Monday, 13 January 2020

The Big Wind

As I write, Storm Brendan is battering this island. Gusts of wind of 90mph have been recorded on the Cork coast. Some 50,000 people are currently without power, although this number is expected to rise as the storm continues. Met Eireann have issued an orange warning (a threat to life and property) and recommend that people avoid travelling. My dearest T is battened down in the North West with the curtains closed as the wind howls outside, threatening to lift the tiles off the roof.

Yet in a couple of clicks we can look at a live weather map and see that the centre of the storm is several hundred miles off the west coast and that it is tracking towards the north east. Few of us are likely to think that the storm is of Divine origin and a harbinger of the Day of Judgement. But this was exactly what many people thought on 6 January 1839 when The Big Wind struck this island.

The day before the storm was unusually warm and windless. People were preparing for the Feast of Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, to celebrate the coming of the Magi. By sunset the wind had risen and rain began to fall. By midnight, the island was in the grip of a ferocious hurricane that roared like an animal. The storm hit the west coast so hard that the thunder of the ocean could be heard many miles inland and waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher (500 feet above sea level).

As the storm intensified, the wind began to rip the roofs off houses. Thatch was blown away; chimneys, slates, timbers and other debris were hurled to the ground. Trees were uprooted everywhere. Stone buildings collapsed, factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of many towns. All of the water was blown out of the canal in Tuam. Sheep and cattle died in droves.

Many people sought what little shelter they could find from the wind and hailstones in hollows and behind hedges. The immediate death toll was around 800. Most killed by falling debris. Many others later succumbed to pneumonia. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

The forecast tells us that Storm Brendan will abate this evening and by tomorrow it will be gone and we can pick up the pieces and get on with our lives. Hopefully, no-one will be killed. Some repairs could be needed, but contemporary houses rarely collapse in storms. In a day or so power will probably be restored to those who lost it. In 1839 the homeless and destitute only had the workhouse to turn to, if it was still standing. If not a harbinger of the Day of Judgement, then The Big Wind was certainly a precursor of a decade of famine.