by ehistoryadmin on January 17, 2015

Oíche Na Gaoithe Móre Cill Dara

James Durney

If you thought recent weather bad you should have been in Ireland on 6 January 1839. Hurricane-force winds swept in a north easterly direction across the country, bringing death and destruction in its wake. There were stories of ocean fish being found six miles inland and thatched roofs being blown away or set on fire. An estimated 300 people died on what became known as ‘the night of the big wind.’

In a time when religion and superstition crossed over many people thought it was the work of the fairies, or banshees, others felt that it was a punishment from God. Irish folklore held that Judgement Day would occur on Oíche Nollaig na mBan, or ‘Women’s Christmas Night’ – the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January.

At the time it was the most damaging storm in Ireland for 300 years. It has been estimated that between 250 and 300 people lost their lives in the storm – the majority of them at sea. However, a recent study (‘The night of the Big Wind in Ireland,’ L. Shields and D. Fitzgerald, 1989) puts deaths on land and sea as low as ninety. Severe property damage was caused, particularly in Connaught, but also in Ulster and northern Leinster. Nearly a quarter of houses in Dublin suffered damage ranging from broken windows to complete destruction. Throughout the country even well-built buildings suffered structural damage, including churches, factories and military barracks. The inadequately built homes of the poor suffered the most damage and many were completely destroyed. Forty-two ships, most along the less sheltered west coast, were wrecked while unsuccessfully trying to ride out the storm. Stacks of hay and corn were broadly destroyed, resulting in severe starvation among livestock in the months following the storm.

The Leinster Express, of 19 January 1839, devoted over a page to reports on the damage done throughout the country, but especially in Dublin and Leinster. ‘In Naas,’ the Express reported, ‘the destruction is awful; scarcely a house has escaped demolition.’ The newspaper continued, ‘In our second page, we have, however, given some details, even at this late period, as we are aware that the Express is filed by many as a record of passing events.

‘From all we have been able to collect – although every town and demesne in the Queen’s County and in the County of Kildare have suffered considerably – yet the loss of life and property have not been to the alarming extent sustained in other counties.’

The night of the Big Wind, by Peter Carr (1994), records a conversation between two men in which one informs the other of the death of Murty Kavanagh, of Naas, in the storm.

“Is it kilt you mean?”

“That’s what I mean, and so is his wife kilt, and his two children, and the house they lived in is gone and the town it stood in is gone.”

“The town of Naas is it you mean?”

“There’s no town of Naas in it now. Every house in it is leveled to the ground.”

Many years later in 1908 when the British state pension was introduced one of the questions asked of applicants in Ireland who lacked documentation was if they remembered the ‘night of the big wind’. If a person was old enough to remember the big wind, they were old enough to qualify for a pension.


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