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THE NIGHT OF THE BIG WIND


(OICHE NA GAOITHE MOIRE)

by
Rory Kieran


Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1992 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

For many centuries South Armagh has been a full-flowing fountain of folklore. In latter years it has become more difficult to tap into this plenteous supply of tradition because no institution has taken over the function of the ceili house which was effectively killed off after the second world war when people became dependent on radio and subsequently on television for their news and amusement. But the folklore is still there and that is of vital importance. Folk-lore is important, more important than the historical fact which it embraces since it is a comprehensive catalogue of and a definitive directory to all social aspects of the people whence it emanates. It treats of the hopes, fears, beliefs, religion, with humour, history, superstitions, lifestyle and just about every custom and tradition which affords those who want to know an overview which leaves nothing to the imagination.

This knowledge of the people was handed out by the people through the ceili house to impart knowledge the process of learning (in a way never to he forgotten) was taking place. Sometimes I think our ultra-modern education establishments right up to university level could learn a thing or two from the teaching process employed in the ceili house.

Many's the winter's night I spent as a school boy listening to the music song and story and not always trying to differentiate between the real world and the land of make believe. This might seem a curious lack of discrimination until one reflects that in the ceili house the audience was spellbound by a master story-teller who wove a web of words wherein fiction and fairyland with fact while an errant breeze disturbing the flickering flame of the turf fire or the candle-created shadowy giants, gremlins and ghosts which chased each other along the white-washed walls only to disappear under the dark- rafters and thatch there to lurk in wait for a child with a vivid imagination and his head full of children taken by the fairies, "The Death Coach" and "The Banshee Cry " on his way to bed. Those who never believed in Santa Claus may scoff at such infantile simplicity - but I bet all of you did without the slightest pang of doubt believe in him at some stage.

Exaggeration was part of the art of the story teller and if he did not hammer home his point by this ploy you could be sure that the next person to tell a tale would exaggerate more outrageously and thereby steal a march on his predecessor. Everyone accepted this situation as part of the night's enjoyment. In this environment I heard hundreds of stories. poems and pieces of traditional music, the recollection of which has given me much pleasure throughout my life. As I grew older the ghosts, fairies and banshees died a natural death (if such be possible) and I was left with stories comprising fact and exaggeration.

One such tale above all others caused me a lot of mental debate for two main reasons. Firstly it cropped up with such frequency and regularity that I was compelled to believe that it had some basis in fact. Secondly the snippets which stuck in my mind apparently exaggerated to such an outrageous extent that one could only reasonably conclude that the event was merely a figment of someone's vivid imagination.

The tale in question is known as "The Night Of The Big Wind" or "Oiche Na Gaoithe Moire" and it is unique in my experience in that in later years when I was able to refer to contemporary accounts I discovered that what I considered to be exaggeration on the part of generations of storytellers was in fact an under statement of the events of that fateful night. I do not wish to prejudice the reader except to point out that newspapers can and do in certain circumstances use exaggeration, but this happens mostly when they are stuck for something to write about. In this case I do not think they were lacking a story which was truly extraordinary but no doubt the reader will judge.

In the year I839 the sixth day of January fell on a Sunday. This day is of course the Feast of the Epiphany or "Little Christmas" as it was then (and in Irish still is) known. It was almost as important as December 25th and it would also mark the end of "The twelve days of Christmas" The people of Ireland on awakening that morning could riot possibly have been aware of that which fate had in store for them. The children were delighted to find that a covering of snow had fallen over-night. No doubt they were looking forward to a good day's fun snowballing, building snowmen, etc.

The only exceptional feature of that morning. was the almost unearthly calm. So appalling was the calm that the sensitive flame of a rush candle burned in the open air without the faintest attempt to flicker and so awe-inspiring was the stillness that prevailed that voices in ordinary conversational tones floated to and fro between farmhouses more than a mile apart. (1)

By mid afternoon as slight breeze sprang up and it started to become noticeably warmer. The heat became sickly - the temperature in Dublin having risen through IOF and an even greater rise having been recorded in Belfast - 14F. (2)

When (Mrs Howard) the wife of the vicar of Swords in Co. Dublin was going to church on Sunday evening. "The night was levy calm and hot - the air-felt like in a hothouse". (3)

Reports from all parts of Ireland agree oil what followed this remarkable rise in temperature although the wind is noted as originating from various cardinal points (probably because the wind did veer and back as it grew in force). I will quote from the nearest local newspaper available - The Newry Telegraph 8/1/1839.

