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Night of the Big Wind

  • 02-10-2021 10:37am
    Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭

    "Judged by the reconstructed synoptic situation, the 1839 storm was not quite such an unusual event as folk memory would have us believe. Comparable winds almost certainly occurred in storms of more recent vintage. At its peak, it does seem to have been more severe than the storm of February 1988 — reports of damage done certainly indicate this but, on the other hand, the gales did not last as long. Two factors, however, would have added to the feeling of awe which the 1839 storm provoked, and ensured that its memory would endure: it occurred at night, and it came without warning. " Met Eireann

    There is a housing estate in Drogheda called Ballsgrove which originates with a grove of trees owned by a man named Ball. Hundred of mature trees fell on that January night along with the estates of Oldbridge and Beaulieu and this is remarkable, not just because the storm came in from the West but it was January and there were no leaves on the trees. I wonder how many more areas in Ireland experienced the same damage and in case the authors of that Met Eireann piece didn't know- hurricanes came without warning for most of human history.




  • Registered Users Posts: 5,938 ✭✭✭highdef

    "hurricanes came without warning for most of human history"...... Was it a hurricane though?

  • Registered Users Posts: 8,219 ✭✭✭Gaoth Laidir

    It was a storm of hurricane-force winds, but not a hurricane. It certainly was a blowy night alright.

    I know Ballsgrove well but never knew the history of it.

  • Registered Users Posts: 6,233 ✭✭✭Oneiric 3

    I have a book with accounts of this storm from all over the country, and no part was left untouched. This was not your average run of the mill winter storm as has been suggested.

    An essential book for anyone who is interesting in getting to know this storm better:

    The Night of the Big Wind by Carr, Peter: Very Good Paperback (1993) | WorldofBooks (

    New Moon

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    By all accounts, it was a hurricane given the detailed accounts of those who went through it even if it didn't satisfy the conditions for a tropical hurricane. By this measure it is only playing with words, however, considering the experience was burned into the memory of the inhabitants of the island who probably knew all too well about Atlantic storms, storms of that nature are frightening rather than awe inducing as Met Eireann would have it.

    To compare the event with a storm in February 1988 does not do justice to how that storm so affected Irish society going into the famine years. It may have something to do with how a massive storm in the 19th century would distract from present Atlantic storms now used to support 'climate change modelling'.

    I believe people can do much better than the insipid Met Eireann account.

  • Registered Users Posts: 5,938 ✭✭✭highdef

    "By all accounts, it was a hurricane given the detailed accounts of those who went through it even if it didn't satisfy the conditions for a tropical hurricane. By this measure it is only playing with words"

    It's not playing with words though and you contradicted yourself in one sentence by firstly stating that it was definitely a hurricane but ended the sentence stating that it may not have met the criteria to be classified as a hurricane.

    "Hurricane" is a word used to describe a particular type of storm with very specific characteristics and which meets certain criteria. Whilst the storm in question 'may' have met some or all the criteria to allow it to have been deemed a hurricane in terms of wind speeds, unless it had the characteristics of a hurricane, it was not a hurricane. More likely an extremely strong Atlantic storm or possibly a post topical storm. I don't know the full details to this storm though.

    There's no play on words though however you seem to have a play on definitions in order to try win your case.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    Some say the origins of the word 'hurricane' is from the Carib Indian meaning 'Big Wind' so it is apt to describe the events of January 6th, 1839 as the Night of the Big Wind or the Night of the Hurricane rather than just another Atlantic storm and the Met Eireann synoptic charts reflecting that diminished treatment of the storm reported at that time as a hurricane is more a reflection on our unusual era rather than the amazing descriptions from theirs concerning the devastation caused

    Having been caught in a 952 mb storm 300 miles West of Ireland and hurricane Bob which passed over the Eastern end of Long island, both are firmly in my memory, although some of the storms in the Southern ocean are certainly as severe as their Atlantic counterparts yet those two stand out.

    There is no case to win or lose, there is just a conversation based on remarkable accounts from that era with the comparisons made with a storm in February 1988.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    I don't think your comment is off-topic, after all, who remembers the storm of February 1988 as a comparison to other major life events?.

    I am sure the people who experienced the storm/hurricane were well familiar with Atlantic storms to have one experience in particular causing so much death and carnage. I am also sure others can do better than the Met Eireann treatment with reports from that time gathered through the internet. I could say we owe it to the people who were just about to face into the famine times.

