A night to remember


As bad as our storms over Christmas may have seemed, they were not the worst, by all accounts, to ever reach our shores. That honour, at least in the collective memory of folklore, goes to the storm which struck Ireland on the night of January 6th/7th, 1839. The "Night of the Big Wind", or Oiche na Gaoithe Mire, was 159 years ago today.

From the evidence now available, we know that the "Big Wind" was caused by a very deep depression which originated over the Atlantic and passed eastwards close to the north coast of Ireland. Other explanations, however, were more popular at the time. Some saw the violent storm as a precursor of the Day of Judgment - a sharp reminder on the part of the Almighty of the wrath of God that may await us all when the final trumpet sounds. Others formed the view that the Freemasons were behind it - that they had called the Devil out of hell and failed to get him back again. And others again blamed the fairies; their notion was that the English fairies had invaded Ireland and that our indigenous Little People had to raise a ferocious wind to blow them out again.

This last theory was at least consistent with the well-known fact that Irish fairies have no wings and can only fly by calling up the sidhe chora - the magic whirlwinds. But, whatever the reason for its coming, the damage caused to life and property by the Big Wind was exceptional by any standards.

Dublin after the storm was described as resembling "a sacked city", and the splendid avenue of elms which graced the main thoroughfare of the Phoenix Park was completely levelled. Throughout the country stately demesnes were laid low, to the chagrin of the rural gentry, and indeed one of the incidental consequences of the event was the total collapse of the price of lumber, as what had previously been a valuable commodity became practically worthless overnight through oversupply.

Damage to shipping around the coast was estimated at half a million pounds, an almost unimaginable sum in those days, while on land, houses were destroyed and more than a hundred people died, either crushed by falling masonry or swept away in the floods which accompanied the raging winds.

We will never know for sure if the storm of 1839 was the worst that Ireland has ever experienced. It was certainly one of the most memorable - not least because it was confined almost entirely to the hours of darkness; and, unlike most of today's "big winds", it was totally unexpected.