"On Sunday night about eleven o'clock the wind which had been previously blowing hard from the North-East rose suddenly to a pitch of fury rarely paralleled in this latitude and resembling the hurricane which so frequently spreads desolation and ruin among the West India Islands. It continued increasing in violence during the whole night but aerated considerably, Yesterday morning. There is hardly a single house in town unstripped, and a number of cabins have been, we understand, completely wrecked."

Unfortunately for all of us the fury of the tempest can only be estimated from its effects since while there exists a comprehensive description of the meteorological situation over all of the island of Ireland having regard to temperature and barometric pressure during the pertinent period. There is no measure of wind speed of any description (either mean or gusting something which we are so accustomed to today. The existing pressure data is, for various reasons, complex and would require skilled interpretation and expertise or presentation which I don't possess so I propose to omit these details.

Before looking at the effects of the storm the reader would be well advised to reflect that in 1839 the vast majority of the population lived in small thatched houses, the thatch remaining in position 'under its own weight' or with that weighing and tying which was deemed apt in normal conditions. These houses were heated by turf fire on an open hearth and a wide chimney. The turf fire was never allowed to go out but (was quenched) an amount of turf ash was piled over a few living embers which required only a few gently draughts of air from a bellows to rekindle them the following morning. Those who have studied "The Great Famine" which occurred some seven years after "The Big Wind" will be only too aware of the proliferation of 'mud cabins' and the economic factors underlying this state of affairs. There were, of course, city and town houses and the mansions and castles of the 'Land Gentry' but these were grossly outnumbered by the 'humble abode' of the ordinary people. It can easily be surmised from this scenario that one section of the population was far more prone to suffering the depredations of extreme wind and weather than the other. Of course it must also be bore in mind that the mud cabins was not approached by a tree-lined avenue nor was it surrounded by a demesne with groves of stately and rare trees and shrubs. All of this vital to a reasoned study and comprehension of the main theme of our story.

Now to examine more closely the fury of the storm which raged throughout Ireland from Galway to Dublin - from the Giant's Causeway to Valencia. (4)

The Dublin Evening Post - 12/1/1839 states comparing it with all similar visitations in these latitudes, of which there exists any records, we would say that for the violence of the hurricane and the deplorable effects which followed, as well as for its extensive sweep embracing as it did the whole island in its destructive career, it remains not only without a parallel, but leaves far away in the distance all that ever occurred in Ireland before.(5)

In Dundalk most of the buildings were left without roofs and glass.(6) The Newry Telegraph - 8/1/1839 notes; "With deep concern that several lives have been lost in the immediate neighbourhood". Local tradition (per Jem Murphy) suggests that as a direct result of the storm an entire family from the Ballsmill area lost their lives but so far no newspaper account of this tragedy has been found. The name of this family was 'Hill'.

The greatest havoc was caused by the thatch being lifted and blown from the houses leaving the inhabitants without shelter and causing them to take the imprudent step of venturing out into the storm to seek whatever shelter they might find.

Another deadly factor was the rekindling and scattering of fires all around the inside of the house including up into the thatch which immediately caught fire with predictable results. This rekindling was caused by the fierce gale blowing down the wide chimneys. Under these circumstances it has been stated that in Co. Monaghan those who took courage and volunteered to assist their neighbours had to travel on all fours. They were obliged to embrace each other and shout at the top of their voices to make themselves heard.(7)

It is impossible to believe that anything could be done to quench the fire or to save a dwelling once the living embers had been scattered causing a fire which in seconds was fanned into an inferno by the gale.

Along the Tyrone-Monaghan border there was a fire in every townland. In places the sparks were so thick that flames seemed to fall from the clouds. In Moate where sixty three houses burned down it was said you could pick pins in the yards of houses in the townland of Gurteen about two miles south of the town so great was the light from the burning houses.(8)

It may well be that it was the light from such fires which resulted in reports of spectacular displays of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, which phenomenon the Dublin Evening Post described as "Mantling the hemisphere in sheets of red."

