The Night of the Big Wind

the big wind of 1839

On the night of 6 January 1839 one of the worst storms in history devastated most of Lurgan. It is still recorded as the greatest storm to hit Ireland and the worst of it seemed to be centered in the counties of Down and Armagh. As the Christmas festivities and celebration of a new year ended in Lurgan, little did the residents of the town know what lay ahead of them. The Night of the Big Wind became part of Irish folk tradition. Irish folklore held that Judgment 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.

The Night of the Big Wind (Irish: Oíche na Gaoithe Móire) was a powerful European wind-storm that swept across Ireland beginning in the afternoon of 6 January 1839, causing severe damage to property and several hundred deaths; 20% to 25% of houses in north Dublin were damaged or destroyed, and 42 ships were wrecked. The storm attained a very low barometric pressure of 918 hectopascals (27.1 inHg) and tracked eastwards to the north of Ireland, with gusts of over 100 knots (185 km/h; 115 mph), before moving across the north of England to continental Europe, where it eventually dissipated. At the time, it was the worst storm to hit Ireland for 300 years.

There was nothing very unusual about the weather immediately preceding 6 January, it was mainly dull and cold, with snow showers. In the early part of Sunday 6 January Lurgan was very calm and gloomy. Around three o'clock in the afternoon a light breeze sprang up and it started to become noticeably warmer. The calm before the Big Wind struck was particularly eerie. Most of the eight million people living in Ireland at the time were preparing themselves for Little Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. The previous day had seen the first snowfall of the year; heavy enough for the the children of Lurgan to build their snowmen. By contrast, Sunday morning was unusually warm, almost clammy, and yet the air was so still that, along the west coast, voices could be heard floating on the air between houses more than a mile apart. Some people claimed the temperature reached as high as 75F and the heavy snow of January 5 totally melted. When the wife of the vicar of Swords in Co. Dublin was going to church on Sunday evening the night was very calm and hot the air felt like air in a hot house'. By nine o'clock in Dublin it was blowing a westerly gale which had turned to a strong gale by midnight, and raged as a "hurricane" between two and four o'clock on Monday morning.

Later on 6 January, a deep Atlantic depression began to move towards Ireland, forming a cold front when it collided with the warm air over land, bringing strong winds and heavy rain. First reports of stormy weather came from western County Mayo around noon, and the storm moved very slowly across the island through the day, gathering strength as it moved. Bridget Mooney and her four young brothers were putting the final touches on a large snowman outside their wooden cabin in County Mayo when the hurricane struck. The Mooneys did not know the hurricane was coming. Nobody in Ireland knew. By midnight the winds reached hurricane force.

The spire of Shankill Parish Church in Lurgan was blown downAn account from a Lurgan resident, recorded at the time has survived and been handed down through their family:

"Heavy Snow fell on the streets of Lurgan that Saturday morning, January 5, 1839. Sunday morning dawned with cloud cover, a typical 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. Families huddled together around fires, they heard such ghostly cries as the winds rushed through the trees, adults and children alike were scared."

It was around 11pm that Sunday night the unforgettable fury of that storm was unleashed. Hurricane force winds began to batter the west and north of Ireland, as a freak storm roared out of the Atlantic. "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 winds blasting down chimneys threw hot embers from hearths across the floors of houses, igniting entire structures. For most of the night, until just before dawn, the winds mauled the town and countryside, There wasn't one barn still standing on any farm, very few trees were left standing. Livestock and sheep were killed in vast numbers.” A newspaper report a year later said, rooks, magpies and jackdaws were nearly made extinct as large birds suffered.

Records from the period show that Lurgan suffered total loss or severe damage to more than 30% of its housing. The spire of Shankill Parish Church in Lurgan was blown down and the new Methodist Church at Bluestone which was in the final days of completion was leveled to the ground. The church spire was replaced shortly after, but in 1861 the church was taken down and re-built in the pointed Gothic style with a new freestone spire at a cost of £8,000. The only remaining parts of the Georgian Church are the window at the right of the East end and part of the tower, and the iron railing which encloses the church.

