The Night of the Big Wind (Oíche na Gaoíthe Móire), 1839

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The Night of the Big Wind (Oíche na Gaoíthe Móire), 1839, Image from leather hardback sketchbook with the title 'Glengarriff' (UCC BL/EP/B/3304, l)
Image from Leather Hardback Sketchbook with the Title ‘Glengarriff’ (Image Credit: UCC BL/EP/B/3304, l)

During the course of the Deep Maps project Ireland experienced several major storms including Hurricane Ophelia (October 2016) and Storm Emma (February/March 2018). A range of storm events have been recorded in Ireland, but perhaps the best known is that of 6 January 1839, known to Irish people as the Night of the Big Wind (Oíche na Gaoíthe Móire).

Significance of 6 january

January 6 is an important day within the Christian calendar.  Known as Epiphany Sunday, or Twelfth Night, it commemorates the three kings visiting Jesus.  In Ireland, Epiphany was also associated with death divination, Twelfth Night being the night on which the gates of heaven were meant to close after Christmas. In Gaelic Ireland the following day was associated with the Day of Judgement (Carr, The Night of the Big Wind, pp.12-13).

In Ireland, Epiphany is also a feast known as Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas). On Sunday 6 January 1839  many women would have been preparing to celebrate Nollaig na mBan.  While ‘Christmas Day was marked by beef, and whiskey, men’s fare’ on Nollaig na mBan ‘the dainties preferred by women – cake, tea, wine, were more in evidence’ (Danaher, 1972, p. 263).

Calm Before the Storm

As 1839 predates weather forecasting, those who experienced the Night of the Big Wind did not benefit from weather warnings.  The storm was completely unexpected as Kitty Driscoll of Ardfield (between Clonakity and Rosscarbery) explained:

It was about Christmas and it began only with a guest (sic) of wind, people never expected it and so were not prepared for it. It blew from the north west and lasted for two days… (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0317, Page 102).

The storm started on the night of 6 January 1839 and continued on into the following day.

The Storm in West Cork

All parts of Ireland were adversely affected by the storm.  Much damage was done to houses and crops in West Cork.  The Cork Constitution reported that:

In the neighborhoods (sic) of Bandon, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bantry, &c., the storm raged with great violence, and houses are unroofed, and plantations ruined, and hay and corn blown about in every direction.

It was also a perilous time for seafarers and fishermen:

At Rosscarbery, a vessel that had been stranded, and was for some time lightening in order to her being got off was forced “high and dry” up on the strand and greatly damaged. (Carr p.124).

It swept all this district and greatly affected the fishermen in Dunmanaus Bay. In this locality houses were knocked cattle were killed and ricks were knocked and an amount of damage done. (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0289, p.134)

Not far from our study area, in Burren, East Carbery, sand-dunes were created when huge amounts of sand were blown up from the strand, showing how weather can dramatically change the landscape.

Oral accounts suggest that entire houses were submerged by the sand. In the twentieth century, when laying foundations for new bungalows stones from these houses were discovered 8 feet below ground (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0313, p.189).

The impact of the storm on Ireland as a whole was tremendous.  The Dublin Evening Post commented 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…It has been, we repeat it, the most awful, the most extraordinary calamity of the kind with which a people were afflicted (12 January 1839).

While the papers reported that ‘there had not been so great a loss of life as might have been anticipated’ many people, in particular the poor, were made homeless.  According to the Dublin Evening Post ‘tens of thousands of…wretched cabins have been swept away or unroofed – and many, as we have seen, have become a prey to flames’.  Barns and the grain within them were destroyed, livestock perished and ‘several hundreds of thousands of trees have been levelled to the ground’ stated the newspaper, suggesting that ‘more than half a century must elapse before Ireland, in this regard, presents the appearance she did last summer’.

Relief for those Affected

The historian Roy Foster suggests that more people were made homeless during the Night of the Big Wind than were evicted between the years 1850-1880 (Modern Ireland, p.364).  As we have seen from events such as the Great Freeze and Year Without A Summer, severe weather conditions often resulted in homelessness and crops being lost, which in turn led to famine, and the spread of diseases such as typhus.

The Dublin Evening Post urged that no time be lost in providing relief to those affected by the storm, noting that within a week the citizens of Cork city had already formed a Union for this purpose.  Relief funds were established to assist those affected.

What Caused the Storm?

According to Carr ‘the Big Wind was caused by a deep, fast moving depression passing several hundred miles to the north of Ireland’ (p.49).  The depression was around 920 millibars, generating hurricane-force winds (Hickey, 2008, p.39).  However, at the time, most people believed that there was more to the storm than it being purely a climatic event.  The majority believed that it came from God, and that it was a warning to change their ways. Falling on the feast of Epiphany, associated with judgement and death, the timing of the storm would have held significant meaning for people.

remembering the Storm

Accounts of the storm have been handed down in oral accounts and literature. For example, Micheál Burke (ca. 1800-1881) wrote a poem Oíche na Gaoithe Móire.  Here it is recited by Éamon MacAoidh of Oileán Acla ca. 1949-57, and it was featured on the RTÉ programme Siúlach Scéalach.

The Big Wind left such an imprint on those who had experienced it, that when the Pensions Act was introduced in 1909 people were asked for their memories of the Big Wind.  In order to be old enough to qualify they would have to have lived through the storm.

…just 70 years after this the old pension was given so when people gave proof of their age they often said they were born the year of the big wind (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0317, p.102).

Following Storm Ophelia, the hurricane that hit Ireland in 2016, there was a flurry of articles about the Night of the Big Wind, ensuring this event is still remembered today.


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