There is general agreement that the storm reached its full terrifying height between two o'clock and five o'clock in the morning and we must look at the state of the country in the aftermath of its deadly passage to judge for ourselves just how terrifying it had been. While all of Ireland had been battered, it is only fair to point out that the west of Ireland would appear to have been worst affected. This is difficult to comprehend when one considers that Belfast off the east coast "resembled a sacked city which had been reduced by artillery".

The morning after the Big Wind revealed scenes of such destruction and desolation as no one had seen before. The countryside had all appearances of having been swept by a huge broom. Forests had been flattened, houses destroyed, hay and corn ricks and turf stacks were scattered, some were lifted and carried over considerable distance. Rivers and lakes were choked with hay and straw. Roads were blocked by fallen trees.

At Seaford in Co. Down about 60,000 trees were lost and in Co. Mayo a gentleman who had an extensive well, wooded estate verging on the Atlantic, lost 70,000 of his trees and told Dr. Petrie, "My entire estate is now as bare as the palm of my hand". One man who journeyed from Carrickmacross to Newry, a journey which would take him through Crossmaglen, reported that on the whole line of road a distance of twenty-two or twenty-three miles he did not see more than three or four standing stacks of grain. In places it was easier to say what was left than what had gone.(9)

In parts of Co. Monaghan the ground reportedly Black with the mangled bodies of crows which species became nearly extinct in that county for years afterwards.(10) The Newry Telegraph 10/1/1839 describes the destruction of at least 10,000 trees on the estate of Mr Synnot at Ballymoyer and the road to Newtownhamilton being totally blocked up by immense trees which had fallen across it. (11) We are also told that "One fatal accident occurred in the neighborhood of Ballymoyer". A young man, son of a schoolmaster named Alien was killed by the falling off his chimney which also severed some other members of the family. The oldest inhabitants of this part of the country do not remember such a hurricane.

The word 'Tornado' has been used to describe The Big Wind and while it may he reasonably asserted that such do not occur in Ireland there is evidence of something a kin to tornado-type activity as opposed to a gale or storm. This activity had some extraordinary results.

In Donaghmore (Co. Down) a completely built stack of oats was lifted clean up, foundation. thatch and all, after performing sundry wild gyrations, was again laid down safely and uninjured at a considerable distance from its former location. Also in Donaghmore an immense stack of turf was lifted a foot from the ground and dashed in pieces. Even more extraordinary is the following report from Kilbeggan (Co. Westmeath). What appeared to be the most astonishing effect of the storm was the blowing of the water out of the canal near this town. "I visited it this morning and it was nearly dry."(12)

The Derry Journal 15/1/1839 informs us that several of the full-grown pines at Brookhall were carried to some distance in a direction opposite to that in which the storm blew. From which it is to be inferred that they encountered a powerful eddy. (13) Still more difficult to comprehend is a report in The Limerick Chronicle 19/1/1839 to the effect that three acres of boo, within four miles of Newmarket-, and eight of Kanturk moved completely from its position and after traversing of a distance of a mile and crossing a rapid river on the opposite side. Not an atom of surface is to be seen where the bog left, but it is an incalculable loss to the owner of the land Mr James Barry, as the bog rests on the best portion of his farm.(14)

As if all of the above were not sufficient to convince the reader that some extraordinary force was at work- on that night there are some reports which stretch even the most vivid imagination.

We are told in the Kerry Evening Post 9/1/1839 that on the morning after the gale a fine specimen of that rare and beautiful little bird the Stormy Petrel was found dead in the Demesne of Sonna, Co. Westmeath, by Hugh Tuite Esq. A distance of more than 90 miles from the sea in the direction of the gale affording one of the most curious and striking instances of the violence of the hurricane.(15)

All along the west coast for many days afterwards, herrings were found six miles inland lifted up bodily out of the sea and blown through the air the whole way.(16)

