Book recalls the night the ‘Big Wind’ hit Derry for six

'The Night of the Big Wind', by Peter Carr, is available in local bookshops.
'The Night of the Big Wind', by Peter Carr, is available in local bookshops.

A book telling the story of a ferocious storm which wreaked havoc in Derry more than 170 years ago is back in the bookshops.

The ‘hurricane’, which took place on the night of Sunday, January 6, 1839, was the most damaging storm that Ireland had seen for 300 years.

As revealed earlier this week by the ‘Journal’, the unforgettable force of nature, which became known as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’, is to be the subject of a new opera which will be written by Belfast composer Elaine Agnew.

The book that inspired the opera, Peter Carr’s ‘The Night of the Big Wind’, has been re-issued and, “to reflect current austerity”, has been republished at its original 1991 price of £4.95.

The January 8, 1839 edition of the ‘Londonderry Journal’ - as the city’s leading newspaper was then known - referred to a “storm of extraordinary violence.”

It reported: “The two previous days, a considerable quantity of snow had fallen at intervals and, throughout Sunday, the air was keen and penetrating, but there was no indication whatever of the coming tempest.”

The newspaper report continued: “About midnight, the storm broke out... It blew long and heavy gusts, between which the intervals were very brief, and brought with it rain which descended in deluges, and did not subside until about six o’clock in the morning.

“So noisy was the elemental strife that it must have banished sleep from every eye. In the morning, there was not a street or lane in the city that did not exhibit proofs of its violence.

“The Courthouse was much damaged, the glass in the windows of the Grand Jury Room having being shattered to pieces, and one of the scales in the hand of the figure of Justice in front of the building carried away.”

The ‘Journal’ reported on some “providential escapes” owning to the “roofs of the houses being sufficiently strong to support the stacks of chimnies which fell immediately above the beds where they lay.”

The paper revealed that, while Mr. George Foster’s rope-walk was blown into the river, “it would be vain to particularise the losses.

“In the neighbourhood, a vast number of stately trees were torn up and some of the roads, particularly the one to Muff by Brook Hall, were rendered impassable.”

“For many miles around, in all directions, the damage done has been very great, the thatch, and even the scraws of the houses of many poor people having been whirled into the air.”

Meanwhile, the ‘Derry Standard’ - another city newspaper of the time - revaled that “many of the huts of the peasantry have been uproofed or entirely prostrated, and in not a few cases... totally consumed by their thatch taking fire.”

Limavady also suffered horribly in the storm. At five in the morning, when the storm was at its height, people fled their houses, ‘in terror of their lives’.

But it was no safer outdoors than in, as the air was thick with flying slates and pieces of masonry.

The ‘Belfast News Letter’ reported: ‘At daylight the town presented the appearance of desolation - the streets were literally strewn with bricks, chimney pots, and slates - the houses in many places completely stripped of their covering - the windows broken or dashed in.’

However, it was the countryside that felt the full destructive force of the storm. Innumerable houses were ‘unroofed or entirely prostrated’, their thatch ‘whirled into the air’. Others were burned, for when the wind broke in, the fire became a tiny volcano, the sods and coals ‘dancing on the hearth’.

Hedges were uprooted. Corn and haystacks were scattered. Countless sheep were killed by flying rocks and by drowning. Cattle were maimed and killed in falling byres. A chronic shortage of foodstuffs followed. This led to desperate measures.

But the people proved resourceful. Around Derry. cattle survived by eating pulped whin shoots.

Across Ireland, the storm - known in Irish as Oíche na Gaoithe Móire - caused severe damage to property and several hundred deaths.

20% to 25% of houses in north Dublin were damaged or destroyed and 42 ships were wrecked.

The Night of the Big Wind became part of Irish folk tradition which held that Judgement Day would occur on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Such a severe storm led many to believe that the end of the world was at hand.

When the British state pension system was introduced in 1909, one of the questions asked of those applicants in Ireland who lacked documentation was whether they could remember the storm of 1839.

‘The Night of the Big Wind’, by Peter Carr, is published by White Row Press and is available in bookshops.