  • Registered Users Posts: 8,219 ✭✭✭Gaoth Laidir

    It was an extremely strong winter baroclinic storm, not a tropical cyclone. Distinctions like that are important in meteorology, as too many people still believe that Ireland has received hurricanes in the more recent past (Debbie (1961), Charley (1986), Ophelia, (2017), none of which met the criteria of a hurricane on reaching Ireland). Of course, to someone on the ground, wind is wind and it mattered not what the makeup of the storm was, not that anyone really knew the difference back then.

    I must get that book. Oneiric's mentioned it several times in the past.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    You are correct so the discussion is centred around the tendency to make the comparison of that 1839 storm/hurricane with the one in February 1988 and a kind of diminishing of society of that time that the frightening experiences they had would not register with people today whether the same level and range of winds came during the day or night-

    "... Reports of damage done certainly indicate this, but, on the other hand, the gales did not last as long. Two factors, however, would have added to the feeling of awe which the 1839 storm provoked, and ensured that its memory would endure: it occurred at night, and it came without warning. " Met Eireann

    What was a gale to Met Eireann was hurricane force winds to a demolished society contained in the reports.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 14,064 ✭✭✭✭M.T. Cranium

    This was definitely a deeper Atlantic low than we have seen in recent years according to pressure records from land stations, as detailed in an earlier Met Eireann account of the storm linked here ...

    A wikipedia article gives a central pressure of 918 mbs which is consistent with these land obs (in the 920s to low 930s) although not backed up with a reference.

    As most readers of these threads will know, another factor in the causation of strong winds is the rate of pressure fall. We could assume that this low was explosively developing off the northwest coast of Ireland around 6 to 9 p.m. on Jan 6, 1839. Having looked through a number of other accounts of the storm (one from Belfast mentioned catastrophic damage even in east Ulster by midnight), it is pretty clear that the damage was very widespread in northern and central counties of Ireland generally speaking. This was certainly a much stronger storm than any we have seen in recent years, the only faint comparison one might make would be to the Feb 1903 storm that did considerable damage in the south (its track was through Ireland rather than off the north coast). Also the storm could be compared in general terms to the "Defoe" storm of Nov (o.s.) 1703 which in today's calendar would be dated Dec 7-8 overnight. There were speculations that the Defoe storm could have been an extratropical remnant given that it arrived from the southwest. There is no way of knowing whether the 1839 storm had any history as a subtropical low perhaps forming between Bermuda and the Azores, but it is fairly well established that no tropical storms hit that late in the season on those two island groups, and in fact never did so in January in the pre-satellite era. Tropical storms or hurricanes are almost unknown in January in the North Atlantic, there have been perhaps four instances of them and one was an oddball southward moving hurricane in the tropical Atlantic.

    Another storm to which this might be compared in synoptic terms would be the Columbus Day hurricane (remnants of mid-Pacific hurricane Freda, not a typhoon but a Hawaiian island family hurricane) -- although its central pressure was never below 950 mbs its rapid development near the coast led to a massive blowdown of large trees (Oct 12, 1962). The hilly terrain probably saved many human built structures from more severe damage as the hurricane force gusts were mainly on exposed coasts and on hilltops. Also the Great Lakes superstorm of Jan 25-26 1978 has some synoptic similarities as did the Nov 9 1913 "Great White Hurricane" as it was then called (although not a hurricane, an inland explosive development low) which caused 100 mph wind gusts to sweep across Lake Huron resulting in a large death toll among late season lakes shipping caught in this unpredicted storm. (the low responsible moved north from Georgia to near western Lake Ontario).

    I should conclude by reminding readers that we had a thread about this storm, which is probably now buried several dozens of pages back in the archives, and there was no hint of any comparison of the storm to more recent ones here by Boards weather forum members.

  • Registered Users Posts: 6,233 ✭✭✭Oneiric 3

    Of note with this storm was that there was a widespread 'fall of snow' on the night before it arrived, and a sharp and notable temperature rise in the hours leading up to the main event, suggesting that this storm may have exploded rapidly relatively near to Ireland as the warm front and parent low encountered this preceding cold airmass.

    New Moon

  • Posts: 0 [Deleted User]

    While we have access to some barometric readings from that era, the amount of data is very limited, other than the accounts of damage and basic land based observations.

    It would seem it was a pretty ferocious storm, but we probably will never know the exact technicalities of it as there just isn’t enough data.

