Limerick has been struck not once, but twice, by storms in the previous weeks. Buildings have been damaged, homes flooded and across the country, three people have lost their lives. Storm Ophelia was considered a once-in-a-lifetime meteorological event, the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again. It was not, however, the worst storm in modern Irish history – that occurred some 178 years ago and known as Oíche na Gaoithe Móire, or the Night of the Big Wind.
The 6th January 1839 was a Sunday. Most of Limerick’s inhabitants would have risen early to attend mass, to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. The morning was still, forcing many ships to anchor in port, waiting for a wind to buffet their sails. The weather was dull, cold, and a light dusting of snow had settled across thatched roofs, cobblestoned streets and church spires.
After mass, many would have enjoyed a day of rest: the men might have popped into the local pub for a pint of porter, despite the best efforts of the burgeoning Temperance Movement. As it was Nollaig na mBan (Women’s Christmas), it’s possible that some women were given a small reprieve from their household duties, but for most, it would be business as usual, tending to infants or peeling potatoes for dinner. The older children were probably bundled up, in whatever clothes their parents could afford, and sent into the streets for some fresh air. By three o’clock in the afternoon they may have begun to peel off their scarves and mittens, finding it unseasonably warm.
The snow melted quickly, leaving pools of dirty brown water in the gutters along George’s Street. As dusk fell, the sky filled with heavy, ominous clouds, releasing the first cold droplets of rain. A light breeze sprang up, whistling through the bare branches of the trees on Military Avenue. The Limerick Chronicle reported that “one glass, a faithful index of the weather, early that evening showed the quicksilver under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer.”
By six o’clock, the wind had strengthened, rattling panes of glass and slamming doors. Flames flickered in tallow candles, rush lights and gas lamps. Two hours later a volley of hail fell, beating against roofs and windows, driving livestock to seek cover from the assault. Families bunkered down in their homes, huddling around the fires for warmth, waiting out what was ostensibly another winter storm.
As each hour ticked by, the ferocity of the wind grew. The Chronicle reports that “at 8.30pm the storm set in, blowing a rough gale, which increased in fury every hour, until midnight when it raged as a perfect Hurricane”.
In Limerick city, “all of the gas lamps were extinguished. The watchmen took refuge, in terror of their lives, under hall-door porticos, no living creature being able to stand the streets. Streaks of lightning, at intervals, illuminated the midnight darkness, as showers of slates at every angle, strewed the ground, in pieces.”
Many of the residents of English and Irish Town rushed out of their poorly-built houses and made their way to the Exchange, which promised some safety, with its arcade of arches and sturdy Tuscan columns. They took refuge there “with only a blanket or sheet”, no doubt fearful of what would await them on their return home.
The hurricane was blind to status or station, as the Chronicle notes: “the best built houses of the New Town, were sadly dismantled in the upper stories…house tops and flues fell prostrate.” Chimneys in particular posed a serious threat to city inhabitants, as they would “tumble down, after struggling with the blast like a drunken man to hold his equilibrium.” Contemporary reports estimate that some 5,000 stacks crumbled during the storm, unleashing a deadly barrage of bricks as they fell. The streets became lethal corridors, as timber, masonry and lead tore through the city, cutting down all those with the misfortune to be caught outside. The noise must have been deafening, as the wind roared, the rain lashed and “the crash of window glass was general and incessant”.
At Arthur’s Quay, where the tall modern houses had been built to command a superb view across the river, the buildings “rocked like a cradle, and when the affrighted families hurried from their beds to the vaults below for protection they were repulsed by the rush of water from the inflowing tide, raised to an unusual height by the force of its kindred element.”
The terrified citizens watched in horror as the Shannon churned, the wind barreling up the Estuary, shredding sails, splintering bows and wrenching heavy ships from their moorings.
Again, and again the hulls of these vessels were thrust against the banks and bridges of the river, with the newly-built Wellesley (now Sarsfield) Bridge bearing much of the brunt, its pillars broken and stonework damaged by the battering of some two dozen ships. Newspapers of the day carried a somber tally of the destruction on the water: the John Weovil capsized and sank, while many others, including the Martha, Idea, Arab, Jane, Triton, Hotspur and the Harmony lots their masts, had their bows stoved in, their cabins flooded, their booms, hulls and rigging damaged. Four ships were completely destroyed, while sixteen lives were lost in Limerick Port.
Then, as now, there were those who put themselves in fatal peril to protect others: the Galway Patriot reported that twelve members of the Roundstone Coastguard drowned that night.
One ship in particular was selected for a cruel fate: the Undine, a schooner belonging to the Limerick Shipping Company. It had followed other ships to shelter on Scattery Island, where it lost its sails, but managed to ride out the worst of the tempest. It appears that sometime near midnight, a large ship named the John of Leith, came into sight. She was effectively a runaway brig, torn free of her moorings, dragging her anchors behind her.
