“Poor people ended up on the roads – the vault of heaven their only roof” – Peter Carr
When the nation woke up to a snowy winter wonderland on the morning of the 6th January 1839, little did they know that dawning upon them was a day that would bring forth one the most exceptional and violent storms ever to hit Ireland.
Peter Carr aptly describes it in his book ‘The Big Wind’ – The Story of the Legendary Big Wind of 1839, Ireland’s Greatest Natural Disaster’, the quite, uneasy calm that seemed to hang in the hung over Ireland that morning:
“The tranquility of the morning seemed almost unearthly”.
This ethereal calm continued into the afternoon; one observer was to note:
“There was something awful in the dark stillness of that winter day, for there was no sunlight coming through the thick, motionless clouds that hung over the earth”.
A notable temperature rise (by as much as 10 F at Phoenix Park – Carr, 1991) over the length and breadth of the country was observed as a weak warm front moved across the country during the afternoon. This was nothing unusual in itself on a typical Irish winter’s day, but it was noted that this warmth had become almost ‘sickly’ by the early evening.
A slight breeze had picked up as a band of steady light rain moved up over Ireland from the southwest. Again, there was nothing outstanding about this although one observer in Limerick did ominously note during the early evening that the ‘Glass shewed the quicksilver under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer’ (Carr, 1991).
On this fateful evening of the 6th January 1839, many people were enjoying the festive elements of ‘Little Christmas’, taking no real notices of the soft, mild weather of the evening. Later, however, Gerald Curtin’s account of the ‘The Big Wind’ tells us that:
“At about half past eight, the storm set in, blowing with gale force winds from the west-northwest”.
Again, people were not overly alarmed by the increasing strength of the wind over the country. Peter Carr sums up the general atmosphere during the early evening of the 6th January 1839:
“For as Ireland, as all the Irelands, went blithely about their business, out in the eastern Atlantic, unknown to anyone, a deep depression was forming. Behind the warm front(s) which the country basked in that evening (and which party goers may have put down to the cheering effects of alcohol!) another bank of chill air was lurking”.
As the evening wore on, winds across Ireland had increased further promising a ‘rough night’ ahead, -though by 11.00 pm, it had become apparent that something much more ominous than a typically stormy night was in store. As Curtin observed: “winds increased in fury every hour, until eleven and twelve o’clock when it raged with all the horrors of a perfect hurricane”. What lay ahead was a storm so terrible and intense that it rightfully etched a place into the scribes of Irish Folklore.
By midnight, the storm had reached full fury and the devastation it reeked was absolute. Reports from Clonmel tell that “Heavy rain fell in torrents and was blown so impetuously against the windows that several of them smashed”; while in Clifden, 17 fishermen lost their lives as the full might of the storm caught them unawares before cruelly throwing their bodies up on shore.
Equally harrowing reports of this terrible night were reported across the length and breadth of Ireland as shown from these contemporary accounts in the ‘Tuam Herald’:
- Armagh: Many houses stripped of their roofs
- Athlone: Storm continued with unabated fury from 11pm ‘til 3.30am. One of the hardest hit areas with much loss of life.
- Ballinasloe: Much devastation, with great woods felled.
- Ballyshannon: Great destruction of property and livelihoods.
- Belfast: A violent westerly bringing death and destruction.
- Birr: One boy and three females killed.
- Carlow: Serious injury reported but escaped the worst of the winds.
- Carrickfergus: Tree in graveyard uprooted forcing many of the dead to the surface.
- Carrick-on-Shannon: The produce of the harvest lies scattered over the whole countryside.
- Castlebar: Widespread damage with few houses left unscathed.
- Coonagh: 3 killed in storm
- Derry: Visited by a storm of extraordinary violence
- Co. Down. Much damage but escapes relatively well.
- Drogheda: Never within the memory of man has this town and neighbourhood been visited with such an awful storm.
- Dublin: The metropolis was, on Sunday night, visited by a hurricane such as the oldest inhabitants cannot remember. Two known deaths as a result.
- Ennis: Scene ofterrible calamity.
- Galway: At least 7 dead. Men, women and children screaming, crying with raw terror.
- Gort: Total devastation. One of the worst hit areas
- Kilkenny: Many houses burned down during the storm.
- Killarney: Hurricane raged with terrible fury
- Kinsale: Destruction is not so terrible, as far as we can learn.
- Co Laois: The destruction of trees is prodigious.
- Limerick: Badly hit. Lightning and wind made for an awesome sight.
- Longford: Barely a house left standing.
- Loughrea: Devastated.
- Mullingar: Suffered severely-to the utter ruin of its inhabitants.
- Roscommon: These immense plains have been swept through by a fury.
- Sligo: To give a full description of the devastation would be morally impossible.
- Tralee: Hurricane reaps disaster.
- Waterford: Visited by the most terrific storm ever remembered.
Synoptic Analysis of the Storm
According to Met Éireann:
“The night of the Big Wind” on the 6th-7th January 1839 probably caused more widespread damage in Ireland than any storm in recent centuries. Winds reached hurricane force and between a fifth and a quarter of all houses in Dublin experienced some damage, ranging from broken windows to complete destruction”
H.H Lamb takes a similar view and notes that the storm that occurred on the night of the 6th and into the 7th January 1839 was without doubt one of the strongest storms ever to hit Ireland – at least in the last 500 years. Many people lost their lives; even more lost their homes and livelihoods. The trail of destruction left in the storm’s wake was an event whose visitation marked itself in memory and folklore forever. Many studies have been carried out on the formation and patterns of this storm – most of which were based on barometer readings taken throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom as the storm passed over.
