One of the worst storms in Irish history took place on 5 January 1839, when heavy snow fell throughout Ireland. In Irish history it’s known as the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ or ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire.’
This storm developed in the mid-Atlantic region early on 6 January 1839, but really intensified as its associated depression moved up along the NW coast later in the night, bringing death and destruction to the whole island, Irish Weather Online states. Up to 300 people died in Ireland and tens of thousands were left homeless as winds reached well over 115 miles per hour, in a category three hurricane. Twenty-five percent of the houses in Dublin were destroyed and 42 ships were sunk.
The storm began after a period of very odd Irish weather. A heavy snowstorm on 5 January was followed by a balmy sunny day, almost unheard of for that time of year. Some people claimed the temperature reached as high as 23 degrees and the heavy snow of 5 January completely melted. During daytime on 6 January, a deep Atlantic low pressure system began moving across Ireland where it collided with the warm front.
The first news of bad weather was reported in Co Mayo. The steeple at the Church of Ireland in Castlebar church was blown down. As the evening wore on the winds began to howl and soon reached hurricane force. The arrival of the hurricane force winds would never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
The Dublin Evening Post described its arrival with the following: “about half past ten it rose into a high gale, which continued to increase in fury until after midnight, when it blew a most fearful and destructive tempest.”
In Dublin, crowds flocked to the old Parliament House in College Green to hide under the portico, believing it one of the few places strong enough to withstand the storm. The Atlantic became so fierce that the waves broke over the tops of the Cliffs of Moher. The wind blew out lanterns and candles so the only source of light was from lightning, which frequently ignited in the sky. Thatched roofs were torn from thousands of houses and in many cases, the walls of the houses were flattened as well. Hail broke windows, church bells and towers came down by the score. So strong were the winds that grass sods were torn from hillsides and mountain sheep blown to their death, many others being killed by huge boulders which tumbled down the slopes after being dislodged from their perches by the fearsome winds. There are even reports that cattle froze to death where they stood. The back wall of the Guinness Brewery collapsed in Dublin, killing nine horses.
The Night of the Big Wind became part of Irish folk tradition. Irish folklore held that Judgement Day would occur on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January. Such a severe storm led many to believe that the end of the world was at hand.
When the British state pension system was introduced in 1909, one of the questions asked of those applicants in Ireland who lacked documentation was whether they could remember the storm of 1839.
A popular story holds that the storm inspired the Director of Armagh Observatory, the Reverend Romney Robinson, to develop the cup-anemometer, which remains the commonly used wind measuring device today.
Image credit: ‘At the Back of the North Wind’ by George MacDonald