The almost hurricane winds experienced on Wednesday last here in Tipperary were really nothing new when we examine the history of similar weather patterns experienced previously here in Thurles and indeed on the island of Ireland, down through the centuries.
Surely global warming was not the reason for the hurricane winds of 1839, which had developed similarly after a period of unusual weather and which saw heavy snow falling across Ireland on the night of January 5th of that year. This unusual snowfall was replaced on the following morning, January 6th, by an Atlantic warm front which brought a period of complete calm. Temperatures rose well above the seasonal average and resulted in this previous night’s rare heavy snowfall, melting rapidly.
Like our recent weather conditions experienced, on January 6th 1839 a deep Atlantic depression had begun to move towards Ireland, forming a cold front. When the cold and warm air collided, this resulted in strong winds and heavy rain. From mid-day the stormy weather began to move very slowly across Ireland, gathering immense strength as it wended its way. By midnight the winds had reached hurricane force. This “Night of the Big Wind” was now to become the most severe of storms to affect Ireland in that century. Historic accounts indicate that as many as 300 people may have lost their lives, with untold damage done to property and personal possessions nationwide. This same afternoon and night of Saturday January 6th, 1839, is now resigned to our history books as Oiche na Gaoithe Moire (Translated from Irish: The Night of the Big Wind.)
Prior to the 1839 January storm, children had played with great enjoyment in the unusual heavy snow, while their parents went about their normal work eagerly preparing for the festivities of the feast of the Epiphany, possibly better known today as “Little Christmas Day.” By dusk, wind speeds had greatly increased, with showers of rain and hail beginning to fall. By 9.00pm that night the wind had reached heavy gale force and continued to pick up speed. Over the next three hours it reached hurricane force, with winds gusts of over 185 km and remained at that level until after 5.00 am in the early morning of January 7th. (Note: regular meteorological observations as a science had begun in 1795.)
On Cathedral Street, Thurles, then known as Main Street, terror reigned as thatched roofs were quickly removed from a small row of houses, (See picture above.). Some of this dislodged thatch quickly caught fire possibly from one of the fireplaces and now fanned by this hurricane wind set fire to the surrounding buildings attached. The sites of these ruined buildings would later be purchased by the Presentation Convent, who in 1862 would replace them with their Secondary School Boarding House, now evident today.
The penetrating wind began extinguishing cabin lanterns, rush lights and candles. There were no matches, only flames from the dying embers of the fireplace to replenish flames, leaving it impossible, with the exception of distant lightening flashes, to observe what was actually happening in the outside darkness. Those who survived until the following morning would see daylight rise on a rural and urban wasteland, which was almost unrecognisable.
Residents, now frightened and exhausted from the fear of the previous night, looked out to observe known landmarks had vanished, with many people made homeless. The destruction of housing alone exceeded the number of recorded evictions that would be carried out in the future by reigning Irish landlords upon their tenants, during the years between 1845-1880. In the coming day exposure to the elements, by those now homeless, would lead to numerous deaths, particularly among the frail, the elderly and very young children.
In this same period in Ireland, the interior of thatched roofs were a favoured hiding place for financial savings. Many now found they had lost their life savings when the roofs of their cabins blew into the soaking wet blackness of the night. Local tenant farmers were particularly hard hit with harvested and dried winter stacks of hay and straw blown and scattered throughout the nearby countryside. The limited fodder recovered now drenched with the heavy rain and remaining thus, would turn to manure, leaving farmers without any winter feedstuffs for located livestock which had survived. Here also, due to the destruction of boundary walls; many constructed of dry lime stone, having been blown down, animals had strayed or run off in terror. In particular many sheep on higher ground had been killed by avalanches of rocks which had tumbled down hillsides, leaving upland farmers with little source of future income. High walls protecting orchard on rural landed estates lay fallen in long sections with apple trees uprooted and destroyed.
Millions of our native bird life were extinguished, bringing about the near extinction in particular of our native jackdaws and crows population. With the arrival of spring that year the absence of song birds would be replaced by an almost eerily comparative silence.
Existing and considered structurally sound, church steeples, Norman tower houses, windmills, factories and military barracks, together with vast profitable tree plantations were also badly destroyed, while the larger tombstones in cemeteries were flattened. Existing roadways and other communication routes were rendered impassable by fallen trees and debris. On coastlines the smell of salt water, carried inland by the force of the pounding waves and which had flooded coastal houses, now lingered for months, as did the smell of rotting fish, like herring, which together with bolder and gravel were found thrown inland, some continuing to end up miles from their native shoreline.
History records that the entire country had the appearance of having been swept clean by some giant broom. Ignorance and superstition were quick to attribute the storm to the fairies. Traditionally, the 5th of January was the feast day of the sixth century St. Ceara, patroness of the parish which bears her name at Kilkeary, (Name from the Irish: Church of Ceara) near Nenagh, County Tipperary, when it was believed the fairies held their annual winter festivities. It was widely reported that these fairies were so unruly that night, that the storm came about as a direct result. Others believed that all but a few of the fairies had emigrated, never to return, and that the wind was caused by this particular flight departure.
Along the Irish western seaboard, people were convinced that the end of the world had arrived in 1839; (Hosea 6 v 3); “Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: His going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.” St Matthews Gospel, (Chapter 24 verses 29 and 30) had promised; “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Devout Irish persons, including newspaper correspondents of all religious denominations, noted that the storm had occurred on the feast day of the Epiphany and saw it as being divine in its origins, believing that January 7th would be the Day of Judgement. God’s wrath was the most favoured explanation, causing many sinners to re-think their live style habits and re-awaken in themselves a closer affiliation with their God.
Like this past week here in Tipperary, the weather then remained unsettled in the days after the ‘Night of the Big Wind.’ The Aurora Borealis also reappeared in the northern and western skies causing people to fear that the storms might again return. This “ill wind” however now blew some good for those who were skilled with their hands, with carpenters, roof slaters, thatchers, local merchants and builders all now eagerly snapped up to renovate public buildings and the properties of the wealthy. Meanwhile the relationship existing between landlord and tenant dictated that the tenant should in most cases make good themselves the damage caused by storms. (Reminiscent of today and our banking crisis, with the poor propping up the wealthy.) The planning and choosing of a site for future house construction would from now on take into account shelter from the wind as part of any future design.
The Night of the Big Wind would also become a milestone in the measurement of time, with events being referred to as either happening before or after this same unforgettable weather event. In 1909, old age pensions were introduced in Ireland which entitled people over seventy years old to an allowance of some five shillings per week from the State. For those who, due to a lack of education, had no documentary proof of their ages (Then very common in those days) pensions were granted if the recipients could claim/prove that they could remember “Oiche na Gaoithe Moire.”
The Big Wind may also have been the inspiration for the then Director of Armagh Observatory, Reverend Dr Romney Robinson to invent his world-famous Robinson Cup-anemometer, latter installed in March 1847 and used by him and his successor, Danish born Dr John Louis Emil Dreyer, to make a 55-year series of wind speed and direction measurements from 1852-1907.