Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Night of the Big Wind in Ballyshannon, Bundoran and Rossnowlagh 1839

        Most property in Rossnowlagh-Coolmore destroyed in
Night of the Big Wind

This was Ireland’s most famous storm and locally it did a lot of damage in the Ballyshannon, Bundoran and Rossnowlagh areas. After a calm day on Sunday 6th January 1839 which was dull, cold, with snow showers, the winds started to pick up on Sunday evening. A westerly gale got stronger by midnight and there were hurricane force winds between 2 and 4 o’clock on Monday morning. As the storm took place in darkness it was more frightening for local people.  Nationwide  the depression and the hurricane force winds were raging until things started to calm down around 5 a.m. Oíche na Gaoithe Móire as it was called in Irish was used as a point of reference in 1909 when the old age pension was introduced. People who could prove they were over the age of 70 were entitled to a yearly pension of £13. Many people had no written evidence of their age as record keeping was not always the best. If a person could prove that they remembered or were around on the Night of the Big Wind then they got the pension. In the Ballyshannon area the frightening cholera epidemic raged in 1832, followed by the destruction to property caused by the Great Wind in 1839 and the 1840s brought the Great Famine. Small wonder that people at the time felt that the end of the world was near. Two of the churches in Ballyshannon, St. Anne’s and St. Patrick’s had to be rebuilt as a result of the storm. Surviving records only focus on buildings like churches but the damage to private property and agriculture was also very severe. In Bundoran the bathing boxes were nearly all blown down or unroofed. Several private residences were also severely damaged. The “The Derry Journal” gave a report on local conditions:

We have not heard of any lives (man or beast) being lost in the town. The country was not so fortunate----several families buried beneath the ruins of their dwellings. Along the sea coast the destruction of property is melancholy.

Bathing boxes destroyed at Bundoran in Night of the Big Wind

St. Anne’s Church on Mullaghnashee had to be replaced

This church stands on the highest ground in Ballyshannon, overlooking the channel from which the hurricane force winds battered the building. The building was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. Curiously the only part of the church that was salvaged was the tower (on which there is a clock today). The tower belongs to the earlier church which had been built in 1735. Church services had to be held elsewhere as the huge task of building a new church began. The new church was built speedily by 1841 at a cost of roughly £3,500.  This new building was attached to the original tower, but the new building was wider than the building destroyed on the Night of the Big Wind. This meant that some tombstones had to be removed and a visit to the inside of the church today, reveals two plaques on the south facing wall which refer to this. A plaque to the Allingham family and one to the Major family who would have resided at Camlin, mentions that the people named were buried underneath the new church walls.
     St. Anne's  Church (left) and St. Patrick's Church (right) had to be rebuilt. They are
the two highest buildings at the top of this painting by Maud Allingham
St. Patrick’s Church had to be rebuilt 

The roof of St. Patrick’s Church on Chapel Street was very badly damaged and this church was rebuilt with the foundation stone laid in 1842 by Rt. Rev. Dr. McGettigan, three years after the Night of the Big Wind. Daniel Campbell from Pettigo built the new church at a cost of £1,380 with additional costs to window glazers and other sub-contractors. Amongst the fund-raising for the new church was the visit to “The Big Meadow” by Fr. Matthew the great Temperance crusader who drew an estimate crowd of 20,000 to the church and “The Big Meadow”. Even before the Night of the Big Wind, Fr. Cummins P.P. had started to fundraise to rebuild the church which had been built on the site in 1795. The church was in a poor state and undoubtedly the Night of the Big Wind made matters worse and speeded up the building of the present church.

St. Joseph’s Church Damaged/The Methodist Preaching House on the Mall damaged

St. Joseph’s Church on the Rock which had only been built in 1835 suffered much damage and this must have been disheartening to the congregation as they had raised funds for the new building just four years earlier. All this destruction and rebuilding came just as the Great Famine was about to begin in 1844. The present Methodist Church on the Mall (now houses a veterinary practise) was built in 1899 and so the building damaged on The Night of the Big Wind, the Methodist Preaching House on the Mall , was an earlier building.
     St. Joseph's Church was only built 4 years when it was badly
damaged in the Night of the Big Wind

The End of the World feared

On the sandbanks at the bar in Ballyshannon, because of the great movement of sand, the banks were the lowest they had ever been. Boats could now pass to areas where the tide had not reached before. Indeed boats could reach areas a half a mile from where they had ever been before. The shifting of sand saw immense volumes blown nearly two miles up to the town of Ballyshannon. Cartloads of sand could be gathered in the immediate vicinity of the town. At Bundoran the bathing boxes were nearly all blown down or unroofed.  In the countryside any hay or grain was destroyed and this led to a crisis in fodder for animals and anxiety over how people would survive.
The sea rose to such a height from Bundoran to Rossnowlagh and Coolmore that people did feel that the end was nigh. Houses and barns were torn down and in the  Rossnowlagh-Coolmore areas there was scarcely a house left standing. Local people in Bundoran, Rossnowlagh and Ballyshannon feared that the hurricane was a sign that the end of the world was near. This was a natural enough reaction to the fiercest storm in living memory and the fears of people who found it  hard to understand.

Read about local events in the 1918 Election, the War of Independence,  the Civil War and the Boundary Commission which established the border in Ballyshannon Genealogy and History. Also includes lots of local history on Kilbarron and Magh Ene areas.

 "Ballyshannon Genealogy and History" available in

The Novel Idea,

 Ballyshannon Museum 
                Local Hands in Ballyshannon
                                 Four Master's Bookshop in Donegal Town.

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