Family History: The Night of the Big Wind

When you see 'Reminiscences '¦' you know what's coming next '“ half forgotten stories from the past, stories that will rekindle old memories and trigger further stories. Stories that are entertaining. Stories that are moving. Stories that make you thoughtful. Stories that make you roar with laughter. Stories that recall old friends. Stories that bring tears to your eyes. All sorts of stories.

Every family has stories but most tend to be forgotten within two or three generations, even though they may have been monumental at the time. Stories of hardship. Stories of triumph. Exciting stories. Amusing stories. Scary stories.

A pleasure of trying to find out more about one’s family history is not just drawing up a family tree but rediscovering the stories that make those who are long dead come to life again in your mind.

In this new column we shall dig up old stories that we hope will interest you and, with luck, they will awake memories of your old stories and maybe, dear reader, you will share some of your old stories with us.

We start with one that is perhaps remembered in your family.

Most of the stories that affected our forefathers’ lives were soon forgotten or persisted for only a generation or so. But there is one that is still told in many Irish families as it made such an impact at the time: The Night of the Big Wind. Is it still recalled in your family?

Early January, 1839 and the weather was unusual: on Saturday 5 there was heavy snow overnight but this was followed on the morning of Sunday by very still weather that grew warmer and warmer, melting the snow.

At noon, the weather changed again: from the Atlantic came a cold front, bringing strong winds and heavy rain. This moved slowly eastwards across Ireland, gathering intensity with hurricane winds gusting up to 115 miles per hour. It was said to be the worst storm to hit Ireland for 300 years.

Arriving from the Atlantic, the west coast suffered flooding, with reports of salt water being blown forty miles inland. Particularly at risk were the poorest people as the winds caused embers from their turf fires to set alight the thatch of their cabins. Many houses suffered considerable structural damage with windows and shutters blown in and roofs lifted off. It was reported that between a fifth and a quarter of all the houses in Dublin were damaged or destroyed.

Farmers were badly hit as hay and crops were destroyed as they were blown out of the haggards where they had been stored, thereby causing famine for man and beast for the year ahead.

Vast numbers of trees were felled by the storm, sometimes falling in random directions as the wind gusted to and fro.

A consequence of this glut was that the price of timber plummeted and nobody was interested in purchasing the fine trees that had been grown for sale.

Estimates of the damage vary considerably as there seems to have been no concerted action to record damage to property or even of the deaths of people. The latter seem to have been surprisingly few and arose from drownings by flood or being killed by falling masonry but even worse seems to have been the number of sailors killed as it was reported that 42 ships had been wrecked.

The storm moved north east across the Irish Sea and caused considerable damage in Liverpool and the north of England before moving on to Scotland. For a detailed scientific account of the Night of the Big Wind see and see for a graphic account.

Since 1839 the Night of the Big Wind has been a significant part of our folklore. At the time some attributed it to the wrath of God, others to the fairies and others to the Freemasons calling up the Devil.

It came to the fore again in 1909 when Old Age Pensions were introduced for those reaching the age of 70. Since those people were born before civil registration of births was introduced in 1864, they had to find some other way of proving their entitlement. The most obvious way was to have their minister or parish priest check the baptismal register and certify the date of christening.

While almost everyone had been baptised, not all the registers had survived. The next step was to check the ages on the 1841 and 1851 census returns, which, at that stage, had not yet been destroyed.

The certificates showing the results of such searches can be seen at – is there a record of your family there? If all that failed, did you remember the Night of the Big Wind?


People travel from all over to attend events organised by the North of Ireland Family History Society and branches. The calendar includes the following:

Tuesday, February 28:

1.30-4pm, course, £10: Technology for Genealogy, at Unit C4, Valley Business Centre, 67 Church Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 7LS. Bookings to [email protected]

2-4pm, Research Centre open at Unit C4, Valley Business Centre, 67 Church Road, Newtownabbey, BT36 7LS. Queries to [email protected]

7.30pm, talk: Pre 1800 Records for Researching Ancestors, C. S. Lewis Room, Holywood Arches Library, Holywood Road, Belfast, BT4 1NT. Queries to [email protected]

8pm, talk: Understanding DNA in Family History Research, in the Guide Hall, Terrace Row, Coleraine. Queries to [email protected]