Contemporary accounts of damage indicate that the Night of the Big Wind was the most severe storm to affect Ireland for many centuries. It is estimated that between 250 and 300 people lost their lives in the storm. Severe property damage was caused, particularly in Connacht, but also in Ulster and northern Leinster. Between a fifth and a quarter of all houses in Dublin suffered damage ranging from broken windows to complete destruction. Much of the inland damage was caused by a storm surge that drew large quantities of sea water inland, resulting in widespread flooding. Even well-built buildings suffered structural damage, including new factories and military barracks. The newly constructed St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Derrytrasna was completely destroyed; one of the steeples of the Church of Ireland church in Castlebar was blown down, and a number of large country houses were unroofed. Among the poorly built homes of the poor, damage was more severe and many were completely destroyed. A total of 42 ships, most along the less sheltered west coast, were wrecked while unsuccessfully trying to ride out the storm: a majority of the recorded casualties occurred at sea.

Thousands of houses in Dublin were damaged by the stormThousands of houses in Dublin were damaged by the storm, some were even completely demolished by the force of the wind. Thousands of trees were destroyed, including much of the Earl of Belmore's estate at Castlecoole near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Strabane, County Tyrone, was flooded, and all the moored vessels in Portaferry harbour, County Down, were blown onto the shore. Countrywide, the destruction encompassed the cabins of the poor, Big Houses, and Belfast factory stacks. Three hundred lives were lost on land and sea that night, and many injured victims died in the weeks that followed. Newspapers surmised that 250,000 trees were destroyed, and folklore accounts indicate that the storm further altered the landscape by prompting the building of sturdier rural housing.

St. Patrick's Church, Aghacommon, (often referred to as Derrymacash Chapel), is the mother church of Seagoe Parish. The church was erected during the pastorate of Reverend John McLeigh, 1826-31, described as 'one of the finest Dromore priests of the 19th. century'. The bell-tower was erected in 1877-78, principally financed by a gift of the Donaghy family.

A new building on this site was almost ready for opening when it was destroyed by the storm on the "Night of the Big Wind" (January 6th 1839). The next issue of the Newry Examiner stated:

"We regret to learn that the new Chapel of the Parish of Seagoe, which had been erected at great expense and with extreme exertion on the part of the Parish Priest, the Rev. Morgan, was leveled to the ground by the late fearful hurricane. It had just been roofed and would soon have been ready for consecration. This is a lamentable occurrence. The people of Seagoe were rejoicing in the hope of having a temple for the worship of the Most High, and just when it seemed secure to them they have lost the fruit of their long and pious labours. We are sure that the case will strongly excite the sympathies of the Christian public and that any appeal which may be made by the Rev. Mr. Morgan to repair the injury which has been done in this parish will meet with a ready and generous response."

In Moyallon 73 year old Margaret Webb did not survive the storm. Her funeral, on 8 January 1839, was to Lynastown and on its way it passed the rubble of the devastated church. In Kilwarlin it is a becoming memorial of the munificence of the first Marquis. There was a large willow tree, sometimes called the Kate Rush Tree, which marked the site of the old graveyard. It was blown down in the great storm of 6th January, 1839, when portions of human bones were exposed amongst its roots. There is a tradition that the tree was named after a "simple" girl named Kate, who wandered about the country. She amused herself by constantly platting rushes, till her proper surname was almost forgotten. She also walked on foot to Crumlin with all the funerals of the neighbourhood. On the day when she was carried to her own last resting-place, about 1792, a young man stuck at the head of her grave a willow twig, which grew into a great tree, hence the name the "Kate Rush" Tree.

The Northern Standard and Monaghan, Cavan, and Armagh Advertiser on January 12, 1839 wrote:

On the night of Sunday last the storm which ravaged the kingdom, was felt severely in the town of Monaghan. About half past eleven o'clock the gale which had been gradually increasing for some time swelled into a most terrific hurricane and about three a.m. on Monday morning, the power of air rushing from the south-west bore every thing before it with resistless force. The slates and roofing of several houses were born upon the raging element as if they were leaves upon the breeze, and the cowering and terrified inhabitants looked upon the devastation [sic] with arms palsied with fear, and in trembling awe looked to the Almighty dispenser of all things, for an abatement of the fury of the winds of heaven.

