The Night of the Big Wind
History/Genealogy Corner 23 April 1996
"The Night of the Big Wind" in Co Mayo
Gerard M Delaney
The Night of the Big Wind is now part of Irish mythology. Obscure accounts, real and imaginary, of events that took place on that famed night have been handed down through the generations.
How troubled all
the woodland scene appear'd
And awful dark
the clouds of night had near'd
And high the wave
along the ocean swell'd
the troubled scene rebell'd
The window whistled
wild the lonely cry
And youth and age
sent forth their heaving sigh
Now murmuring loud
the chimney top began
And terror away'd
the guilty soul of man
Away on winds
the haggard store was swept
And trembling man
forsook his feet crept
The foaming billows
rag'd and roar'd aloud
And the Heavens seem
one black mass of cloud
The wood and groves
kept moaning all the time
being of some awful crime
Escaped some trees
while others met their doom
Prime of the forest
fell no more to bloom
The cottage roof
lays scatter'd over the vale
at best a sorry tale
the pretty ancient rustic mill
No more is seen
Its busy wheel lies still.
Forbear, Oh Lord
subdue each troubled blast
Withhold such awful storms as the past,
congenial beams of sunny light,
To cheer the hearts
that mourn the stormy night.
On the evening of Saturday 5th January 1839 heavy snow fell throughout Ireland. The morning was completely calm and the sky was covered with motionless dense cloud. As the morning progressed the temperature rose well above the January average. The snow quickly melted. Unknown to all a deep depression (estimated to have been 918 Millibars at its minimum) was then forming in the north Atlantic. As the warm front which covered the country gradually moved eastwards, and rose in the atmosphere, it was replaced by a cold front which brought with it high winds and heavy rain. The rain commenced before noon in the west and spread very slowly eastwards. In Mayo, the late afternoon turned chilly while the east of the country still enjoyed the unseasonally high temperatures experienced in Mayo earlier that day. At dusk, wind speeds increased, conditions got colder and alternate showers of rain and hail began to fall. By nine o'clock at night 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 when it reduced again to gale force. During the hurricane the wind blew variously from the south-west, west and north-west. Gales continued until six o'clock on Monday evening. At nine o'clock on Monday morning air pressure was at 972.6 Millibars and the temperature was then 4.4. Degrees Celsius in Dublin.
The storm damage in County Mayo was very considerable. The following list of damage is based on items in the Mayo newspapers of the day and accounts only for a smaller percentage of the actual damage.
Few buildings escaped damage and the impoverished tenaments of the poor were particularly badly effected in Castlebar. Windows were smashed, doors burst open and roofs were blown down. Slates, thatch, and roofing timbers whirled through the streets. Half-dressed adults and children, crazed with fear as their dwellings were devastated, ran in panic through the streets amid flying debris. At the height of the storm a fire broke out on Staball Hill adding to the terror of the occasion. Mr. St. Clair O'Malley and officers and men of the 87th Constabulary Depot and the Revenue Police, through vigorous efforts, managed to extinguish the fire after it had devoured six houses. Almost every thatched house in the town was stripped of its roof. Trees in the lawn of the residence of Lord Lucan and on the Mall were felled by the storm. As dawn broke the town was a scene of great destruction. Even the well-built houses of the town's elite had windows broken, roofs stripped and beams and rafters smashed. The main streets were strewn with glass, masonry and slates. The destruction was even worse in the poorer suburbs. Many houses were completely unroofed. Hundreds were left homeless.
Nobody was killed by the storm in Castlebar town but the tragic story of the Mooney family who lived on the outskirts of the town is worthy of mention. They lived in a house on the roadside which was so damaged by the storm that the parents and their five children were forced to live under a hedge. The parents took fever and died leaving five homeless orphans. Several people had close escapes: Mr. Neal Davis was securing a window in his house opposite the Church of Ireland church when he heard the roof creek. He crushed himself into the window recess seconds before the roof collapsed on the floor. A woman named Tunney and her eight children had the roof of their dwelling fall on top of them, then a wall fell down on the collapsed rafters and thatch before they could free themselves. Miraculously they escaped without serious injury.
The well-built public buildings of the town suffered considerable damage. The Constabulary Barracks in particular was a complete wreck. One of the pinnacles of the Church of Ireland steeple was blown down but fortunately did not cause damage.
A number of houses in Crossmolina were unroofed and almost every house suffered some damage. Four houses were completely destroyed.
Extensive damage was caused to Deel Castle and the surrounding plantation.
Eight houses in the vicinity of Lough Carra were blown down and destroyed.
Mr. Henry Browne's new house at Rehins suffered severely and four thousand trees in the vicinity were torn up.
The Castle was damaged by the storm and trees in the demesne were uprooted.
In Ballybrooney, near Crossmolina, houses were greatly damaged and plantations were damaged.
Eight persons were killed by the falling of their dwellings and a man named Moore and his wife were blown away and drowned whilst crossing a ford in this parish.
Two children were killed at Greenhill near Castlebar when the houses in which they resided fell down on them.
The Roman Catholic Church of Killedan Parish, located in Kiltimagh town, was badly damaged. Four windows were blown in and destroyed. A large portion of the roof on the western side was blown off and the damage was estimated at £100 - far beyond the means of its impoverished parishioners.
The mansion of Sir William J. Brabazon, then an M.P. for Co. Mayo, at Brabazon Park, was partially unroofed and several hundred trees in the vicinity were uprooted. A fire, which broke out during the storm destroyed seven cabins on the outskirts of the town. No lives were lost.