    Without modern instruments, capable of taking readings in the Atlantic, it’s all really in the realms of speculation.

    What stands out about it is the human impact, which would tend to mean it was something out of the ordinary. They were well used to being hit with normal and regular Atlantic storms and certainly this one was different.

  • Registered Users Posts: 14,064 ✭✭✭✭M.T. Cranium

    The map shown in the linked article is probably about right but it should be remembered that the contours shown are almost 8 mb apart whereas the usual weather map we see has them 4 mb apart, so it looks twice as "weak" as it should look, with half the contours missing.

    Also there was probably some sort of hangback trough with a stronger gradient, that would account for the widespread destructive winds reported across the northern two-thirds of the island. It's too bad the map of pressures doesn't include at least one from the northwest quadrant of Ireland, that might illustrate my conjecture, but I am picturing something like a 920 mb low near 58N 10W with a 940 mb pressure not far off the Mayo coast, but very tight isobars from there south. This hangback probably relented somewhat approaching Scotland which is perhaps why the storm was not quite as destructive there, despite dragging the same general pressure contours across Scotland during the first half of the 7th.

    If weather stations had been operational that we see now, I would guess we might see reports like this at peak ... Mace Head 80kt g 100, Newport 75kt g 95, Belmullet 70 kt g 90. The south coast obviously received only a "standard" and unremarkable wind peak, indicating that the gradient probably relaxed to the south of a Limerick to Wicklow line.

  • Registered Users Posts: 8,219 ✭✭✭Gaoth Laidir

    I would imagine we're dealing with a classic stingjet event, with all the holes in the cheese lining up just perfectly.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    There are enough regional reports publicly available on the internet, albeit personal experiences, to form a better perspective of the event.

    Many readers here would know the rare times when they hear a low moaning sound from on high with a storm, however, reports of the event tell of a roaring coming from the West before the serious winds hit and that sounds unusual enough to affirm that the storm may have exploded near Ireland. The noise of the wind is an intangible component and doesn't show up in any chart yet it is contained in almost all reports of the 1839 event, something that more recent Atlantic storms don't register.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    The Limerick Chronicle on January 9th 1839 has a report from that city that seems every bit as dramatic as those further North and East-

    " Not a public edifice or institution in the City escaped the ravages of the storm, all suffering material damage in the fierce encounter. The best built houses of the New Town, were sadly dismantled in the upper stories…house tops and flues fell prostrate.

    The crash of window glass was general and incessant. Whole stacks of chimneys would occasionally tumble down, after struggling with the blast like a drunken man to hold his equilibrium. At Arthur’s Quay, the houses rocked like a cradle, and when the affrighted families hurried from their beds to the vaults below for protection they were repulsed by the rush of water from the inflowing tide, raised to an unusual height by the force of its kindred element." Limerick Chronicle

    Even the damage here would surpass a vicious present day Atlantic storm.

  • Moderators, Home & Garden Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 17,290 Mod ✭✭✭✭DOCARCH

    Also have to bear in mind that building standards in 1839 would not be comparable to the 20th or 21st century.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    Do you seriously believe that people at that time didn't build houses to survive the regular Atlantic storms?.

  • Moderators, Society & Culture Moderators Posts: 6,548 Mod ✭✭✭✭pinkypinky

    I'm amazed that the Met Eireann report is so dismissive.

    42 ships were wrecked. About 300 people were killed.

    The Big Wind is considered a contributory factor to the Famine. The economic destruction caused by the Big Wind was still having effects 6 years later.

    Genealogy Forum Mod

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  • Moderators, Home & Garden Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 17,290 Mod ✭✭✭✭DOCARCH

    People did not intentionally build houses not to survive storms, but there were no building standards/control at the time, and understanding of the effects of wind on buildings and building materials would be as it is today. I am more referring to buildings in the towns/cites than say cottages on the west coast where people well understood how to build to protect themselves from the prevailing winds.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    You are kidding me, right ?.

    The same dismissive perspective of the people who lived at that time and who knew all too well how to build a home to survive the Atlantic storms, standards or no standards.

    The issue is how the Met Eirean report compares it to storms recently while the reports at the time show a society who knew something really different just happened during and after the 1839 event. There are enough local reports available nowadays not to assign the damage to poor building codes or that those people didn't experience genuine fear instead of 'awe' out of night time ignorance.