To add to the horror of the scene, a fire burst forth from the chimney of Mr. John Murray's, Church-square, and the sparks and flame were dashed upon the roofs of several thatched houses which occupy one side of the Diamond. For upwards of one hour the flue, which, we believe, had not been swept for a length of time, threw forth masses of fire which were hurled by the tempest to a great distance and occasioned much additional alarm, but thank God no more evil result followed. The fire burnt itself out, and the roofs of the houses on which the sparks had fallen were so saturated with wet from the rain and snow which had fallen on the previous days that they were immediately extinguished. However, several dwellings present to the view a frightful wreck; many chimneys were injured and we regret to say that three of the small spires which ornamented our beautiful church, were thrown from their bases and broken to pieces. The amount of damage done in the neighbourhood is enormous. The farm yards are a melancholy spectacle; hay, straw, oats, wheat and barley have been in almost every instance heaped together in a dreadful confusion; turf-ricks have been tossed [sic] to a distance scarcely credible, and much of the fine old timber which graced the domains of the nobility and gentry of our neighbourhood, had been torn up by the roots. The beautiful plantation in the demesne of Mrs. Leslie, of Glasslough, has been suffered to a great extent, and the residence of Edward Lucas, Esq., of Castleshane, M.P., has severely felt the force of the storm.

The memory of the oldest inhabitants of this country cannot furnish us an instance of such devastation in so limited a period and not to the storm alone are many of the injuries to be attributed fire has, in sundry places, lent its aid to the terrible destruction. In Glasslough, a small town within five miles of Monaghan, eight houses were burned to the ground, and their inhabitants driven houseless into the streets; but it affords no pleasure, amidst the recital of so much calamity, to be able to state that no human being was deprived of life. In Killalea, between Glasslough and Armagh, great havoc has been commited [sic] by the combined elements of destruction. The town of Clones, from its elevated position, felt the full force of the tempest; and Ballybay, Castleblaney, and Carrickmacross have had many houses rendered untenanable. Several carts, laden with pork, &c. coming from the direction of Clones to our market, on Monday were compelled to return, in consequence of the numerous impediments on the roads, caused by fallen trees. Several families in Middleton have been deprived of the shelter of a roof, and are at present trespassing on the kindness of their neighbours for a home and a screen from the inclemency of the weather which still continues very severe. Aughnacloy, a small town in the county Tyrone, and ten miles from Monaghan presents a melancholy picture of destruction, several houses were unroofed, and some totally in ruins. Within about two miles of the last mentioned place a poor man was killed while endeavouring to rescue his family from the ruins of his once comfortable dwelling. A woman was killed in the neighbourhood of Glentubret, but the particulars of the case have not yet reached us. The Belfast and Enniskillen Mail which should have arrived here at one o'clock on Monday morning, did not reach until ten o'clock, A.M. This vehicle was upset at Shantly, near this town, and Patrick Mar, the driver's thigh received a compound fracture, under which the poor man has been since suffering. The Dublin and Derry Mail did not arrive here until 7 o'clock, three hours after its appointed time, indeed few, if any, of the coaches have been able to reach their destination at the appointed time, in consequence of the severity of the weather. Every hour brings tidings of fresh disasters; and the accounts from the sea coasts which we copy from our complementaries [sic] are truly frightful.

At least thirty-seven died in the seas off the Irish coasMore than half of the victims who died on land were crushed by falling masonry or swept away in the floods. At least thirty-seven died in the seas off the Irish coast, including the captain, pilot and crew of fourteen of the 'Andrew Nugent', the 2(K)-ton sailing vessel that was wrecked off Arranmore Island. Co. Donegal (O Gallachair. 1878: Ballyshannon Herald 18 January 1838; Seven drowned when a 'sail-boat' was wrecked near Limerick [Clonmel Herald 12 January 1839). and four more when the "Undine" went down near Kilrush (Limerick Chronicle 9 January 1839). Twelve men of the Roundstone coastguard were drowned during the gale {Galway Patriot 9 January 1839). We can assume that there would have been many further deaths during the months following the storm, arising from injuries received that night.

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. The Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 introduced pensions for over-70s, but many Irish Catholics prior to the Registration of Births and Deaths (Ireland) Act, 1863 had no birth registration. One of the questions used to establish proof of age was whether the applicant remembered the Night of the Big Wind.

Stories of what happened on the night of 'The Big Wind' were told around firesides in Lurgan for many years to come and down through the generations. Some claimed it was because not enough turned out to celebrate the feast of Saint Cera which was celebrated on the 5th January because of the heavy snow. Those who lived through the night of 'The Big Wind' and survived, would remember it for the rest of their lives.

Our thanks to Jim McIlmurray for his contributions to this article and to Brian Murray from Old Lugan Photos.

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