According to Carr, the development process of this storm was not that unusual when compared to that of other mid-Atlantic winter storms:
“Meteorologically, when the data is untangled, and the good measurements are sorted from the bad, it can be described relatively easily. The storm was the result of a deep depression centered to the east of the Hebrides (with a central pressure of 918mb at midnight on Sunday at 58 degrees N/11 degrees west – making it one of the deepest lows recorded so close to the British Isles. This did not wander up from the tropics: it is more likely to have formed in these latitudes, and then moved eastwards across the British Isles” (Carr, 1991)
Up to recently, it was accepted that the lowest barometric value at the low pressure center of the storm reached 918 hPa during the early hours of the 7th. Such was the view held by notables such as H.H. Lamb, Peter Carr and the Irish Meteorological Service. However, a recent study, undertaken by Steven Burt of the Royal Meteorological Society, of the actual barometer readings from a number of stations in Scotland during the storm suggests that the accepted readings were taken at station level rather than at sea level (or adjusted to sea level values) thus were not in-line with standard meteorological practice.
Based on these findings, Burt considered that it would be more likely that the lowest barometric mean sea level pressure bottomed out closer to 930 hPa rather than the previously accepted 918 hPa. His research considered readings from stations located in the north of Ireland and Scotland, the elevation these barometric readings were recorded at and, importantly, the air temperature.
The map below shows the unadjusted barometric readings reported during the storm’s peak over specific locations in Scotland and the north of Ireland:
As discussed above, Burt claims that these figures had not been adjusted to mean sea level pressure values. The recorded barometric reading at Cape Wrath, located at over 100 m asl in the north-west of Scotland, for example, would have resulted in a lower values had it been located at sea level. This is because air pressure falls roughly at the rate of 1.0 hPa for every 10 meters ascent.
Steven Burt analyzed both the altitude and ambient temperature at the locations which the barometers recorded the air pressure values during the storm and concluded that, in many cases, huge anomalies would have existed between station readings and those had they been adjusted to standard sea level pressure.
Below is a map which shows the barometric readings taken at the same station above when adjusted to mean sea level pressure values as proposed by Burt:
As can be seen, these newly adjusted figures of barometer readings to standard mean sea level pressure values result in a rise of around 7 hPa or 8 hPa on average which would indicate the values in the storm’s core during its peak would have been closer to the 930 hPa as proposed by Burt. In addition to this, he also reconstructed, in graphic form, the most probable synoptic set up and path of the storm as it passed to the northwest of Ireland.
Below is a reproduction of Burt’s graphical interpretation of the probable depth and passage of the storm at it peaked. The chart proposes the situation at 0000 UTC on the 7th January around the time the full fury of the storm raged over Ireland. The storm center just off the west coast of Scotland he proposes to be 934 hPa as it continues to deepen rapidly on its journey eastwards. The warm front, which gave the unusually balmy condition over Ireland earlier that day, is well to east as the vigorous cold front passed over, paving the way for the worst of the winds which followed on in its wake.
Although the depth of the storm peaked around 9 am as it passed close to the north coast of Scotland, the strength of the wind had eased a little over Ireland. By 3 pm, winds had further reduced fresh to strong as the storm low moved well away into the North Sea.
This re-analysis by Steven Burt suggests that the storm that ravaged Ireland on the night of the 6th-7th of January 1839 was not only unusually intense, but also a relatively slow moving feature which gave it longevity that resulted in maximum impact and destruction. This storm was brutal and left no one who experienced it unharmed. According to Carr’s assessment of the all the various reports, it was the North and West that bore the worst effects of the storm, though no part of the country escape the impact of its fury.
The violence of the storm was absolute and wind gusts almost certainly frequently exceeded 100 mph during its peak. The result of the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ became the stuff of legend. According to Carr, the people who experienced the storm believed that:
“The storm was God given. The idea of the wind as an awful visitation of his wrath and was a quasi-religious experience that induced a kind of religious ecstasy”. (Carr, 1991)
It was not just the sheer violence of the storm that people remembered, but also the sound of the wind as it roared across the land. Many were as terrified of the howling roar of the wind as they were of the wind itself. One first hand account by Thomas Russell told that:
“The most terrible thing I have ever heard was the roaring of the wind on that awful night. I can never forget it, nor can anyone who heard it forget it. It made the stoutest and bravest that heard it quail. No one who did not hear the horrible sound – something between a howl and a roar – that the wind made on that night can form even a remote idea of its unutterable awfulness. It was hardly to be wondered at that almost everyone thought that the end of the world had come. Those who had probably never felt fear in all their previous lives were like babies, and wept like them”.
The ferocity of the January 1839 storm ensured its right to be remembered forever through the harrowing contemporary accounts and the poetic distortions of legend and folklore. Although Ireland has not seen a storm of such magnitude since, it is only a matter time before one of equal ferocity will befall us again. Perhaps not in this lifetime, but situated as we are on the periphery of one of the biggest and most tempestuous oceans in the world, it not a question of if, but when the next ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire ’ occurs to become a legendary weather event in its own right to be remembered with awe as its story is told to the many generations that will come and go in the centuries that lay ahead.
Article by Patrick Gordon, IWO
Extracts and Maps taken from the following sources:
- “The Night of the Big Wind” – Peter Carr, White Row Press 1991
- “The Night of the Big Wind” – Gerald Curtin, Limerick Chronically Winter Edition.
- “Barometric Pressure during the Irish Storm 6th-7th January 1839″ – Steven Burt, Royal Meteorological Society Weather Magazine, January 2006 Vol.61. No.1