Monday 6 January 2014

Night of the Big Wind

There was a bit of a blow here last night.  Indeed we had a clap of thunder at 0530hrs and it's still whistling out there in the dark, but the roof is still on. I was down on the beach at Annestown Co Waterford on Saturday.  It was ten days since I was last there and it was striking what a change had been wrought by the storms that marched in succession across the country over the holiday season. Indeed, when I was last there on 24 Dec 2013, the storm surge on-shore was so strong that even at low tide I couldn't walk round the headland to the East of the beach. On Saturday (04 Jan14) it was like a giant hoover had sucked almost all the sand off the beach exposing a series of rocky outcrops running out to sea.  I mentioned this to a woman who was gazing at the same scene and we agreed that the sand would be back in a month or so. 

Oíche na Gaoithe Móire as they call it in Irish was the most severe storm experienced on the island of Ireland since meteorological memories were ever written down.  It blew the stuffing out of the northern half of the island on the night of 6th Jan 1839 - 155 years ago.  Epiphany is known hereabouts as Nollaig na mBan Women's Christmas and many people thought that the end of the world was at hand as their hay-ricks disappeared in fritters into the next county.  It was certainly a serious setback as the winter had months to go and the hay was essential for feeding stock. Indeed such a catastrophe was probably as serious in an almost cashless rural economy as the cases where families had hidden their ready money in the thatch of their cabins and lost the roof to the storm. A peculiar sucession of weather events - a cold snap with snow followed by a rapid rise in air-temperature as a depression moved in from the Atlantic- led to the development a deluge of horizontal rain travelling at more than 150km/h.  When Met Eireann issues another 'yellow alert', as we've heard over the last several days, by all means take what precautions you can or feel you have to.  But also reflect that what's coming through is in the ha'penny place compared to The Night of the Big Wind.

It was so striking and memorable, that in 1909, when the first non-contributory pension was introduced in the United Kingdom, the key question for illiterate applicants for this dole was "How big were you on the Night of the Big Wind?".  If you could remember that event, you were definitely over 70 and so eligible.  So long as you asked for it, were of good character, not a drunkard or accused of "habitual failure to work", and had an annual income of less than 30 guineas.  You got 5s; which is 60d (old pennies) or a quarter of a £ sterling.  Even in those days it was not very much.

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