    The issue before and surrounding the event is marginally less interesting and dramatic than the storm itself.

  • Moderators, Home & Garden Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 17,290 Mod ✭✭✭✭DOCARCH

    If the same storm/conditions happened today, there would be far less damage to buildings than in 1839. That's a fact.

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    Stop digging.

    The Met Eireann report compares it to recent storms whereas the 1839 event shows no comparable traits to any within recent memory, both in its natural destruction and the effects on the communities across Ireland. It was so unique it was burned into the memory of people even with the approaching famine.

    It is remarkable that Met Eirean would be so dismissive of a monster storm and comparing it to recents one while hyping every Atlantic storm presently as an affirmation of 'climate change modelling'. That being said, the meteorological forensics of the 1839 event are less clear so it is unfinished business.

    The other contributors were doing quite well with distilling observations to demonstrate a less dismissive picture and long may it continue.

    Post edited by Orion402 on

  • Moderators, Home & Garden Moderators, Science, Health & Environment Moderators Posts: 17,290 Mod ✭✭✭✭DOCARCH


    Just making the point, that in absence of meteorological data, the severity of the 1839 storm cannot be gauged by means of damage to buildings (in the context of modern buildings).

  • Registered Users Posts: 408 ✭✭Orion402

    If the Met Eireann report is so enthusiastic in comparing the 1839 event with recent storms, what happens when a similar monster shows up?. Will it be directed towards supporting 'climate change modelling' or will the meteorological forensics be used to explain how conditions emerged to create effects which surpass normal Atlantic storms?.

    I am unable to post relevant links covering regional experiences of the event as those who live through the storm relate the sounds surrounding the ferocity of the winds, notwithstanding the countryside and wildlife took so long to recover after the storm passed.

    It does call into question those who live off speculative conclusions for future weather events when contributors here are just beginning to piece together the components which went into the Night of the Big Wind.

  • Registered Users Posts: 4,102 ✭✭✭jackboy

    If that storm felled hundreds of mature leafless deciduous trees imagine what a similar storm could do to today’s conifer plantations.

    Also, the modern house may be able to stand up to such a storm but the country is full of farm buildings that may be at risk. Could still add up to significant economic damage.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,589 ✭✭✭Large bottle small glass

    I think if you look at the sitting of your regular Irish cottage, certainly what I have seen, shelter was a very big consideration with lots effectively down in a hole.

    My late father was born in 1926 and his father in 1884; he had local stories/folklore passed down to him in relation to The Night of the Big Wind. He was like a child at Christmas when the book you linked came out.

    I was only reading it last week.

    Thanks for opening the thread

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,855 ✭✭✭Nabber

    That's a presumption that all folks knew how to build a home to withstand Atlantic storms, it's a logical assumption however. The fact remains that there was no building regulations. People who live in modern day shanty towns for example know that rain leaks through the roof, that wind destroys, but they often lack the funding to prevent damage and there is nothing preventing them from building how they like. Safe or unsafe. In Ireland much of the population lived in a poverty like state, we also must remember that the building were not all built in the 1830s.

    Knowing an issue and having the means to prep for those conditions are different things.

    Compare this to modern Ireland where building codes across the country are some of the strictest globally.

    Loss of life and damage to property are social indicators of the impact, the severity of a storm should not rely on property damage or loss of life regardless of the span of time between two events.

    Events should be classified by meteorological measurements and also separately as damage to society.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 6,233 ✭✭✭Oneiric 3

    This is interesting. The sound of the 'big wind' have been noted in chronicles and were by all accounts, terrifying. Similarly, of all the people I have talked to down throughout the years (including grandparents and parents, who were around 10 years of age at the time) about 'Debby' back in 1961, they all noted that the roar (or more like a 'scream') of Debby could be heard shortly before it arrived. My dad (RIP) was with his father attending there own market stall here in town and he told me all was calm before it hit but the roar could be heard coming up from behind the town hall and that prompted them to run for cover as something big was going down and the wind minutes later hit very suddenly. Similar accounts from my maternal grandparents who lived a few miles north of here. The sound of the approaching wind could be heard before it hit and again, it hit very suddenly. Needless to say, their year's work on their farm was completely destroyed and countless ancient trees.. entire woodlands in many cases, in the region were completely annihilated. Also noted was an eerie yellow glow in the sky before the storm hit.

    We gen Xer's and millennials don't know we are born.

    New Moon