One particular storm in 1839 was so peculiar that rural folk in the west of Ireland, stunned by its ferocity, feared it could be the end of the world. Some blamed it on the “fairies,” and elaborate folk tales sprang from the event.
Those who lived through the “Big Wind” never forgot it. And for that reason the horrendous storm became, seven decades later, a famous question formulated by the British bureaucrats who ruled Ireland.
The Great Storm Strikes Ireland
Snow fell across Ireland on Saturday, January 5, 1839. Sunday morning dawned with cloud cover that amounted to a typical Irish sky in winter. The day was warmer than usual, and the snow from the night before began to melt.
By midday it began to rain heavily, and the precipitation coming in off the north Atlantic slowly spread eastward. By early evening heavy winds began to howl. And then on Sunday night an unforgettable fury was unleashed.
Hurricane force winds began to batter the west and north of Ireland, as a freak storm roared out of the Atlantic. For most of the night, until just before dawn, the winds mauled the countryside, uprooting large trees, tearing the thatched roofs off houses, and toppling barns and church spires. There were even reports that grass was torn off hillsides.
As the worst part of the storm occurred after midnight, and the relentless winds extinguished any candles or lanterns, people were particularly terrified as they couldn’t see what was happening. And in many cases homes were burned because the bizarre winds blasting down chimneys threw hot embers from hearths across the floors of houses, igniting entire structures.
Casualties and Damage from the Big Wind
Newspaper reports claimed that more than 300 people were killed in the wind storm, but accurate figures are difficult to pin down. There were reports of houses collapsing on people as well as houses burning to the ground, so there’s no doubt there was considerable loss of life as well as many injuries.
Many thousands were made homeless, and the economic devastation inflicted on a population that was already impoverished must have been massive. Stores of food meant to last through the winter were destroyed and scattered. Livestock and sheep were killed in vast numbers. Wild animals and birds were likewise killed, and crows and jackdaws were nearly made extinct in some parts of the country.
And it must be kept in mind that the storm struck in a time before government disaster response programs, so the people affected essentially had to fend for themselves.
The Big Wind in a Folklore Tradition
Rural Irish believed in the “wee people,” what we think of today as leprechauns or fairies. And tradition held that the feast day of a particular saint, Saint Ceara, which was held on January 5, was when these supernatural beings would hold a great meeting.
As the mighty wind storm struck Ireland on the day after the feast of Saint Ceara, a storytelling tradition developed that the wee people held their grand meeting on the night of January 5, and decided to leave Ireland. As they left the following night, they created the "Big Wind."
The Big Wind as a Milestone
The night of January 6, 1839 was so profoundly memorable that it was always known in Ireland as the "Big Wind," or "The Night of the Big Wind."
"'The Night of the Big Wind' forms an era," explained a reference book published in the late 1800s. "Things date from it: such and such a thing happened 'before the Big Wind, when I was a boy.'"
British Bureaucrats Rely on the "Big Wind"
A quirk in Irish tradition was that birthdays were never celebrated in the 19th century, and no special heed was given to precisely how old someone was. This creates problems for genealogists today, and it created problems for bureaucrats 100 years ago.
In 1909 the British government, which was still ruling Ireland, instituted a system of old age pensions. When dealing with the rural population of Ireland, where the written records might be scanty, the ferocious storm that blew in from the north Atlantic 70 years earlier proved to be useful.
One of the questions asked of elderly people was if they could remember the "Big Wind." If they could, they qualified for a pension.
Image credit: illustration courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.