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Oiche na Gaoithe Moire...
The rain began before noon in the west and spread very slowly eastwards. In County Mayo, the late afternoon turned chilly while the eastern part of the country continued to enjoy the unseasonably warm temperatures experienced in Mayo earlier that day. At dusk, wind speeds increased, it became much colder and alternate showers of rain and hail began to fall. By nine p.m.,the wind had reached gale force and continued to increase. By midnight it had reached hurricane force and remained at that level until five o'clock in the morning.
Along the western seaboard, people made their peace with God, convinced that the end of the world was at hand. The overwhelming chaos and terror of the storm was long remembered by those who experienced the event. A rumbling noise, similar to thunder at a low volume, continued throughout the storm but increased in volume as the gusts increased. The wind extinguished lanterns and candles and it was impossible to see what was actually happening, except when streaks of lightning occasionally illuminated an area or when the sky would clear for a brief moment and the aurora borealis could be seen lighting up the northern sky in a mantle of red.
On Monday, January 7th, the sun rose on a wasteland. Familiar objects were unrecognizable. Known landmarks were gone. People were dazed and exhausted from lack of sleep. Nothing was where it should be. The country came to a standstill.
More people were made homeless during the night of the Big Wind than were evicted during the years 1850-1880. Exposure to the elements led to illness among the frail, particularly the young and elderly. Many lost their savings when the roofs of their cabins blew off: the thatch was a favorite hiding place for money, but few had the foresight to remove it when the storm came.
Tenant farmers were particularly hard hit. In the countryside, stacks of corn and hay were blown completely from their haggards and were scattered in the fields. What was recovered had been drenched which caused it to rot; this left farmers without winter feed for their livestock.
Boundary walls of dry stone construction were blown down allowing animals to stray and mix with other herds and flocks. High orchard walls on rural estates fell in long sections. Sheep on mountains were blown to their death and killed by loose stones tumbling down hillsides. Hill farmers were depleted of their chief source of income.
From an ecological point of view the storm was a disaster. Millions of wild birds were killed causing the near extinction of crows and jackdaws. Their traditional nesting places were wiped out. When spring came, the absence of song birds was eerily noticeable.
Historic ruins such as Norman tower-houses and churches were badly destroyed never to be restored. Tombstones in cemeteries were knocked over. Roadways were rendered impassable by fallen trees and, according to Peter Carr in his book, "The Night of the Big Wind," 'slated roofs were plucked clean like Christmas turkeys.'
Sea water was carried inland by the force of the storm and flooded houses when it poured down chimneys. One of the most abiding memories of the night, and its aftermath was the smell of salt which lingered in houses for weeks. Seaweed too, was carried inland for great distances. Herrings and other fish were found miles from shore.
The historian, P.W. Joyce described the Big Wind as if "..... the entire country had been swept clean by some great broom." "My estate is now as bald as the palm of my hand" was the complaint of one landlord who lost seventy-thousand trees.
Ulster, the West and Midlands bore the brunt of the hurricane. Almost every class of building was damaged; factories and barracks were ruined; windmills were decapitated. Agriculture, industry, commerce and communications were all seriously disrupted.
Not surprisingly, the hurricane generated a mass of folklore:
There were people in every community who practiced weather forecasting using such factors as the lunar cycle, appearance of the sky and sea, wind direction, the behaviour of birds, animals, fish and insects and their own intuition - often with a remarkable degree of success. These amateur weather forecasters failed to predict the event, so people sought their explanations elsewhere.
The superstitious were quick to attribute the storm to the fairies. Traditionally, the 5th of January was the feast of St. Ceara, when it was believed the fairies held a night of revelry. The fairies, they thought, were so unruly that the storm resulted. Others believed that on that night, all but a few of the fairies of Ireland left the country never to return and that the wind was caused by their departure.
The devout, noting that the storm occurred on the night of the Epiphany, saw it as of Divine origin. All the more so since many Roman Catholics in Ireland believed that the 7th of January would be the Day of Judgement. P.W. Joyce tells of one man's reaction to the devastation. He says: "I was looking round with others at the havoc, and whom should we see but old Jacob Stuffle, a well-to-do farmer, one of our Palatine neighbours, a small man with a tremendous voice. He was standing high up on a hillock looking with dismay at his haggard farm which his comfortable well-thatched stacks had been swept out of existence. Suddenly, he raised his two hands, palms open, high over his head, and looking up at the sky, he cried out in the bitterness of his heart, in a voice that was heard all over the village 'Oh, God Almighty, what did I ever do to You and You should thrate (treat) me in that way!'"
Joyce tells us that on hearing Jacob's loud and pathetic complaint, the little group of people gathered round were struck dumb with awe. As for the young Joyce himself, he says - "I was so frightened that I turned round without a word and ran straight home".
The wrath of God was a favourite reason cited by newspaper correspondents of all religious persuasions. For many, the Night of the Big Wind caused them to re-think their lives as it re-awakened their belief in the existence of God.
Freemasonry, traditionally seen by Irish Catholics as associated with demonic practise, was considered to be another possible cause. Some people were of the opinion that Freemasons had brought up the devil from hell - and couldn't get him to return.
The weather remained unsettled in the days after the Night of the Big Wind and occasionally the wind became gusty causing people to fear that the storm would return. In mid-January the aurora borealis reappeared, again stirring up panic.
While many were suffering greatly, the ill wind blew good for some people: merchants, carpenters, slaters, thatchers and builders in particular were busy renovating public buildings and the properties of the wealthy. The poor, who could not afford to hire such services, had to survive as best they could. The Night of the Big Wind happened prior to the introduction of government relief measures and widespread insurance. The relationship between landlord and tenant dictated that the tenant made good damage caused by storms. What little reserve of cash was held by the poor was used up in rebuilding and restocking. In many cases houses were re-built in sheltered locations at the bottom of hills, and for many years, until the advent of sturdier building materials, shelter from the wind was a primary factor in choosing a house-site.
Given the storm's ferocity, the death toll was miraculously low. Perhaps 250-300 people lost their lives, most at sea in the disastrous wrecks. While there were many lucky escapes, famine followed seven years later. It almost completely wiped out the class that suffered the most on the Night of the Big Wind. As the century progressed, the Night of the Big Wind became a milestone in time. Events were referred to as happening before, or after.
The Big Wind may also have inspired the then Director of Armagh Observatory, Reverend Romney Robinson to invent the world-famous Robinson Cup-anemometer. Developed in the 1840s, this wind-gauge was used by Dr Robinson and his successor, Dr Dreyer, to make a 55-year series of wind speed and direction measurements from 1852-1907.
In 1909, old age pensions were introduced in Ireland which entitled people over seventy to an allowance of five shillings per week from the State. For those who had no documentary proof of their ages, which was very common in those days, pensions were granted if they could remember the night of the Big Wind.
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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