Snow fell over much of the country on 5 January 1839, but then as often happens in Ireland the weather changed completely, temperatures rose and the snow rapidly melted. For a few hours the country basked in unseasonable warmth. No one had the slightest idea of what lay in store.
Gradually, during the day, the winds rose. The first area affected was County Mayo where a strong breeze and heavy rains swept in from the Atlantic at around midday. Nollaig na mBan, the religious feast of the Epiphany, wasn’t going to be that pleasant a day after all.
There was a belief among the impressionable that the world would come to an end, that the Apocalypse would descend, on 6 January and one Nollaig na mBan would finally prove to be the day of Final Judgment. And that was before the Apocalypse of the Night of the Big Wind.
The squally weather that first appeared on the west coast quickly moved eastwards, and worse followed in its wake. The storm began to gather strength. Soon it was powerful enough to blow down the steeple of the Anglican church in Castlebar. As it moved across the midlands the wind was gusting at over a hundred knots – around a hundred and eighty five kilometers an hour. According to the scale devised by the Navan born hydrographer and naval officer, Sir Francis Beaufort in 1805, that was a force 12 – hurricane force.
It was the most destructive wind to hit Europe in more than a century – another hurricane in 1703 had largely bypassed Ireland. But our geographical position on the western periphery of the continent meant that this time early Victorian Ireland caught the main brunt of nature’s awe-inspiring strength. By the time the wind had blown itself out upwards of three hundred people were dead, many at sea. Forty-two ships had sunk either sheltering or vainly attempting to reach shelter. Most of the shipping damage was on the badly hit west coast. So strong were the surging winds that some inland flooding was caused by sea-water.
The Big Wind spared no one. Well-built aristocratic homes and military barracks were destroyed or badly damaged, as were the bothies and cottages of the rural poor. Exposed livestock was vulnerable, not only to the Big Wind itself but to the starving aftermath as crops and stores of fodder were obliterated.
Ironically, given the prevailing conditions, much of the damage was caused by fire. The winds fanned the embers of turf fires abandoned overnight in hearths. The sparks set fire to thatched roofs. These conflagrations were then spread to adjacent roofsespecially in small towns like Naas, Kilbeggan, Slane and Kells. Seventy-one houses were burned in Loughrea, over a hundred in Athlone.
The County of Meath was right in the path of the wind and the Dublin Evening Post reported that ‘the damage done in this county is very great. Not a single demesne escaped, and tens of thousands of trees have been snapped in twain or torn up by the roots, and farming produce to an immense amount destroyed.’
The city of Dublin didn’t escape either. The tremendous gusts devoured a quarter of the buildings in the capital before the wind raced across the Irish Sea to Britain and continental Europe before finally dissipating. The river Liffey rose and overflowed the quays in the centre of the city. A noon service at the Bethesda Chapel in Dorset street had given thanks on 6 January for deliverance from a potentially destructive fire – that night the wind whipped up the embers of the fire and consumed the church.
One of the unexpected consequences of the Night of the Big Wind came almost seventy years later after the British government introduced an old age pension for the over seventies. As the formal registration of births in Ireland had only begun in 1863 many septuagenarians, legitimately entitled to a pension, had no birth certificates to prove their age. One of the ways of ascertaining their entitlement devised by civil servants was to ask the question ‘Do you remember the Night of the Big Wind’. If they did they got their pension.
Hurricane force winds destroyed property, and killed hundreds of people and animals as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ struck Ireland one hundred and seventy-eight years ago, on this day.