Back in January and February this year, the west coast of Ireland, including Clare was battered by exceptionally big storms and many communities are still rebuilding over six months on.
For the past few days, we've been catching the dying edge of Hurricane Bertha and, although only a fraction of the power of the earlier storms, its easy to see how vulnerable this coastline can be to Atlantic weather.
There are three stories my Dad repeats about Ireland and he repeats them regularly. The first is that during the War of Independence, the IRA in Cork, in order to 'liberate' some vehicles from the Ford factory in the county, declared war on the company. And as far as he knows, that remains the case. Mmmm. Not sure about that one.
The second is about the winter of 1947, a winter so cold with snow so deep that people could walk across the country via neighbours roofs and entire families in rural communities took to killing their beasts, disemboweling them and crawling inside for the warmth. I may have got that last part mixed up with a Robert Taylor movie from the 50's, but there's no doubt that 1947 was chilly.
The third story is about the Night of the Big Wind or Oíche na Gaoithe Móire as we say in these parts. On January 5 1839, a Saturday, it began to snow. On Sunday the weather was warmer, the snow began to melt and by noon it was raining heavily and by early evening the winds had gathered strength. A freak storm roared out of the Atlantic and devastated the countryside: trees were uprooted, thatch roofs were torn from houses; barns fell and a pleasing amount of church spires toppled. Homes were burned to the ground as fierce winds blew down the chimneys, scattering embers and setting light to the buildings. A quarter of houses in north Dublin were destroyed and 42 ships at anchor, mostly along the west coast were wrecked. It was the biggest storm in Ireland for 300 years and it eventually blew itself out over mainland Europe.
Some reports said that 300 people lost their lives but that is just guesswork. Thousands were left homeless, farmstock was killed and stores of food, meant for the winter was scattered; wildlife was decimated and there were reports that crows and jackdaws became almost extinct in some parts of the country. Apart from the workhouse, there was little if any support for those affected by the storm, so whilst they had to fend for themselves, the Night of the Great Wind entered folklore and myth and ironically formed part of the origin of the first old age pension system in Ireland.
The storm became a signpost for people - before the storm or after the storm. So, when in 1909 the British government introduced the old age pension to Ireland, there needed to be a way of judging whether people were entitled to claim the benefit. As birth records, especially in rural areas were often scanty, people were asked if they remembered the Night of the Big Wind - if they did, they got the pension.
So, whilst the storm ravaged large areas of the country in 1839 leaving people homeless and destitute, 70 years later it formed the crucial question as to whether people were eligible for, what most of us would recognise as the first state benefit in Britain. Hurricane Bertha is not going to be that memorable, but when it hit three nights ago, it certainly drowned out the noise of the snoring Latvian, two tents away from me. A silver lining I would say.
- I just need to add that my Dad got in touch with me after reading this and disputed my dismissal of the IRA and Ford motor company being in a state of war story but did add that in 1909, the pension was set at 5 shillings and in real terms is probably worth more than some people are getting today. In 1922 when the Free State was established the Government of the day was unable to continue to pay the 5 shillings and reduced it. Perfidious Albion!