Night of the Big Wind
Many with an interest in family history will have come across many discrepancies between the ages of people enumerated in both the 1901 and 1911 census. Often people are left scratching their heads wondering why John Smith in the townland of Ballybuck is listed as being 55 years of age in 1901 and is then miraculously noted as being 73 years of age at the next census ten years later. There may be errors of course but the main culprit for these anomalies is Mr. David Lloyd George. As Chancellor of the Exchequer from1908 to 1915, Lloyd George was a key figure in the introduction of many reforms which laid the foundations of the modern welfare state. One of the most famous of these liberal reforms was the passing of the old age pensions Act in August 1908.
In 1906 the Liberal Party regained power with a landslide victory under Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Within the liberal Party there was friction between the old style of liberal thinking, as encapsulated by Gladstone, and the new Liberal Reformers, men such as Asquith and Lloyd George, who advocated an active role for Government in protecting the Welfare of its citizens. In the following years ground breaking legislation would be passed granting protection to workers, children, the sick and the poor. Part of this new liberal agenda was formulated to counter the rise of the new Labour Party and the threat of Trade Unionism. Nevertheless many of the new liberals had a clear social conscience and zeal to implement legislation which would improve the living conditions of the masses.
In this context the Old Age Pensions Bill was passed. It provided for a pension of up to five shillings for people (Seven shillings and six pence for a married couple) over seventy years of age and payments were to be commuted through the Post Office. Only those with ‘good character’ could receive the pension and any who served a lengthy prison sentence were excluded. Also excluded were those in receipt of poor relief, ‘lunatics’ in asylums, persons convicted of drunkenness (at the discretion of the court), and any person who was guilty of ‘habitual failure to work’ according to their ability.
The first payment was made on New Year’s Day, 1909. In Ireland an application had to be made to the Public Office in the GPO. Many people had no birth certificates so they sent in baptismal records. However many parishes had no baptismal records either or peoples surnames were spelt differently. Cross referencing with the Census of 1841 was also difficult. In the end many field officers simply visited people and asked them if they could recall certain historical events. Seventy years previous there occurred an event that any who experienced would be unlikely to forget.
The night of the 6th January, 1839, Little Christmas, has now come to be known simply as ‘The night of the Big Wind’ or ‘Oíche na Gaoithe Móire’. The 6th January was known as the Twelfth Night, the night the dead walk. The day was unusual weather wise. It started off cold and snow had fallen. Gradually as the day wore on the temperature rose, melted the snow and kept rising. The Thermometer kept rising and the barometer kept falling and by late afternoon the conditions were warm and humid and most unseasonal. Unknown to anyone a huge weather system was lurking in the North Atlantic and heading towards Ireland. In the evening the winds began to freshen. Warm air coming up from the Azores met cold air coming from Greenland. The wind reached its crescendo and hurricane strength in the middle of the night between 2.00 and 5.00 am. the country was in darkness and this made the experience even more frightening. It was to be Ireland’s worst storm
What greeted people the next day was a scene from Armageddon. Over three million threes were knocked, forty ships lost at sea, thousands of animals killed and over three hundred people dead and thousands injured. Turtle Bunbury described the tempest as follows, “It was the most devastating storm ever recorded in Irish history and made more people homeless in a single night than all the sorry decades of eviction that followed it”.[i]
Farmers were hit particularly hard, hay ricks were scattered and cattle that survived would later starve. Buildings destroyed included old Norman castles and modern military barracks. The storm did not differentiate between rich and poor; it levelled Churches and hospitals as well as the hovels and mud cabins.
“Innumerable houses in County Leitrim were unroofed on that terrible night, with one roof, according to legend, sailing serenely across Fenagh Lough. In the shadow of Slieve Anierin, many left their houses and took refuge in the ‘Alths’, and near Mohill, one mother put her child into an oak chest, setting stones on top of it for the child’s protection. Also at Mohill the dispensary and Roman Catholic chapel were severely damaged. According to Peter Carr’s book “Mr William Blake of Farnaght, had a range of offices lately built, blown down, two heifers killed, and a corn mill completely unroofed.” In Leitrim the wind took the colour of red.
About fifty houses were blown down between Drumsna and Elphin, there was immense destruction of property especially amongst the plantations. In Carrick-on-Shannon several houses were blown down, others stripped of their roofs. The report of the wind said “The produce of the harvest lies scattered over the whole face of the surrounding country.”[ii]
The country slowly recovered but within a few years a much bigger catastrophe would befall the land. The Great Famine, ‘An Gorta Mor’. Yet the terrifying night remained in people’s memories and folk history and seventy years later would be re-told to Post office officials. In late 1908 and early 1909 many applicants were devoid of any documentary proof of age to apply for the pension. It became apparent that very few births were registered prior to 1865 in Ireland. An Irish Pensions Committee was set up to investigate.
“As such, the Irish Pensions Committee decreed that if someone’s age had ‘gone astray’ on them, they would be eligible for a pension if they could state that they were ‘fine and hardy’ on the Night of the Big Wind. One such applicant was Tim Joyce of County Limerick. ‘I always thought I was 60’, he explained. ‘But my friends came to me and told me they were certain sure I was 70 and as there were three or four of them against me, the evidence was too strong for me. I put in for the pension and got it’.[iii]
Naturally anyone remembering such a cataclysmic event would be at least seventy years of age, and anyone who was over seventy years of age would be entitled to five shillings a week from Lloyd George’s purse. It certainly was an ill wind that didn’t blow some good.
[i] Turtle Bunbury ‘The Night of the Big Wind 1839’
[ii] Peter Carr “The Night of the Big Wind” by Peter Carr ISBN 1 870132 50 5 Published by White Row Press 1993
And Leitrim Observer – 28th July 2012
[iii] Turtle Bunbury ‘The Night of the Big Wind 1839’