A Letter from Ireland:

The Night of the Big Wind


Have you ever lived through a great storm, perhaps a hurricane or tornado? A “night of the big wind” occurred in Ireland in 1839 that was so large people based their birthdays around whether they were born before or after its terrible destruction.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. How are things going in your part of the world today? I’m settling down to a hot cup of Barry’s Tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we settle into today’s letter.

Weather-related events and disasters seem to be all around us at the moment, don’t they? There appears to be so many storms, fires, floods and freezes of note each year that it’s hard to remember them all. However, every now and again a weather event of such magnitude occurs that it’s burned into everyone memory – which is especially true in Ireland where we are blessed with normally temperate and benign weather. Such a weather event is the subject of our letter today.

Nowadays, we are aware of our own age from about the time we can speak. We have birth certificates, birthday parties, driving licenses, identity cards and pensions to remind us along the way – whether we appreciate them or not! As family history researchers – it’s no wonder we get frustrated as the age of an ancestor often fluctuates as they advanced through life. The truth was, one’s age and date of birth were not important to people who started work from an early age. Instead, they celebrated the feast-days of the saints and noted the effect of the seasons on their small-holdings and animals. There was no real requirement to remember your own age.

However, in 1864 civil records were introduced to Ireland and from that point on some official was in a position to check your date of birth, marriage or death. However, whole generations of people were born before 1864 and still had no accurate idea of their own age. This had a big impact when the old age pension was introduced in 1909.

Maybe you are familiar with the Irish censuses of 1901 and 1911? They are two most recent – and most intact – records of people and place. They are used extensively by amateur genealogists as they attempt to map the dates and movements of their ancestors in Ireland. However, you will often notice the recorded age of an ancestor jumping more than the 10 year gap between 1901 and 1911. For example, they might appear as 55 in 1901 – but reappear as 71 in the 1911 census. Have you ever noticed this? Maybe you have a few examples in your own family?

The old age pension was introduced for most people over the age of 70 in January, 1909. Suddenly, people were motivated to age themselves either correctly – or make themselves older by a few years. However, there was a problem. These potential pensioners were born at a time before civil records came into existence in 1864. Who knew what age they were? How would we find out? The answer was to ask them some simple questions. One of those questions was:

“Do you remember the Night of the Big Wind?”

On the evening of January 6th, 1839 – a hurricane blew over Ireland. As I mentioned earlier, we are not used to extreme weather events in Ireland – and this was a big one! Over the course of the night, many families lost the simple sod and thatch off their roofs – also losing the savings often kept in the roof for safe-keeping. Animal feed and seed were blown to the four corners and destroyed. Trees and ruined castles that stood for hundreds of years were levelled in hours.

The sound of the wind must have been frightening through the dark night – this was also an unexpected storm – and attributed to dark and supernatural forces. As daylight returned the next morning and people stood outside their houses, many of the familiar landmarks around them had shifted or disappeared. Surely this was the hand of God – or the devil?
People were nervous that the wind might return in the days and months afterwards. The storm also had a large social impact. Whole communities lost their housing, savings, animals and more but, miraculously, there was little loss of life. Houses were rebuilt in more sheltered areas of the land as people waited for the inevitable return of the “Night of the Big Wind” – or “Oíche na Gaoithe Móire” as it was called in Irish (pronounced “eeha na gweeha moor”). It never did return with the same force.

However, it did enter into the folklore of the Irish – as they remembered the terror of the night and the hardship that followed through story and song.
And so, in 1909 – as people were tested for eligibility for the old age pension, one of the questions asked was “Do you remember the night of the Big Wind?” – a positive answer indicating you were more than seventy years of age.

Over 260,000 pensions were applied for in the first 3 months of 1909. By the time the 1911 census had come about, many of our ancestors had adjusted their ages upwards to become more “pension-friendly”!

Nowadays, when we have a “Night of the Big Wind” here in Ireland – we have fair warnings, insurance and government relief – all supports that our ancestors lacked back in 1839.

If you are suffering from extreme weather events in your part of the world at the moment – we do hope that this Irish blessing offers some small consolation:  

“May God give you…

For every storm, a rainbow,

For every tear, a smile,

For every care, a promise,

And a blessing in each trial.

For every problem life sends,

A faithful friend to share,

For every sigh, a sweet song,

And an answer for each prayer.”  

That’s it for this week – and we do look forward to you joining us again next week.
Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

  • Brenda Dobson says:

    How interesting! I’ve noticed with some of my ancestors that they ages fluctuate on the Canadian censuses. Having read this letter it now makes sense, as Canada’s Old Age Pension came into effect in 1927, also for those 70 and older – both men and women.

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