Superstition and The Night of the Big Wind in Carlow

While looking at, reading about it or seeing stories of the storms that have devastated central America we began to wonder had anything even remotely like them ever hit the shores of Ireland. Having studied accounts of the storm and blizzards of 1947 and lived through it, remembered the storms that had swept the south of Ireland and England later along with a few other rough weekends we decided that the nearest approach we had to a full hurricane was the Night of The Big Wind on the night of 6th January 1839. We remember hearing the stories about it when the old age pension was introduced and 80 year olds were applying for it and they were asked their date of birth their reply often was "Sure I'm not able to tell you sir, but I was born either the night of the big wind or a couple of days before it". That would make them right for the pension.

As for the night itself, there can be no doubt but that it was a storm the like of which had never hit our shores before and certainly never since. The violence of the storm, its sheer brutality, horrified those who lived through it. It was likened by old sailors to a 'West Indian hurricane', a 'tornado' or by others as the end of the world, the timing of the storm was also seen as significant. Epiphany is a feast of revelation, the day Christ made his being known to the world. The night of Epiphany was associated with death divination. It was time when 'the living felt the dead very close'.

There is an old Irish saying that on the Twelfth Night the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore and are waiting for your prayers to have them released from purgatory and be allowed into heaven. There is another saying that on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open and anyone who dies on any of those days goes straight to heaven. As the storm arrived on the twelfth day it was said that it was not a storm but the gates of heaven closing, and the fact that it arrived on Sunday, reaching its height on Monday, the day which, in gaelic Ireland, was traditionally associated with the Day of Judgement. All this enormously enhanced the metaphysical significance of the storm.

If we are to go by extracts from the papers of the time, there was a strange feeling about the day before the storm. Sunday morning the 6th January dawned well and the sun rose over a land which was white from the previous evenings heavy snowfall. The day was calm, so calm that there was scarcely a breath of air. As the day wore on the tranquillity of the afternoon is remembered as being almost unearthly. It was said that the air was so still that voices could be heard from people over half a mile away. Nature seemed to be holding her breath. However, the children of 1839 were no different to the children of today, that was Little Christmas, or Nollag na mBan, Women's Christmas. There would have been a great bustle in the houses that morning as the festive meal was prepared. Little Christmas was a big social occasion in those days. Dances and ceilies would have been organised and people were looking forward to the evening. Perhaps because it was about Christmas, which was one of the few times of the year that the ordinary worker took time off to enjoy a day with his family, but everyone was looking forward to that night.

It was in the middle of the afternoon that some people began to notice a change, it began to get close and unseasonably warm. In the Phoenix Park a rise of 10 F was recorded between three and nine pm (four hours after sunset). Other weather signs were also noted as being strange, the movement of birds, the stillness of the air, the heat became sickly, yet no one knew that out in the Atlantic a deep depression was heading for Ireland. It was approaching at speed and behind it was another bank of chill air. It was about nine o'clock that a westerly breeze sprang up and was greeted with a sigh of relief by many people. However, the breeze continued to freshen and by ten thirty it was blowing a high gale and continued to still increase in power until it reached tornado proportions. Depending on the position of the town or village the tornado, for that was what it was, struck with varying ferocity, in some towns it approached with a rumbling sound and in others there was no warning until the houses commenced to shake with the force of the wind. People who had gone to bed awoke with the sound and the vibrations and got out of bed and dressed as quickly as they could. Most went into the streets or fields to get away from falling buildings. In the latter part of the midlands where there was no mountain or hill to break the force of the wind, roofs were blown off houses and out buildings were lifted from the ground and in many cases found over a mile away. Church steeples and high buildings were especially vulnerable, as were haystacks and stacks of corn. In some parts wind used to stop for as much as two or three minutes, then come again with increased force. Many houses lost their roofs, and once the roof was gone the contents of the rooms were plucked from their position and it was amazing to see beds, blankets, pillows and other bedroom articles along with kitchen tables and chairs floating through the air like leaves. The storm and the thoughts of what could happen if the wind caught hold of a person, as it did in several places, was bad enough but now panic started to set in. Some people were dashing about waving their beads and shouting it was the end of the world.

Strange as it may seem in view of all the damage that was done, Ireland did not get the full force of the storm. As it approached Ireland it swung slightly north off Donegal shore and at midnight on the night of January 6/7th 1839 it was centred just of the west of the Scottish Hebrides. Let us remember that at the time the majority of the population had very little knowledge of weather fronts or other facts about atmosphere. While the bare facts of high and low pressure can denote fine or wet weather fairly accurately there are times when other factors have to be taken into account. Sometimes most of those factors are involved in a belt of pressure, high or low, but when all those elements are involved arriving together, as in central America tornados, they can cause devastation, as they did on the night of the 6/7th January 1839. It is of interest to take a look at a paper report of the damage done on the town that night. The hurricane did serious injury in Carlow, though not we have learned, to the same extent as in other places. The Catholic Cathedral had one of the pinnacles of the steeple tower blown down. We have heard of one man, who, on Monday morning, sold ten shillings worth of slates he had gathered in the streets where they had been blown from houses.

The upper roofs of the most substantial edifices, and the walls down to their foundations shook, as if from the effects of an earthquake,and the greater portion of the people of the town stayed up all night. In the outer parts of the town there was a greater number of cabins completely unroofed and rendered uninhabitable. A great number of the valuable trees of the demesne of Browns Hill, on Mr. Faulkner's demesne at Castletown and in other places fell. In short, so much damage was never heard of in Carlow. It was only the more terrific accounts from other parts of the country afforded the people reason to be thankful for their milder lot. Mr. Thomas Butler had a very narrow escape, having only left his bedroom when the ceiling was burst in with the weight of the falling chimneys. One of the back windows of the club house, sash and all, were forced in, and shattered to atoms, and it required the combined strength of a number of men to keep the shutters closed while help was being procured. One of the ornamental spires that crowned the beautiful octagonal tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral was blown off, and coming with great violence against the roof of the building, smashed it in, and came down on the front gallery, shattering it almost to a wreck. The solitary chimney that topped one of the great towers of the ancient castle of Carlow, and which had withstood the breezes for 600 years was also blown down. There has been great destruction of property, especially on the Queens county side of the Barrow, where corn stacks, cattle, trees, roofs of thatched houses, and any which have been scattered for miles in all directions.

This ends the description of Carlow on the Night of The Big Wind, and goes to prove that we are not entirely safe from the havoc of a tornado.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist
November 2005