THE NIGHT of the BIG WIND
The night of Sunday, January 6th, 1839-is associated with death and judgement.
It is the worst ever storm in Ireland on met records.
The day started calm-so calm that two ships leaving Cobh had to anchor as there was no
wind. Voices carried long distances on the still air.
There was snow on the ground from the night before. There was a dramatic rise in
temperature, by 10*C, but still no wind.
By 9pm, there was wind, which was welcome and refreshing at first. The wind kept rising.
Families were celebrating “Little Christmas”. By 12 midnight, the wind had taken a firm
hold. It was so intense that no-one could stand upright in it.
John Donovan (Ordinance Survey) was in a hostel in Wicklow, wrote that the house shook
as if it were a vessel at sea.
Sheet lead roofing rolled as if paper scrolls.
The storm reached itʼs height 2-5am, the people were at their lowest ebb.
By 3am, people thought the end of the world was nigh.
Wind was blowing at 85-100mph, rising to 115mph in exposed places.
Every 10% increase doubles the destructive capacity of wind.
In Moate, Co. Westmeath, 63 houses were burned; Loughrea, Co Galway 89 houses were
burned; Athlone, more than 100 burned. In Tyrone and in Monaghan, there was a fire in
every townland. Most houses were thatched and ashes covered the fires to keep them lit
Flooding occured with the sudden thawing of the snows-air pressure was below normal,
there was a deep depression which caused a very high tide. Galway beaches were
covered in fish. Seabirds were bashed against rocks and cliffs. The ground in Monaghan
was black with dead crows-which all but disappeared from that local lanscape.
The Shannon burst itʼs banks-three were drowned at Coonagh.
Farm animal that were housed for the winter, were killed by fire or by falling buildings.
Injured animals were slaughtered after the storm. Fodder was lost to the wind.
People lay on the ground holding onto rushes. They crawled on the ground to help
neighbours. Turf stacks, stacks of hay and oats were carried off in the wind. Trees were
uprooted. Bodies exhumed from graveyards.
The next morning, people were exhausted. In Belfast, the 5 biggest chimneys, including
Mulhollandʼs Flax Mill at 184 feet, had fallen. Drogheda was a wreck; Dundalk severly
damaged and Dublin was a sacked city= where every 5th chimney was down.
P.W. Joyce (writer of Irish Placenames), wrote that 70,000 trees in Mayo alone were felled.
Three million trees throughout the country were destroyed. The value of tree/wood fell.
Bushes/hedges were bent/levelled.
Sea salt was found on gates 40 miles from the coast. Seaweed and fish were found on
No man could tell what was his own.
There was a great coming together in the face of adversity-neighbours helping each other.
There was also fear of a second storm.
Ulster, the West and the Midlands bore the brunt of the storm.
Thatchers/slaters/masons/carpenters never had it so good! and charged 7/6 or even 10
shillings a day.
Very few had insurance cover-40 insurance companies were active in 1839.
More souls were lost at sea than on land. Half of the fleet of 25 boats moored at
There was no state aid. Self help and charity only. There were no poor law unions ( act
passed 1838) yet formed, but this was accelerated by the big wind.
Food prices inflated. In Cobh a mob stopped the export of potatoes. Funds raised in
Britain were received.
The 1839 storm was more than a climatic event because of the belief system of the timemany
believed that it was the end of the world/judgement day. Many prayed believing it sothat
God was preaching from a pulpit in heaven.Freemasons believed that the devil had
got out of hell and couldnʼt get back in. Many believed that the fairies had fallen out among
themselves-apparently, Irish fairies have no wings and fly in the wind!
Folk belief lifted this storm onto a fantastic level. In Tyrone, the event became known as
Montgomeryʼs Wind (he had been hanged); in Ards, it was known as Kavanaghʼs Wind
(before he died, ha had promoised to return and cause trouble).
In 1909, the old age pension became available to those who could remember the night of
the Big Wind (very few birth certificates would have been issued). The take up of the
pension was 128% of the estimated eligible age group!