When the nation woke up to a snowy winter wonderland on the morning of the 6th January 1839, little did they know that dawning upon them was a day that would bring forth one the most exceptional and violent storms ever to hit Ireland, writes TMT’s Patrick Gordon.
“Poor people ended up on the roads ‘the vault of heaven their only roof’ – Peter Carr
Peter Carr aptly describes it in his book ‘The Big Wind’ – The Story of the Legendary Big Wind of 1839, Ireland’s Greatest Natural Disaster’:
“The tranquillity of the morning seemed almost unearthly”. This ethereal calm continued into the afternoon. As one observer noted “There was something awful in the dark stillness of that winter day, for there was no sunlight coming through the thick, motionless clouds that hung over the earth”.
A notable temperature rise was observed over the length and breadth of the country as a warm front moved across the country during the afternoon ‘by as much as 10F at Phoenix Park’ (Carr, 1991).
This was nothing unusual in itself on an Irish winter’s day, but it was notable that the heat had become almost ‘sickly’ by the early evening. Winds increased to a slight breeze accompanied by a steady light rain, a normal occurrence within the warm frontal sector that began to take hold over Ireland. To all intents and purposes there was nothing alarming or ‘out of place’ with the weather in the late afternoon and early evening across the country, though one observer in Limerick did casually notice that the ‘Glass shewed the quicksilver under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer’ (Carr, 1991).
On the evening of the 6th January 1839, many people were enjoying the festive elements of ‘Little Christmas’, and took no notice of the soft mild weather of the evening. Later however, Gerald Curtin’s account of the ‘The Big Wind’ tells us that “at about half past eight, the storm set in, blowing with gale force winds from the west-north-west”. Again, people were not overly alarmed by the increasing strength of the wind over the country as this was after all a frequent occurrence in a typical Irish winter!
Peter Carr sums up the general atmosphere during the early evening of the 6th January 1839:
“For as Ireland, as all the Irelands” went blithely about their business, out in the eastern Atlantic, unknown to anyone, a deep depression was forming. Behind the warm front(s) which the country was basked in that evening (and which party goers may have put down to the cheering effects of alcohol!) another bank of chill air was lurking”
By early night, the winds had increased further promising a ‘rough night’ ahead though by 11.00pm it became apparent that something much more sinister than an average stormy night was in store. As Curtin observed “(winds) increased in fury every hour, until eleven and twelve o’clock when it raged with all the horrors of a perfect hurricane”. What lay ahead was a storm so terrible and intense that it rightfully earned itself a place in Irish folklore.
By midnight the storm had reached full fury, and over the country the devastation was absolute. Reports from Clonmel tell that “Heavy rain fell in torrents and was blown so impetuously against the windows that several of them smashed” while in Clifden, 17 fishermen lost their lives when they were caught up in the sudden storm, their bodies were thrown up against the shore during the height of the storm.
Equally harrowing reports of that terrible night can be found from across the length and breadth of Ireland as shown from a contemporary account in the Tuam Herald:
•Armagh: Many houses stripped of their roofs
•Athlone: Storm continued with unabated fury from 11pm ‘til 3.30am. One of the hardest hit areas with much loss of life
•Ballinasloe: Much devastation, with great woods felled.
•Ballyshannon: Great destruction of property and livelihoods.
•Belfast: A violent westerly bring death and destruction.
•Birr: One boy and three females killed
•Carlow: Serious injury reported but escaped the worst of the winds
•Carrickfergus: Tree in graveyard uprooted forcing many of the dead to the surface.
•Carrick-on-Shannon: The produce of the harvest lies scattered over the whole countryside.
•Castlebar: Widespread damage with few houses left unscathed.
•Coonagh: 3 killed in storm
•Derry: Visited by a storm of extraordinary violence
•Co.Down. Much damage but escapes relatively well.
•Drogheda: Never within the memory of man has this town and neighbourhood been visited with such an awful storm.
•Dublin: The metropolis was, on Sunday night, visited by a hurricane such as the oldest inhabitants cannot remember. Two known deaths as a result.
•Ennis: Scene of terrible calamity.
•Galway: At least 7 dead. Men, women and children screaming, crying with raw terror.
•Gort: Total devastation. One of the worst hit areas
•Kilkenny: Many houses burned down during the storm.
•Killarny: Hurricane raged with terrible fury
•Kinsale: Destruction is not so terrible, as far as we can learn
•Co Laois: The destruction of trees is prodigious.
•Limerick: Badly hit. Lightning and wind made for an awesome sight.
•Longford: Barely a house left standing
•Mullingar: Suffered severely-to the utter ruin of its inhabitants.
•Roscommon: These immense plains have been swept through by a fury.
•Sligo: To give a full description of the devastation would be morally impossible.
•Tralee: Hurricane reaps disaster.
•Waterford: Visited by the most terrific storm ever remembered.
Synoptic Reconstruction of the January 1839 storm
- See more at: http://www.meteotimes.net/2010/12/oidhche-na-gaoithe-moire-night-of-big.html#sthash.PQIdJFpB.dpuf