From The Dublin Evening Post 12/1/1839 we learn trees ten or twelve miles from the sea were covered with salt brine and in the very centre of the Island forty or fifty miles inland such vegetable matter as if occurred to individuals to test had universally a saline taste. The surges of the sea, therefore, must have whipped up and whirled hundreds of miles upon the land. (17) It is not clear how this correspondent arrived at "hundreds of miles" but the best I can do is to refer further to the Leinster Express 19/1/1839 where it is stated that in Slane, Co. Meath, an observer claimed that when accidentally chewing on a piece of twig he found it to be strongly impregnated with salt. This turned out to be generally the case throughout the place, the spray, therefore, of the Atlantic must have crossed the Island.(18)

Difficult though this is to believe it is perhaps lent credibility when one considers that on this same night havoc was also caused in England, Scotland and Wales. Not only was destruction reported from Glasgow, Liverpool and Hollyhead (these locations being nearest to Ireland), but similar reports emanated from Hull (which in a West-East line is just about as far away from the Island of Ireland as one can be within these Islands). I do not propose to go into detail about damage on what is now termed the U.K. mainland as I deem such detail to be outside the scope of this brief account. It is suffice to say that many parts of that Island fared no better than did Ireland. From this it is surely reasonable to deduct that the wind had lost none of its force or huge potential for destruction as, having wrecked Ireland it crossed over our Eastern coast and tracked across the Irish Sea.

Speaking of the sea the ordeal of those unfortunate enough to be caught by the storm on the high seas or even on in-shore waters scarcely bears thinking about.

There are so many reports of vessels, both under sail and relatively safe in harbour, being smashed to smithereens and sinking that it would he totally impossible to cover even a tiny fraction. Suffice it is to state that it has been estimated that more people died as a result of damage to shipping than died on land and considering the relatively small number of persons likely to he on board any type of vessel as compared to the numbers of the population on dry land, the sheer turmoil of the raging waters around our coast can only be guessed at. There were several disastrous wrecks, the Andrew Nugent sinking with all hands off Burtonport and the revenue cruiser 'Diligence' going down somewhere off the Giant's Causeway, the entire crew being lost. At least two dozen (and probably many more) vessels came to grief in the Irish Sea, the principal amongst them being the sleek transatlantic liner the 'Pennsylvania' which was wrecked then looted off Liverpool along with fellow packets the 'St. Andrews' and the 'Oxford' and an emigrant ship the 'Lockwoods' also looted fifty-two of whose passengers drowned, some of the Irish people en route to New York.(19)

Damage to shipping in the Liverpool area caused Lloyds considerable concern. It was estimated at nearly half a million pounds.(20) About 30,000 worth of damage was caused to ships and structures in Limerick when shipping in port was dashed violently against the quays.(21)

The total loss of life as a direct result of "The Big Wind" will never he known. Such losses in so far as they are recorded at all seem to be based on guess work. We are left in doubt even as to exactly what geographical area is covered by the greatly varying figures which do exist. The Dublin Evening Post 15/1/1839 is clearly in some doubt on the subject. It states; "As far as Ireland is concerned, loss of life seems to have been surprisingly low, there must have been very many narrow escapes". It is hard to arrive at a firm figure for deaths during and after the storm. Some attempt was made at the time to estimate casualties. We have seen the loss of life put down at 400, this we should suppose includes those who perished at sea on the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland. For in this island it will be found we hope that not more than forty or fifty have fallen victims in that terrible night;.(22)

Another estimate is equally inconclusive. Given the storm's ferocity, the death toll was surprisingly low. Perhaps 250 - 300 people lost their lives.(23) Unfortunately, no source is given for these figures, nor can we identify the geographic area covered by them. To say the least I find the lack of accurate figures for deaths most extraordinary.

Another aspect which I find equally extraordinary is the scarcity of reports of loss of livestock. Such loss must have been considerable but we are left in almost total ignorance as to its extent. The Dublin Post 12/1/1839 tells us that the loss of farming stocks of all kinds has been terrible.(24) I can only infer that livestock was intended to he included in this statement of loss but no detail is given.