Based on newspaper accounts of the day, historian Tom Donovan deduces that on seeing the larger ship barreling towards them, the Undine’s Captain Patterson was left with “no alternative but to slip his cables” in an effort to escape. “He went to the helm to steer, and found that the wheel had been carried away.” The Captain fought hard to gain control of his schooner, and he and his men were seen by witnesses working through the night, soaked to the bone, ravaged by wind, rain and the lashings of the sea. When morning broke, four men were dead, including the Captain and a 16-year-old deckhand.
Mr Donovan notes that “despite the tragic loss of life, locals made attempts to plunder the boat”, but were unable to reach the cargo of provisions on board, said to have been worth some £13,000. Had they been successful, the haul would have been transformative for a local population which was suffering heavily from destitution, a year after the Poor Law of 1838 was enacted to combat starvation and poverty in Ireland.
Those in the countryside fared no better during the Night of the Big Wind. Much of the eight-million strong population scratched a living from tiny plots of land, which they rented from the landowners for whom they worked as labourers.
The large families often lived in small one-room sod or mud-walled houses, with roofs thatched with straw or rushes, often secured with ropes. They usually had just one window, which was left open if they couldn’t afford glass. Parents and children slept together on pallets of straw or dried turf, sometimes sharing the space with animals, if they needed shelter too. The fire would rarely be allowed to expire; it was too much in need, for heat and sustenance. Furniture would have been paltry: a large iron pot for cooking and washing, wicker baskets for storage, a stool and perhaps a small table.
These simple dwellings provided scarce protection when the storm hit. Writing in the Old Limerick Journal, Gerard Curtin gives us a snapshot of the devastation: “At Lansdowne, the river broke through an embankment, sending a deluge of water through the fields, destroying crops of hay and corn and also cows and sheep. At Coonagh, a poor man named Hickey, his wife and two children, were carried off as the flood went through their cabin. The father and the two children were drowned, with the mother left a widow, having been thrown upon a hedge by the flood waters.”
Bruff in particular was noted by the Chronicle as having suffered from the ‘anarchy’ of the storm, with the effect of “two invisible armies throwing slates, pots and tiles at each other”. Even the police barracks succumbed to its violence, sending the officers fleeing into the street when its roof collapsed. Newcastle West’s public buildings took a battering, with the courthouse, fever hospital, chapel and barracks being the worst hit.
Hundreds of animals were killed, either by exposure or injury; some were even blown off cliffs and mountains. Carefully-bound hayricks disintegrated into the air, and limestone walls, built stone by agonising stone, toppled like dominoes. Thousands of cabins were destroyed, their thatched roofs collapsed from the weight of the rain or ripped off by the wind. In a particular cruel twist, it was common in that time to hide what meagre money one had in the roofs, tucking it safely into the tightly-thatched straw or reeds. Many families’ life savings were lost to the sky that night.
Wealthy land and property owners were not left untouched, and the historian Liam Hogan writes that “in Castletroy, Milford House was dismantled (and) Plassey House damaged.” Acres of trees were felled or uprooted, even the most elegant and aged oak trees, some already 200 years old. Lord Castlemaine of Moydrum Castle is said to have attempted to close his bedroom window, when he was seized by a gust of wind and blown across the room, where he ‘instantly expired’.
Anecdotal stories survive from that time, some of which may be true, others embellished over the years. It was said that in the days following the storm, herrings were found six miles from the sea shore, and trees 12 miles inland were covered in sea-salt, with some crops and vegetation in the midlands bearing a briny flavor for months to come. Pigs were found suspended in tree branches, many miles from their owners’ houses.
On that January night, waves are said to have broken over the top of the Cliffs of Moher, which stand at some 400 – 700 feet above sea level. In his book, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’, Peter Carr estimates gusts to have reached in excess of 115mph in the worst affected areas. Contrast this with average speeds of 96 mph during Storm Ophelia two weeks ago.
The effects of the storm in 1839 ranged from the personal – families destitute, homeless and mourning – to the public – the price of timber fell dramatically and roofers, carpenters and the like entered a period of prosperity. On 12 January, a correspondent to the Limerick Chronicle wrote that “slaters and masons are already in request at 7s 6d a day”. The same writer estimated the damage to private houses to be about £20,000 and the losses to Limerick Port at some £30,000. Contemporary sources estimated the national death toll at around 300, but modern historians can only account for about 90 documented deaths, although they do acknowledge that many more died in later months from illness or injury related to that fateful night.
What made the Night of the Big Wind so devastating is a combination of factors, including poorly-constructed housing, mass poverty, and a complete lack of warning. One can only imagine the terror those people felt, hiding in hedges or cellars as the tempest swept a curtain of destruction across the country. In such times, given the religious significance of the date, many must have thought the Day of Judgement had arrived. Others looked to ancient folklore for answers, believing that the storm had been arranged by Irish fairies to carry the ‘wee people’ to another land, never to return.
Some more creative minds elaborated on this story, by adding a crucial detail – it wasn’t ordinary fairies at fault, they said, but English ones.