon be upon them. Some believed the Freemasons had unleashed the Devil from the Gates of Hell. Others maintained that English fairies had invaded Ireland and forced the indigenous Little People to disappear amid a ferocious whirlwind. (Irish fairies, of course, are wingless and can only fly by calling up the sidhe chora – the magic whirlwinds).

The well-to-do did not escape; many mansions had their roofs stripped off. Lord Castlemaine was fastening his bedroom windows when the storm blew them open and hurled him ‘so violently upon his back that he instantly expired’. His brother-in-law, the Earl of Clancarty, later reported the loss of nearly 20,000 trees on his estate at Ballinasloe. Similar figures came in from other landed estates; Henry Bruen of Oak Park in Carlow declared that his woods were now ‘as bald as the palm of my hand’. At the Seaforde estate in County Down, an estimated 60,000 trees were felled; the Marquess of Conyngham lost a third of his woods at Slane. The Lord Bishop of Meath’s demesne at Ardbraccan House was likewise devastated. The Lefroy family had just completed Carrigglas Manor in County Longford. All of the trees around the house fell down, utterly altering the architectural perspectives, although the estate carpenters, working on site, did manage to craft a fine dining room sideboard from a fallen oak.

On 6 January 1839, timber was a valuable commodity. Twenty-four hours later, so many trees had fallen that it was virtually worthless. Unimagined numbers of wild birds were killed, their nesting places smashed and there was little birdsong that spring. On a road near Athlone, thousands of dead crows were found alongside a screen of trees. Crows all but vanished from Irish skies for several years afterwards; jackdaws also seemed on the verge of extinction.

In his hotel room in Glendalough, John O’Donovan was fortunate not to share Lord Castlemaine’s fate. He was struggling with the shutters when ‘a squall mighty as a thunderbolt’ propelled him across the room. When he viewed the damage next morning, he described it as if ‘the entire country had been swept clean by some gigantic broom’.

Dublin resembled ‘a sacked city …the whirlwind of desolation spared neither building, tree nor shrub’. The Liffey rose by several feet and overflowed the quay walls. The elms that graced the main thoroughfare of the Phoenix Park were completely levelled, as were the elms at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. At the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin), a tree crashed through the roof of the guardroom where soldiers had been conversing just moments earlier. The trees on Leinster Lawn outside the present-day Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) were uprooted and scattered ‘like prostrate giants on their mother earth’.

The back wall of the Guinness Brewery collapsed killing ‘nine fine horses’. A witness next morning described how ‘the noble animals [were] stretched everywhere as if sleeping, but with every bone crushed by the ponderous weight of the wall’. Military sentry boxes were blown off their stands and ‘scattered like atoms’. A glass shop on Nassau Street became ‘a heap of ruins’. On Clare Street, a chimney collapsed on a woman who had only just got into her bed, killing her instantly.

Police stations and churches opened their doors for thousands of frightened citizens who brought their young and frail in for protection. Even churches could not be trusted on this night of Lucifer. The steeple of Irishtown chapel caved in and the bell from the spire of St Patrick’s Cathedral came down like a meteorite; mercifully nobody died in either instance. Phibsborough Road was a bombsite of exploded windows and fallen chimneys ‘as if by shot and shell’.

One of the forty female inmates at the Bethesda Penitentiary on Dublin’s north-side took the opportunity to ignite a fire that destroyed the building as well as the surrounding houses, school-house and chapel. Two firemen died trying to extinguish the flames.

The hurricane did not stop in Dublin. It pounded its way across the Irish Sea, killing hundreds of luckless souls caught at sea.

It killed nearly 100 fishermen off the coast of Skerries.

It killed Captain Smyth and the 30 people on board the packet-ship Pennsylvania. Ships all along the west coast of England were wrecked; dead bodies continued to wash up onshore for weeks afterwards.

At Everton, the same wind unroofed a cotton factory that whitened all the space for miles around, ‘as if there had been a heavy fall of snow’.

