The Big Wind hits Eire
A disastrous storm struck Ireland Sunday, January 6, 1839. The day began well enough. The children were outside playing in the snow. Indoors was hustle and bustle as everyone was looking forward to the evening's festivities of Little Christmas. At about three o'clock in the afternoon it became unnaturally still. So calm that voices floated between farmhouses more than a mile apart. Something strange was happening but no one knew exactly what. Maybe it was just as well for what followed was the most terrifying night of their lives. The violence of the storm, its sheer brutality, horrified those who lived through it; many counted it the most extraordinary experience of their lives.

Along the western seaboard people made their peace with God, convinced that the end of the world was at hand. The morning after, the sun rose on a wasted land. Familiar things were unrecognizeable. Known landmarks were gone. The country came to a standstill. People were dazed and bleary from lack of sleep and nervous exhaustion. The storm had been an ecological disaster. Nothing was where it should be. The produce of the land was in the rivers and the rivers were in the fields. Boats were put out to gather hay. Much of the harvest ended up in the Atlantic and the waters of the Irish Sea swept into "old scaws and bog holes". Grain was killed by frost or eaten by birds and grew where it dropped.

People survived by helping each other. There was an outbreak of something close to brotherly love. Folks opened their homes, sheltering, and where necessary, feeding and clothing relatives and neighbors. This warmth was so universal that it is almost shocking to read of the clergyman in County Cork who took refuge in a hotel. Had he no friends or neighbors? Did no one love him?

All did not suffer equally. Ulster, the West and Midlands bore the brunt of the storm. Almost every class of building was damaged; factories and barracks were ruined; windmills were decapitated and set on fire. Agriculture, industry, commerce and communications were all seriously disrupted. Belfast's great cathedrals of manufacture were hard hit. Given the storm's ferocity, the death toll was surprisingly low. Perhaps 250-300 people lost their lives, most at sea in the disastrous wrecks. There were many lucky escapes.

The story of the relief effort reads like a dry run for the Famine. What did the administration do? Nothing! At first glance this may seem to reveal the British indifference towards Ireland's suffering but it was not. Liverpool and Manchester, equally devastated, received no help either. The explanation runs deeper. Even if the government wished to intervene, the mechanism to do so was lacking. In most places, it was down to self help and charity. Schools were opened as shelters, soup kitchens were set up and straw was distributed for thatching. Another problem was the contract between landlord and tenant. This required the tenant to make good on storm damage. In the crowded West the situation was critical. Food shortages, typhus and cholera were feared. The price of food was high even before the storm. Potatoes were "at a famine price" in January and the storm decimated reserves. In Connemara, where provisions were already scarce, fears of famine were widely voiced. A natural disaster was the last thing these people needed, particularly in the south-west. The countryside had secret societies with interclass and factional outrages a daily occurrence. Rural violence was an important part of the background of the storm. Although it heightened many of the pre-existing stresses in the social order, it did not upset it, at least not enough to require reform. Ireland did not profit from the experience but marched toward the Famine. The Big Wind of 1839 was a landmark experience, a horror that was in its way comparable to the Famine. What the Wind did to property, the Famine did to life. More people were made homeless during the night of the Big Wind than were evicted during the years 1850-1880. It straddled Ireland and England, did great damage to parts of Scotland, the northeast and Midlands of England, and the coast of Wales. It crossed the North Sea to Denmark, then dominated the eastern Baltic for several days before dissipating.

The storm generated a mass of lore. Stories by the millions circulated. Why did it cast such a spell? The answer is probably fear and people's sense of helplessness in the face of it. Even though it was common experience, the storm was essentially a personal affair. It had a life in the hearts of the men and women who experienced it, in the detail of personal experience. The storm came in the night, climaxing in its darkest hours, and totally without warning. There was a profusion of weird wind effects. The losses were not only measured in pounds, shillings and pence, but in the personal tragedies of homelessness, lost limbs and deaths. Effects were subtle and delayed. The full impact was registered in the spring when people went to market. The towns looked patched and the fields were overgrown with wheat and oats and mongrel crops.

A great source for historians is newspapers. In 1839 some 83 newspapers were being published in Ireland, seventeen of them in Dublin. While Ireland was viewed from a range of political perspectives, it was covered from a high and relatively narrow social base. All the papers grieved over the condition of the country, but few took the trouble to send out correspondents. Editors depended on letters from subscribers, borrowed copy and lurid travelers' tales. From Sunday night on, horrendous reports flooded in the newspaper offices. But within a fortnight the disaster disappeared from the newspapers. Memories of the Big Wind were rekindled in 1909 when the Old Age Pension was initiated. Everyone aged seventy and over was entitled to a weekly pension. How do you prove your age if there are no birth records? If you could remember the Big Wind, or make a good show of remembering, you were eligible for the pension. One reason the storm was so memorable was the extraordinary sound of the wind.

What else happened because of the Big Wind? Building standards changed. Thatching was pegged. Houses were placed with the gable to the west. Implementation of the Poor Law was hastened by the need for disaster relief. Historians have mostly ignored the Big Wind. It had no social origins, few social consequences and it did not topple a government. No one could use it as a political weapon as they did with the Famine.
note: Catherine was visiting Ireland during this storm. See the Cumberland Letter
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