Two vessels, the Earl of Caithness and Wellington, in the harbour were completely wrecked. Were it not for the exertions of Mr. Hughes, Mr. Philbin of Killala, Mathew Madden, John Walsh, Anthony Madden and Martin Egan of Killala, their crews would, to a man, have been lost. A herring fishing boat with eight men was lost at sea. The houses of their widows and children were left roofless by the storm. The house and demesne of Killala Castle, the seat of W. J. Burke Esq. suffered severely.
Houses suffered from the storm and extensive damage was done to plantations.
Scarcely a house in Westport town or neighbourhood escaped uninjured from the storm. The house of Captain Higgins was nearly unroofed. Mr. Patten had a large range of glass in his garden destroyed. The hotel and barracks also suffered much. Some fifteen hundred trees were broken and torn up by their roots in the Marquis of Sligo's demesne. The stabling and farmyard at Westport House were much damaged.
At Westport Quay the vessels Jean and Alice (Davis), The Cantab (Wilson) Elizabeth and Cotter which were moored at the Quay were driven to the lee side of the river. The Robert Lovely (Bryce) also moored at the quay was upset and left lying on her beams full of water. None of the boats were seriously damaged.
The Amity (Douglas), went ashore at Innislyre harbour but escaped damage and the brig Antigua (Gibson) managed, with great difficulty, to ride out the storm at Innislyre. It was on route from Marseilles to Liverpool via Westport.
The seat of J.C. Garvey Esq. at Murrisk Abbey suffered also. Trees in the demesne were blown down, the haggard was emptied and the corn stores were unroofed.
C.F. Higgins of Trafalgar Park was a victim of the storm also. The garden and stabling attached to his residence were damaged but the house itself escaped damage.
The residence of Courtney Kenny Esq. at Summerville was partially unroofed.
Part of the roof of Rossbeg house was unslated.
The body of a child was washed up together with several sailors jackets and a boat.
The local papers contain little specific information on damage in the countryside but much of the damage caused can be comprehended when the experiences of later, lesser, storms in 1903 and 1961 are borne in mind. A large proportion of the cabins which housed the subsistence level tenant farmers and labourers were completely destroyed in many cases leaving thousands homeless until new cabins were constructed. Many received injuries which necessitated the amputation of limbs. This often led to death. 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 favourite hiding place for money, but few had the foresight to remove it when the storm came. Tenant farmers were particularly badly effected. In the countryside stacks of corn and hay were blown completely from their haggards and were scattered in the fields. That which was recovered had been drenched causing it to subsequently rot, leaving 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 the 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 eventually came the absence of song birds was 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 thus causing havoc to transport and mail deliveries for the following week.
Sea water was carried inland by the force of the storm and flooded houses when it poured down chimneys. The most abiding memory of the night, and its aftermath, that remained with people 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 Ordnance Survey, completed in Co. Mayo in 1838, showed the location of houses, cabins and out-offices existing at that time. Many of these cabins and out-offices were obliterated by the storm causing the maps to be quickly outdated. The antiquarian John O'Donovan described the Big Wind as if "..... the entire country had been swept clean by some gigantic broom." "My Estate is now as bald as the palm of my hand" was the complaint of a Mayo landlord who had seventy-thousand trees felled by the storm on his lands.
The overwhelming chaos and terror of the storm, particularly the injury and destruction it brought, 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 storm extinguished lanterns and candles and it was impossible to see what was actually happening, except when streaks of lightning occasionally illuminated a district or when the sky cleared and the aurora borealis illuminated the northern sky in a mantle of red. People huddled together in fear, barely able to hear each other speak, as the houses around them rocked and creaked. Many fearing that their houses would be blown down on top of them crawled into the fields where they clung to bushes and rushes. It was a frightful night for all but particularly scary for those attending wakes or travelling. Events that coincided with that famous night were remembered long after they would otherwise be totally forgotten. For instance the wake of John Cribbin of Lecarrow, Ballyhaunis, a man in his nineties, was taking place when the storm rose. The thatched roof of the house was partially removed in the course of the storm. John Cribbin, probably born in the 1740s, does not appear on any written record. His name would have been long-since forgotten were it not for the historic night on which he was waked.
There were people in every community who practiced weather forecasting (with a degree of success) 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. The concept of meteorology was alien to the vast majority who experienced the Big Wind. Amateur weather forecasters failed to predict the event. Consequently people sought their explanations elsewhere.
The superstitious, which numbered among its ranks the vast majority of the peasantry, 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, caused such ructions 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 6th of January - the Christian feast of Epiphany, the day Christ made his being known to the world - 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. The wrath of God was a favourite reason cited by newspaper correspondents of the day of all 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. 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 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 Night of the Big Wind.
Seventy years later, in 1909, old age pensions were introduced in Ireland entitling persons over seventy years, whose income did not exceed ten shillings per week, to an allowance of five shillings per week from the State. Those who met the means qualification, but had no documentary proof of their ages, were granted pensions if they affirmed recalling the Night of the Big Wind.
There were other big storms in Ireland's past - 856, 988, 1362, 1548 and 1703 AD. Despite the advances made by science since 1839, we still do not have the means to predict or prevent the next storm of its calibre.
The above article appeared in Vol. VIII of the South Mayo Family Research Journal published in 1995. The South Mayo Family Research Foundation publishes a journal annually containing articles of interest to historians and genealogists. Vol. IX of the Journal will be published in July 1996.
One thing that puzzles me is the mention of the aurora, presumably this is completely coincidental but strikes me as a very rare occurence. Even in modern times I think combining a major storm with that sort of activity would have a major impact on it's 'longevity'.