Estimates as to how many died that night vary from 300 to 800, a remarkably low figure given the ferocity of the storm. Many more must have succumbed to pneumonia, frostbite or depression in its wake. Those bankrupted by the disaster included hundreds who had stashed their life savings up chimneys and in the thatched roofs that disappeared in the night.

Even in those days it was ‘an ill wind that turned none to good’ and among those to benefit were the builders, carpenters, slaters and thatchers who subsequently rebuilt the fallen buildings.

The Big Wind also inspired the Rev Romney Robinson of the Armagh Observatory to invent the Robinson Cup-anemometer, which was to be the standard instrument for gauging wind speed for the rest of the 19th century.

There were tremendous tales of heroism too. As daylight began to break across Lough Swilly, Lieutenant John Holland, the head coastguard at Rathmullan, became aware of the fate of the stricken schooner Venus whose master and crew were still clinging to the rigging for dead life. He rounded up six brave men and put out in a boat, reaching the ship at about nine o’clock in the morning. They managed to rescue all nine men, for which Lieutenant Holland was awarded a Silver Medal. [1]

Perhaps the most unlikely beneficiaries of the Night of the Big Wind were those old enough to remember it when the Old Age Pensions Act was enacted in January 1909, seventy years after the event. The Act, which offered the first ever weekly pension to those over the age of seventy, was likened to the opening of a new factory on the outskirts of every town and village in Britain and Ireland.

By March 1909, over 80,000 ‘British’ pensioners were registered of whom 70,000 were Irish. When a committee was sent to investigate this imbalance, it transpired that few births in Ireland were registered before 1865. As such, the Irish Pensions Committee decreed that if someone’s age had ‘gone astray’ on them, they would be eligible for a pension if they could state that they were ‘fine and hardy’ on the Night of the Big Wind, or the ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire’, as it is called in Irish. [2]

One such applicant was Tim Joyce of County Limerick. ‘I always thought I was 60,’ he explained. ‘But my friends came to me and told me they were certain sure I was 70 and as there were three or four of them against me, the evidence was too strong for me. I put in for the pension and got it.’

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This story features in Turtle’s 2020 book ‘Ireland’s Forgotten Past’, published by Thames & Hudson.

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[1] The Venus, an 81-ton schooner, was carrying a cargo of whiskey and sugar from Glasgow to Sligo.  See sale of ship at Derry Journal – Tuesday 29 January 1839.  Lt John Holland, RN, is listed as the coastguard for Portrush, County Antrim, in the Dublin Almanac of 1843.  He should not be confused with John Holland, father of the submarine designer, who was also a coastguard.
Feb 13 1836 – On Tuesday last, by the Rev. William Mortimer in the Parish Church of Kilmacrennan, John HOLLAND Esq., Lieut. R.N. to Ann, eldest daughter of William BOXER Esq. Capt. R.N. of Ballyare Lodge.  (Reference) (See here and here for more on the Boxer family.)
July 28 1838 – On the 18th inst., at Rathmullan, the lady of LIEUTENANT JOHN HOLLAND R.N., of a daughter.
May 23 1840 – The lady of LIEUTENANT JOHN HOLLAND, R.N., Ramullan, of a daughter
March 11 1843 – At Portrush, on the 7th inst., Lieut. John Holland, R.N., many years Chief Officer of Coast Guard at Rathmullan, deservedly regretted by his numerous friends and acquaintances. (Derry Journal, 14 March 1843)
His widow Ann married secondly John Scudamore son of John Scudamore of Banagher on 26.11.1846 at St Peter’s Church, Dublin.  (References)

[2] A phonetic pronunciation for ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’, the Irish translation for Night of the Big wind, is ‘eee-ha nah gwee-ha mwirra’.

NB: Details of T.O. Russell, the stormy petrel, the crows and Lough Ree fish come from ‘Night of the Big Wind’, Kentucky Irish American, March 13, 1915, p. 1. With thanks to Belinda Evangelista.