Judgement night – January 6th 1839, Night of the big wind

The night of the big wind occurred on January 6th 1839 and I often heard it referred to growing up as the storm of all storms. It was a weather event against which the community compared all others.  But the storm was much more than just an extreme weather event; it caused death, injuries, illness and homelessness. It wrecked farms, led to severe flooding and starvation of animals. Perhaps more than anything else however, it put the fear of God into people, humbling them in the face of its devestation and reminding them of how small they were in the grand scheme of nature.
accessed from http://www.rte.ie/radio1/the-history-show/programmes/2014/0112/496455
As a nation, the Irish have an obsession with weather. But in a fishing community (and to every farmer) the weather is an event planning consideration. From our earliest years, silence was expected when the weather came on the telly or the radio at home. When salmon fishing, easterly wind was considered a “black wind” and men would sometimes stay ashore rather than waste time and fuel when they knew the salmon wouldn’t swim.  In Cheekpoint northerly wind would mean no shelter at the head of the main quay, and depending on the tides being fished, boats may have to shift round to the Russianside and Ryans shore. The scene was repeated in reverse for southerly winds.
My father was less interested in the look of the weather forecaster than in the cyclones and anticyclones as depicted on the charts and we knew when we heard talk of the barometric pressure falling rapidly that we would need to find shelter. (Mind you when the weather is settled Joan Blackburns outfits often gets remarked) I’ve mentioned before how the skippers would drive up to Coolbunnia to look down the harbour to see how the waves were looking at Broom Hill, before setting sail for herring. One of the skills I never mastered was the skill of looking at the sky to determine the weather.  I can remember the likes of Paddy or Christy Doherty looking at a cloud formation or a sunset and telling you what the weather would be like when you woke up the following morning, or indeed within an hour.

Stories about weather were legion, and you would hear them from all over the world, wherever a Cheekpoint man sailed. If it snowed the people would talk about snowfalls back the years.  Floods, heavy rains, a big blow, they were all greeted with the same talk.  Whenever talk of storms that caused damage drew up, most made mention or were compared to what was called “the night of the big wind”  My Father would regularly start a story thus, “The oul people used to say…”

The event began the day before, when a blanket of snow fell across the country.  On the 6th an approaching Atlantic storm mixing warm air with cold air led to a dramatic drop in temperature and rapid increase in wind. All this was been played out off the west coast while inland a stillness had fallen.  The snows had melted during the day, yet there was no sun, only a low overhanging cloud and a very unseasonal heat. As people were busy with the preparing for Little Christmas, they probably didn’t spend a lot of time thinking on the conditions. By about 8pm on the evening of the 6th the storm that had been building broke and rapidly increased by the hour.  By midnight it had reached its peak, and at that stage rain was breaking windows in homes, being driven horizontally by hurricane force winds.  The wind blew from a south west to north west direction during the night and at its peak reached 100 knots or 185km/h. The barometric pressure was estimated at 918 hecto pascals.  It would be the early morning before it finally blew out across the Irish sea.

As it continued into the early hours, roofs were stripped off houses, in some cases walls crumbled, whilst at sea, ships ran for cover but it is thought that at least 41 foundered. In total it is estimated that 300 people lost their lives that night or in the days that followed through injuries.  Lands flooded as rivers burst their banks, livestock was lost, or worse, starved a slow death in the weeks that followed as fodder was washed away. It was not just the homes of the poor that suffered, but big houses were damaged, estate walls crumbled, churches and factories too.  It has been estimated that a quarter of a million trees were knocked.

My Father hadn’t any specific details for damage locally, and indeed the Waterford Mail of the 9th Jan that week confirmed this.  Apart from the damage reported nationally, which seemed to be in a band across the north of the country but reached as far south as Carlow, locally we had tremendous winds but little rain, fallen trees were reported and some roofs stripped. Ships rode out the storm at Waterfords quays with no issues, although road connections were problematic and the mail packets were delayed by two days. The nearest deaths were reported at Carrick on Suir. My father said that what bothered the old people was that they never read the signs of what was to come, and he used to say that they believed the fairy folk had toyed with the weather.

accessed from https://leitrimannals.wordpress.com/author/gerrykilrane/page/4/
My grandmother had it that God delivered the people that night.  Faced with the power of nature, and trapped in their homes, the people turned to the faith, and put their trust in the almighty. As the wind screeched through the shattered windows and groaning rafters like some demented banshee, people raised their voices in prayer in the hope of driving her away. Hearing such stories as a youngster, particularly if I was sitting with her in the firelight as some storm raged outside, tended to unsettle me.  Then I too was reminded of how small and meek I was when compared to nature.
In some quarters the night of the big wind was considered judgement night.  Apparently an old Irish folklore tradition had it that the end of the world would occur on the Epiphany, and for many that night represented just that, the end of the world.  No wonder it was remembered so clearly in the folk memories of our forbearers.  And no harm at all that we might remember our place in the world and not get ahead of ourselves when it comes to nature.
My friend Bob has an account of the night too. http://blobthescientist.blogspot.ie/2014/01/night-of-big-wind.html

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales