The Night of the Big Wind

Adapted from a report by: Matthew Patterson, Markethill High School (2010)

The Big Wind of 1839 was Ireland’s worst natural disaster. It brought hurricane force winds very rare in such a temperate climate during the night of 6th–7th January 1839. This was during Twelfth Night, ‘when the dead walk’. This storm was seen to be more than a coincidence.

The day before the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ was Little Christmas, the day when the date Christmas had been before the Gregorian calendar came in to use. It was a day of treats and celebration, if the budget had stretched that far after Christmas itself. Snow had fallen the night before the Big Wind and the children were out enjoying themselves. By the afternoon though it had began to feel close, the snow quickly melted and it had become unseasonably warm. In Phoenix Park, there was a ‘10F rise in temperature between three and nine p.m., four hours after sunset!’ it all felt very strange, but not raising any alarm to the people. In Limerick the pressure reading on a barometer was ‘under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer’. The pressure had dropped to 957.7 mbar from 990.0 mbar just a day before, while the temperature had increased by 9 degrees Celsius.

Unknown to anyone, a huge depression weather system was lurking in the North Atlantic approaching Ireland rapidly. In the late evening, the westerly breeze began to pick up and soon the towns and cities were ‘plunged into darkness’. People sought refuge anywhere they could, if it hadn’t been blown down already. Such was the severity of the wind, ‘a man and a child were splashed against a wall and killed’. The storm reached its peak between two and five a.m., just when people were sleeping and catching them off-guard. ‘Night of the Big Wind’ tells me that, ‘the roof of a thatched house fell in and caught fire’, ‘and less than an hour after those twelve houses fell victim to the inferno.’ This is yet another example showing how extraordinary this event was. Salt water was found on trees forty miles from the sea, causing widespread flooding in some areas telling me how extremely strong this wind was. Wikipedia tells me that ‘even well built buildings suffered structural damage, including new factories and military barracks’. I also learn from this site that ‘42 ships were wrecked trying to ride out the storm.’

Loss in wildlife and livestock was huge, such a common species of bird like the crow became ‘nearly extinct’ for years after. In Monaghan, ‘the ground was reportedly ‘black’ with the mangled bodies of crows, showing how devastating this storm was. One Clare sheep farmer ‘losing 170 sheep’ and records showing ‘roosting hens being blown a distance of half a mile’ in County Leitrim, just showing the force of the Big Wind.

The morning after on Monday morning, people woke up to looking up to the sky and daylight getting through their roofs. Every one had their own horrors, suffering and escapes they had to tell of. It was nearly certain that three million trees fell, and it would take ‘a generation to restore the countryside it had enjoyed the summer before’. This further shows the mass extent of how devastating this storm was. A whole generation would have to be taken to restore the countryside from just one night of destruction.

However, there was ‘something close to an outbreak of brotherly love’ and people survived by helping one another. They helped each other by sharing shelter, providing food and clothes for their neighbours and relatives, so some good did come from this storm.

Although the storm was so merciless, the death toll was quite low. Newspaper reports suggest just over 200 people died. There were lots of lucky escapes during the ‘Big Wind’ as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ book suggests that an old thatched house ‘tumbled into the street, and though there were eight or ten people inside it at the time, but by some miracle no-one was hurt.’ These shows how lucky some of the escapes were, but further proves how ferocious the ‘big wind’ really was. Unfortunately this storm came just a few years before the Great Famine beginning 1845. The relief effort for the ‘Big Wind’ read like a ‘dry run for the Famine.’

The ‘Big Wind’ was caused by a deep area of low pressure heading towards the north of Ireland and because it was so huge, it dragged in very cold air from Greenland and very warm air from the Azores. The better depressions are at bringing in air at ground level, raising it up through the atmosphere and drive it out, the faster it flows, triggering the spiral into a vast storm. The Big Wind must have been near perfect, as its wind was so strong.

A scan from a meteorological log book above shows the remark made at Armagh Observatory found in the archives for 6th January 1839; ‘A tremendous gale in the night.’ This shows that Armagh had experienced the ‘Big Wind’ too. In a legacy to this storm, it encouraged the director at the time, Romney Robinson, to invent the world famous cup-anemometer, which remains a common tool for measuring wind speed right up to the present day.

This report has been slightly adapted from the original for the context of this website. For the PDF version, follow this link.


Much of this information was taken from the book “The Night of the Big Wind”, by Peter Carr (The White Row Press, Belfast, 1993), and various Internet sources.

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