The Night of the Big Wind - 6th/7th January 1839

During this horrible weather we've been having over the past few weeks, it seems appropriate to remember that on the 6th January one hundred and seventy four years ago today "The Night of the Big Wind" - 'Oiche na Gaoithe Maoire', effectively a category 3 hurricane, wreacked utter destruction across the country.

It was by all accounts a freak storm. Ireland was experiencing very unseasonable weather; heavy snow on 5th Jan was followed by very warm weather on the 6th. Around 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the 6th January it began to rain with the weather deteriorating rapidly throughout the day, until ten o'clock at night when the winds raged up and mauled the country until six a.m. the next morning.

The scenes that greeted people in the dawn must have seemed unreal; roofs had been blown off buildings, trees uprooted and flung across streets and fields, windows & doors were blown out, whole cabins were blown, or subsequently burnt, down, farmland was destroyed, crops and hay ricks (essential for feeding livestock) blown clean away; fences & walls were blown down and livestock escaped & were lost. The storm had been so powerful that when it initially crashed into the west coast waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher. What was probably the most terrifying aspect of the storm was that it happened in utter darkness; people had no idea what was going on as their homes were destroyed.

A cottage in Mohill, Co. Leitrim 1889 - many cottages in 1839 would have been like this one & so could be easily destroyed by high winds or flying debris.

The after effects in Drogheda and the surrounding area was described vividly in newspapers of the time. "As the hurricane hit Drogheda, many families fled in mortal terror for their lives as the wind thundered through their shaking homes. The nightmare atmosphere was further raised as slates and chimney pots crashed down into the streets in the darkness. Frightened horses bolted wildly about adding to the general terror and confusion. Some families made their way to the safety of the Tholsel and the Watch House. Others quit the town to spend the night huddled together in the freezing rain, under the hedgerows of the open fields.

As daylight broke on Monday morning the streets of the town were seen to be blocked with debris of every type and description. Very few houses had escaped the night undamaged. But the greatest loss and suffering was felt amongst the poor of the town. A large number of their cabins were demolished, two or three were burned to the ground, and the remainder were stripped of their thatched roofing. Remarkably in all this destruction, not one single life was lost, nor were any serious injuries reported in the vicinity of Drogheda.

The north side of the town bore the brunt of the storm. Homes in Windmill Lane, directly in the path of the scythe-like wind, suffered most. Of some 90 houses in the road, 32 had their roofs whipped clean away and were also damaged by falling debris. Residents in the North Road also reported extensive damages to their property." A family in Laurence Street had a narrow escape when a falling chimney stack caused their roof to collapse on top of them; luckily they weren't injured. A large number of buildings reported their roofs being stripped, including St. Peter's C.O.I., buildings on West St. and the quays, Mayoralty House, and Mell Flax Mill which was seriously damaged during the storm.

Throughout the county, from Dundalk to Ardee to Collon, stripped roofs and damaged buildings were the main reports. In nearly all of the great estates dotted throughout the county fallen trees were the main casualties, with entire groves of valuable timber being uprooted, some dating back centuries. Another extract from the papers highlighted that "in one instance on the Red House estate, to the north of the town (of Ardee), one desolated family saw their small house burned out during the storm. Everything they possessed was lost in the fire, even a valuable sow and her litter of young ones. The family spent the remainder of the night in the freezing sleet and snow in a hedgerow. Mr. W. P. Buxton, landlord of the Red House, on hearing of their terrible plight sent blankets and clothing for all the family."

Such was the intensity of the storm that in a letter from Slane dated from the 7th Jan, the writer states " a very curious fact that I have discovered from a twig having accidentally gotten into my mouth which, to my great suprise, I found strongly impregnated with salt. This turned out generally the case throughout the place: the spray, therefore, of the Atlantic must have crossed this island."

A huge rock thrown up by the recent storms in Doolin, Co. Clare. The storm in 1839 did much the same thing, and the crashing of the waves on the coast could be heard for miles inland.

It was estimated that between 300 - 800 people were killed, but the figure was probably much higher given the amount of people that would have either froze to death in the fields or died from illnesses that followed given the intense rain & snow that accompanied the storm.

The storm was a hugely traumatic event for the Irish people and it became a marker for an era. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and penniless, and the countryside and farmland was left devastated. One positive outcome was in 1909 when the Old Age Pension System was enacted, due to the lack of written genealogical records in rural areas, the ferocious storm that blew in from the North Atlantic 70 years earlier proved to be a useful marker. One of the questions asked of elderly people was if they could remember the 'Night of the Big Wind'; if they could, they were old enough to qualify for the pension.

Extracts from "The Night of the Big Wind, 6th January, 1839" by Michael O. McDonough, O.D.S. Journal 1990.

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