“At 1 o’Clock a most tremendous hurricane commenced, which rocked the house beneath us as if it were a ship! Awfully sublime!” John O’Donovan, Monday 07th January 1839
Just one of the accounts of the night of the 06/07th January 175 years ago today when a huge storm hit the country and came to be known in folk memory as “Óiche na Gaoithe” or The Night of the Big Wind and looking out the window today and listening to the sound, it seems that the weather is commemorating the occasion by sending us Hurricane Christine.
Today we can predict and prepare for most weather events but 175 years ago, people did not have the luxury of scientific measurements and weather satellites so when the storm made landfall every community was completely unprepared for the worst battering the country has ever seen (waves broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher in Clare, 700feet above sea level). What made it worse was the calm and tranquillity in the lead up to the event. Snow had covered the country before the 06th and while most of the country was preparing for Little Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany, John O’Donovan and Thomas O’Conor of the First Ordnance Survey were caught in a blizzard in the Wicklow Mountains on their way to Glendalough and had to stop on the way and stay in Charley Clarke’s public house which was not up to their standard. Much of folk memory remembers an unusually warm day on Sunday the 06th of January, so warm in fact that the blanket of snow which had covered the country melted away. John O’Donovan wrote of that day’s experience:
“we set out across the same mountain (in which we had been stopped by the Snow). I never felt so tired! Sinking thro’ the half-dissolved masses of snow and occasionally down to the knees in ruts in the road… We were now within five miles of the Glen, but a misty rain, truly annoying, dashed constantly in our faces until we arrived at St. Kevin’s Shrine. Horribly beautiful! And truly romantic, but not sublime!”.
That misty rain was the only veiled warning the island got. By 6pm on the 06th wind speeds were reaching hurricane force and heavy rain was increasing and becoming sleety in places. “In towns and villages, fires flickered and doors slammed. Church bells chimed, dogs whined and cats screeched. Fishermen turned their ears west as a distant, increasingly loud rumble was heard on the frothy horizon” (Bunbury 2014). By 10 o’clock that night the island was subjected to the full force of the worst documented weather event in Irish history until 6 o’clock the following morning. As the wind rocketed through every gap in houses, tearing some to the ground, lifting roofs and knocking chimneys candles and fires would probably have been extinguished leaving families experiencing the full ferocity of nature in total darkness except for the occasional lightning strike. Even the great mansions and better built houses did not escape the destruction many losing their entire roofs or having chimney pots crashing through into the rooms below.
Since the winds had rose to deafening levels at 1 o’clock, O’Donovan could not get back to sleep. At 2’oclock, the storm rose to such a ferocity that he left his bed with the intention of fleeing the building, afraid the roof would come in on top of him. But no sooner was he out of bed
“than the window was dashed in upon the floor! And after it a squall mighty as a thunderbolt. I then, fearing that the roof would be blown off at once, pushed out the shutter and closed it as soon as the direct squall had passed off, and placed myself diagonally against it to prevent the next squall from getting at the roof inside, but the next blast shot me completely out of my position, and forced in the window!”
O’Donovan managed to get the shutter closed a second time and pressed himself against it to keep it closed for an hour while O’Conor who had been roused by the blast which threw O’Donovan ran to get help from the house owner who was himself trying to secure his cattle in a now wrecked out-house. Eventually he returned to secure the window and by morning O’Donovan was sitting by a fire trying to warm up after his freezing ordeal bracing the window. He finished his account of the nights events by frustratingly stating “Pity I have not paper to tell the rest”. He later described the impact of the storm on the landscape as “the entire country had been swept clean by some gigantic broom”.
A number of people were killed that night, mainly by falling masonry and in some cases where fires erupted. Fear spread through Dublin that a great fire might take off like happened to London in 1666. Sheep were swept from hillsides and cattle were reported to have frozen to death in the fields. Canals were blown dry and reputedly the bodies of victims killed during the Battle of the Boyne were exposed on the river banks. Tree were knocked in such large amounts that it was said not an oak tree planted pre-1839 existed in Ireland. A statistic was produced stating that 4,846 chimneys were knocked that night. While Carlow escaped relatively unscathed compared to large parts of the country, the storm still left it’s mark.
Night of the Big Wind in Carlow
Carlow town was hit badly through the night and a number of serious injuries were reported. The newly built (1833) Catholic Cathedral, the first built since Catholic Emancipation had been won had a pinnacle knocked from the crown on top of the steeple. It crashed into the roof below, smashing through into the front gallery and shattered it. The last chimney on top of Carlow castle was knocked while houses were deroofed, hay stacks scattered and out-houses levelled. One resident, Thomas C. Butler had just left his bedroom when his ceiling caved in by the weight of the chimneys which had fallen on it. A back window on the Carlow Club House hotel then on Dublin Street was forced in and shattered, brace and all. So powerful was the wind hurtling through the town that it required a number of men to keep the shutters closed while another brace was found.
Out in the countryside the destruction was no less with serious injury reported but again escaping much of the full onslaught of the hurricane. A mile length of wall which surrounded the estate of Colonel Henry Bruen’s demesne at Oak Park was levelled. It was reported that the roofs and walls of even the best built structures shook as if it were an earthquake.
With so much destruction chaos must have loomed for days afterwards especially amongst livestock farmers. Fences and walls would have either been knocked by the wind or burst by frightened animals. While many farmers would have lost animals either through death, injury or flight, more must have knowingly gained a few head of sheep or cattle in the confusion. One Carlow man was reported as having sold ten shillings worth of slates blown down from houses which he had gone out and gathered. It was said that more people were rendered homeless by that single nights event than were evicted between 1850 and 1880. While the immediate impact was catastrophic there was a silver lining for the younger survivors and eyewitnesses of the event. When the Old Age Pensions Act was introduced in 1909, all those over 70 were made eligible. Since pre 1865 birth records were poor it was decided that anybody who could remember The Night of the Big Wind could claim the pension. One applicant Tim Joyce from Limerick explained “I always thought I was 60 but my friends came to me and told me they were certain I was 70 and as there were three or four of them against me, the evidence was too strong against me. I put in for the pension and got it”.
Bunbury, T. 2014 “The Night of the Big Wind”. In Ireland’s Own 5,427, 4-9.
Carr, P. 1991 The Big Wind; the story of the legendary big wind of 1839, Ireland’s greatest natural disaster. Belfast; White Row.
Letter from John O’Donovan to Thomas A. Larcom 07th January 1839. In Herity, M. (ed) 2013 Ordnance Survey Letters Wicklow and Carlow. Dublin; Fourmasters Press, 71-72.