Oídhche na Gaoithe Móire “The Night of the Big Wind”

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, writes iWeather Online's Patrick Gordon.   

“Poor people ended up on the roads ‘the vault of heaven their only roof’Peter Carr
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 tranquillity of the morning seemed almost unearthly”.  This ethereal calm continued into the afternoon.   As one observer noted “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 was observed over the length and breadth of the country as a warm front moved across the country during the afternoon ‘by as much as 10F at Phoenix Park’ (Carr, 1991).  This was nothing unusual in itself on an Irish winter’s day, but it was notable that the heat had become almost ‘sickly’ by the early evening.   Winds increased to a slight breeze accompanied by a steady light rain, a normal occurrence within the warm frontal sector that began to take hold over Ireland.  To all intents and purposes there was nothing alarming or ‘out of place’ with the weather in the late afternoon and early evening across the country, though one observer in Limerick did casually notice that the ‘Glass shewed the quicksilver under the extreme lowest mark of the barometer’ (Carr, 1991).
On the evening of the 6th January 1839, many people were enjoying the festive elements of ‘Little Christmas’, and took no notice 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-north-west”.  Again, people were not overly alarmed by the increasing strength of the wind over the country as this was after all a frequent occurrence in a typical Irish winter!

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 was 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”

By early night, the winds had increased further promising a ‘rough night’ ahead though by 11.00pm it became apparent that something much more sinister than an average 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 earned itself a place in Irish folklore.

By midnight the storm had reached full fury, and over the country the devastation 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 when they were caught up in the sudden storm, their bodies were thrown up against the shore during the height of the storm.

Equally harrowing reports of that terrible night can be found from across the length and breadth of Ireland as shown from a contemporary account 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 bring 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 of terrible 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.
  • Killarny: 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 Reconstruction of the January 1839 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.R Lamb takes a similar view and notes that the storm that occurred on the night of the 6th and into the 7th of January 1839 was without doubt one of the strongest storms ever to hit Ireland, as 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 will be marked 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 storm was no different in its development to other 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 simply. The storm was the result of a deep depression centred 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)

It is generally accepted that the barometric value that the low pressure centre of this most destructive of storms at one stage reached a quite dizzying low of 918 hPa as it passed close to Scotland’s west coast on in the early hours of the 7th January 1839; such was the view held by notables such as H.R. Lamb, Peter Carr and the Irish Meteorological Service up to recently.

However, on foot of a recent study of the actual barometer readings taken during the January 1839 storm from a number of stations in Scotland, Steven Burt of the Royal Meteorological Society suggests that the commonly accepted barometric readings during the storm were taken at station level rather than at sea level which would be more in line with standard meteorological practice. Burt maintains that it is more likely that the lowest barometric mean sea level pressure in the core of the low pressure bottomed out closer to 930hPa rather than the previously accepted 918hPa.  His research considered each individual barometric reading from a number of stations in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the elevation at which these barometric readings were taken during the passage of the storm and importantly, the temperature.  Mercury barometer readings must always take the ambient temperature into consideration as this can have an effect on the precision of the air pressure readings, mercury being equally affected by both temperature and air pressure. 

The map below show shows the actual unadjusted barometric readings taken during the peak of the storm on the morning of the 7th January 1893 over Scotland and Northern Ireland:
The above map shows the lowest barometric readings taken during the height of the storm.  These led to the common perception that the low pressure core of the storm was indeed been as low as 918hPa as it passed near the Scottish coast. However, as discussed above, Burt in his study claims that these figures are unadjusted readings, in that they were not adjusted to mean sea level pressure values.  For example, the barometric reading at Cape Wrath in the north-west of Scotland during the peak of the storm was taken at an altitude of 118m ASL, which would have read much lower than if the barometer was at sea level pressure as air pressure falls roughly at the rate of 1.0hpa for every 10 metres ascent. Steven Burt, in his 2006 study ‘Barometric Pressure during the Irish Storm of 6th-7th January 1839, considered both the altitude and ambient temperature at which  the barometers recorded the air pressure values during the storm and concluded that in many cases, there would have been huge anomalies between station readings and that of readings taken at mean sea level pressure.

Below is a map which shows the barometric readings taken at the same station in the map above when adjusted to mean sea level pressure values:

As can be seen, when the original station readings are adjusted to standard mean sea level pressure values, there is on average, a rise of around 7hPa or 8hpa which would indicate the barometric readings in the core of the storm during its peak would more likely to have been closer to the 930hPa as proposed by Burt rather than the 918hPa that is more commonly accepted.

Burt reconstructed in graphic form both the most probable synoptic set up and path of the storm as it passed close to Ireland and Scotland on that unforgettable night of the 6th-7th of January 1839. Below is a reproduction of Burt’s graphical interpretation of the probable depth and passage of the storm at its peak:

The chart shows 7th January 1899 at 0000hrs, around the time the full fury of the most severe winds of the storm was raging in over Ireland.  The storm centre just off the west coast of Scotland is around 934hPa as it continues to deepen rapidly on its journey eastwards. The warm front which bought the unusually balmy condition over Ireland earlier that day is now well to the east as a vigorous cold front passes over, paving the way for the worst of the winds following on directly behind it:

At 09hrs on the 7th, the depth of the storm is reached off the north east coast of Scotland with an intensely tight isobaric gradient over Ireland; however, the despite the ferocious wind still being experienced over the country at this time, the intensity of them had eased a little:

By 15hrs on the 7th January 1839, the isobar gradient had significantly spaced out over Ireland as winds veered westerly as the storm centre slowly tracked away to the east of Scotland:
This re-analysis by Steven Burt suggests that the storm that ravaged Ireland on the night of the 6th-7th of January 1839 was intense and also a slow moving which gave it longevity and caused maximum impact and destruction. This storm was brutal, it left no one unharmed. According to Carr’s assessment of the reports, though it was the North and West that bore the worst effects of the storm all areas of the country felt its fury.  The violence of the storm was absolute and wind gusts almost certainly frequently exceeded 100mph during its peak.

The impact of the ‘Night of the big Wind’ became the stuff of legend and was ingrained into the minds of the generations that followed. According to Carr, the people who experienced this 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”.

The actual sound of the wind was also etched into memory and folklore. Many were as terrified by the howling roar of the wind as they were of the wind itself.  One firsthand account by a one 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 both harrowing contemporary accounts and via the poetic distortion of legend and folklore. Ireland has not seen as storm of this strength since but it is only a matter time before a storm of equal ferocity hits us once again; maybe not in our lifetime, or even that of the next generation, but situated as we are on the edge of one of the biggest and most tempestuous oceans in the world, it not a question of if, but when the next ‘Oídhche na Gaoithe Móire’ occurs and also becomes a legendary weather event  to be remembered with fear and passed down through generations for centuries to come.

Extracts and maps taken from:
  • “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, Royal Meteorological Society Weather Magazine, January 2006 Vol.61. No.1