Folk Memory of Storms

So, was that it? The most feared storm of the new century has struck.  While it has, to date, caused a considerable disruption and tragically claimed the lives of four people, it is fair to say that it hasn’t lived up to the scaremongering which now seems to accompany the yellow news ticker in the era of 24 hour reporting.  It seems that whenever a meteorological event of note is on the horizon various media outlets and commentators get out the ‘to do’ list and roll out footage of previous storms to either whet our appetite, or sufficiently scare us into not changing the station under any circumstances. 

The current storm ‘Jude’ was endlessly compared to hurricane ‘Fish’ in 1987, before a leave had even been blown with almost ‘end-times’ predictions being thrown around.   It is of course still early days and accounts of the damage inflicted by Jude are still rolling in, it seems that some areas of Britain have been hit pretty hard, yet others have come through unscathed.  That ever-reliable social barometer Twitter has been doing what it does best, parodying the situation by relaying stories of hats blown off, being hit in the face by a leaf, and upturned garden furniture. 

Nevertheless, the comparisons to the great storm of 1987 have been a common thread on both the main sources of news, and social media.  With the case of most natural disasters (or in this case natural disruptions) the comparisons with previous events are inevitable, in an almost ‘you think that’s bad, you should have been here then’ fashion.  With ’87 seeming to be the British standard of comparison these days, I thought I would relay some information on the storm by which almost every freak weather pattern in Ireland has been measured for almost the last two centuries, ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ of 1839.

This almighty storm hit Ireland on 6 January 1839, and by all accounts it was most severe in places as far apart as Antrim and Tipperary, with between 250 and 300 people reported killed, thousands of trees uprooted and ‘innumerable’ houses destroyed.   One of the more bizarre reports claimed a piano was blown out of a house in Crumlin, Dublin, and dead seabirds found forty miles inland.[1] 

Not only has this storm gone down in Irish folklore over the last couple of centuries, it has been impeccably covered by Peter Carr in his 1993 book The Night of the Big Wind.  Therefore I am not attempting to rewrite Carr’s work, I am merely highlighting a select few examples from the newspaper archives in light of last night’s storms in Britain.

In the years since the monumental events January 6, 1839 not only has every freak weather pattern evoked folk memories and comparisons, but in the decades immediately after it seems that in reporting the death of people who lived into their ripe old age an association with the great storm had to be established. In local newspapers it almost seemed obligatory to mention that a person of a certain age had lived through The Big Wind (and of course the Irish Famine several years later).







The people highlighted above, who would today be termed ‘senior citizens’ in all likelihood benefited from their experience of the storm.  In 1908 the Old Age Pensions Act of Britain and Ireland was passed, which was payable to those aged seventy and upwards.  With official birth, marriage and death registers not appearing until 1864 it was deemed that applicants who solemnly remembered the night of the big wind would qualify for the pension!  

The Irish Farmer’s Journal reported in 1959:



An article in the Irish Independent in 1934 regarding the 104th birthday of Rose Haughey, entitled ‘Tales of an Ulster Centenarian’ highlighted the importance of the folk memory of the event and its connection to receiving a pension: “The Night of the Big Wind”, a common topic among the peasantry of the last generation, and a great guide for the aged when the Old Age Pensions Act became law in 1908, is amongst her earliest reminiscences’.[6]

The flaws in this system of entitlement are fairly obvious, and it wasn’t long before people began taking advantage.  Cormac O Grada states that due to so many old, and not so old people throughout the country testifying to eating a potato out of [their] hand on the night of the Big Wind in 1839, that remembering the Big Wind soon had to be discarded as a gauge of age for obtaining the pension.[7]

Events such as this tend to take on a life of their own long after the winds have died down, living on in the memory of people who came through it, and in some cases those who came after it who had no direct connection and perhaps heard about it around the family fire from parents and grandparents.  Cynically it could be argued that the new life was breathed into the legend of Big Wind because of the monetary value attached to it relating to pensions.   Nevertheless, the event continues to live on anytime there is a deluge accompanied by a large gust of wind.  

[1] Irish Independent, Aug 31, 1963, p. 6

[2] Irish Independent, May 2, 1936, p. 2

[3] Irish Press, May 29, 1935, p. 9

[4] Irish Press, May 4, 1935, p. 1

[5] Irish Farmer’s Journal, Feb 28, 1959, p. 30

[6] Irish Independent, Oct 25, 1934, p. 11


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