This lack of detail is noted by another author who states; "Farm animals and Wildlife had a relay tough time". As so often, however, the detail (and probably the scale of the slaughter) is unknown to us.(25)

Proverbially. however. it's an ill wind that blows nobody good and this is just as true of The Big Wind as it has been. Turf supplies had been scattered never to he recovered but firewood was lying all around. Not to put too fine a point on it, people were not bashful at laying hands on that which would keep heat in their homes and cook their meals, regardless of whom was deemed to he the owner in the eyes of the law. There are also some reports of "footing of food" from industrious farmers. There was an unexpected bonus for timber merchants. We know from an eminent timber merchant that a lot of trees which he would have gladly bought for 300 on Saturday, he purchased for 40 on Monday and he would not just now, take a present of 1,000 twenty miles from Dublin (N.B. this is the view of Dublin merchants) there is a glut and these beautiful trees are now nearly valueless.(26)

Fortunate too. the person who did not have his straw blown away as straw is 18's per load and not a sufficient quantity to be had, even at that price, to repair one-tenth of the injury. Spiraling labour and material prices made repairs impossibly expensive. However. thatchers, slaters, carpenters, glaziers, nurserymen and masons had it so good. In Limerick slaters were asking a prodigious 7/6p per day and in Drogheda they would not work for less than 10/=, people were up to all sorts of tricks. In Belfast a mall from the Falls went to Milltown Cemetery and found out headstones had been blown down. Then he wrote to America to the relatives of the people concerned, he made a good thing out of it. In Carlow one enterprising citizen on Monday morning, sold ten shillings worth of slates which he had gathered in the streets as blown from houses during the night.(27)

Clearly as a result of the economic climate outlined above, it would be reasonable to suppose that the vast majority of the ordinary Irish people who had had their dwellings damaged or totally destroyed by the storm could simply not afford to rebuild or repair, since the early January weather was bitterly cold they would in all probability have no alternative other than to hastily construct a cabin of mud and sods. The short term privations suffered by these unfortunate people and their families can only be guessed at. They had largely nowhere and no one (with the exception of a very tiny number of the wealthier classes) to turn to and their misery was surely increased by a partial failure of the potato crop in the previous harvest. From an impoverished status these people were, in a few destructive hours, reduced to a state of dire necessity through lack of dry and weatherproof dwelling places which could be easily heated and kept warm (a mud cabin built with sodden materials is useless for keeping heat in, but it may keep wind and some weather out) and also through lack of adequate food provision. It is heartbreaking to think that huge numbers of those who were tough both physically and psychologically to overcome the effects of lack of food and shelter in the aftermath of The Big Wind were, in the space of a few short years, doomed to death from the ravages of The Famine.

On a happier note memories of The Big Wind were revived in 1909 by the enactment of "The Old Age Pension Act" whereby every person of seventy years or over was entitled to a pension of 13 per year. In the absence of written evidence of age, eg. birth certificates, committees which had been set up to ascertain age of claimants discovered that a convenient means was to check from the claimant's recollection whether or not (s)he had been born before the Night Of The Big Wind.

Convenient certainly, but scientific this method was not and no doubt you have already spotted the loop-hole. There would be claimants also who spotted it long before the English Government and just before the day on which the Pensions Act was to be enacted - 1/1/1909 - an interesting snippet appeared in the London Times 31/12/1908.(28) The large proportion pensionable persons to population in Ireland has naturally been the subject of comment in and out of Parliament. The Chancellor of the Exchequer provoked the merriment of the House of Commons in this connection (sic) a month ago by giving the estimated number of persons over seventy years of age in the United Kingdom. He showed that on the basis of the figures quoted by him the percentage of the persons claiming old-age pension to the population over seventy years of age was, in Ireland, 128 per cent.

Many persons would be beginning to lose their memory at seventy years of age but not the Irish. Their ability to recall was truly phenomenal and if they didn't deserve the pension for their age they surely deserved it for their sharp memory.

Yes indeed, as I said before, "It's an ill wind'. In the traditional manner of the story teller I will conclude by saying, I'm only saying what I heard and I only heard what was said and I put nothing to it nor took anything from it. You can take it now as I got it, and you can leave it back when you're done with it.

That's "The Night Of The Big Wind". - Oiche Na Gaoithe Moire.
The night when "Fishes Flew and Forests Walked".


REFERENCE ABBREVIATIONS.

T.B.W.C. - "The Big Wind" by Peter Carr ISBN. - 1.870132 50 5
I.G. - Irish Geography - Vol. 22 Pt. 1 1989- Shields and Fitzgerald.


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