MKA Blog The Night of Big WindToday, 6th/7th January 2014 is the one hundred and seventy fifth anniversary of the night of The Big Wind and you could say with stormy conditions the way they are just now in Kerry and along the Atlantic seaboard in particular, does anything change?   And how is The Night of the Big Wind connected to our Ancestors and their ages?    In October last I blogged about the problem genealogists have in pinning down the exact ages of people who were born in Ireland in the 19th Century and before it.   Read on and see how the British Pension authorities used that night to ‘refresh’ the memories of those seeking to qualify for the Old Age Pension in 1909.

The night of January 6, 1839 was so overpoweringly memorable that it was always known in Ireland as the The Night of the Big Wind and life events were dated from that occasion.  Those who lived through it, never forgot it.   Kerry folk and the rural Irish in general were deeply superstitious and many believed it heralded the end of the world.  Many blamed it on ‘the fairies’  or the Devil and elaborate folk tales were told and re-told by firesides for decades to come.

‘A quirk in Irish tradition was that birthdays were never celebrated in the 19th century, and no special heed was given to precisely how old someone was. This creates problems for genealogists today, and it created problems for bureaucrats 100 years ago.’ [1]

In 1909 the British government, which was still ruling Ireland, instituted a system of old age pensions. When dealing with the rural population of Ireland, where the written records might be scanty, the ferocious storm that blew in from the north Atlantic 70 years earlier proved to be useful. One of the questions asked of elderly people was if they could remember the “Big Wind.” If they could, they qualified for a pension.

Turtle Bunbury[2] tells us ‘The Act offered the first ever weekly pension to those over 70.  It was likened to the opening of a new factory on the outskirts of every town and village in Britain and Ireland.  By March 1909, over 80,000 pensioners were registered of whom 70,000 were Irish!  When a committee was sent to investigate this imbalance, it transpired that few births in Ireland were ever registered before 1865.  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’

[1] Robert McNamara, A Freak Storm So Memorable, People Dated Their Lives by It

[2] Turtle Bunbury,  The Night of the Big Wind,  The Wild Geese,