Ice, Gales and Moving Bogs
by Donal Fitzgerald

Often when watching the television news some horrific scenes of a natural disaster are flashed on our screens.  They may be of a hurricane with a fancy name wrecking havoc on parts of America, severe flooding and landslides somewhere in Asia, volcanoes, earthquakes or huge forest fires raging out of control over thousands of acres.  Our usual reaction is to think how lucky we are to escape such severe weather conditions and natural disasters and to convince ourselves that disasters of great proportions could never strike poor old Ireland.

However a look through the history books would tell us otherwise and show us that many disasters have happened in the past and could very easily happen again and adversely effect our comfortable lifestyles.  Without warning they have happened before and the resultant deaths, disease and severe hardships suffered were beyond imagination.

The great famine of 1845/48 has been well documented and everyone in Ireland is familiar with the happenings of those dreadful years.  The potatoes were planted as usual, and as conditions were good, farmers predicted a bumper crop.  The stalks were green and healthy looking but overnight a fungus which had originated in America struck the potatoes wiping out a large portion of the crop.  The potato was then the only food of the vast majority of the 8 ½ million population and their outlook was now disastrous.  The crops of the following three years were also a total loss.  Starvation, disease and death were now the lot of the people of this land.  One and a half million of them died and a similar number fled the country never to return.  It took the country and the economy decades to recover but the population never recovered.

The Forgotten Famine - The Great Frost

On the other side of the world a great volcanic eruption on the remote Kamchatka peninsula in Russia pumped thousands of tons of smoke, dust and ashes into the atmosphere in 1739.  Most Irish people of the time would have been unaware of this occurrence and if they were aware of it they would not have known that it was responsible for the dramatic climatic changes in Ireland for the next two years.  Nothing could have prepared them for the Great Frost of 1740 or for 'bliain an Aire' (the year of
slaughter) of 1741.  Severe Arctic winds, hitherto unknown in these islands, caused chaos in the country and along the seacoast.  A great many ships sank and the crews were lost in the icy water.  The terrible winds abated after a week but the severe cold intensified in January 1740.  Potatoes which had not been stored indoors were lost and hunger added to the great hardship of the people.  The land, rivers and lakes were frozen over and vast quantities of fish were to be found dead on the shorelines.  The ice was reported to be
nineteen inches thick on the Shannon and shortcuts were being taken across rivers and lakes, sometimes with fatal consequences.  A funeral ran into trouble when a thin patch of the ice was been crossed and twenty mourners were drowned.  The country was in the grip of Siberian weather never before or after experienced here.

At first many did not realise the seriousness of the situation.  By the end of January and early February food of all sorts was becoming very scarce.  Many were delighted by the great novelty of the ice and went dancing and skating and held carnivals and banquets on the frozen lakes sometimes roasting a sheep.  Hurling matches were also played by teams selected by the local gentry.

Country people who had turf stored for the winter could stave off the intense cold but the necessity to keep the fires high saw supplies running out earlier than usual.  Coal was not available in the towns and fuel was collected where possible with trees and hedges soon stripped bare. The frozen rivers could not turn the waterwheels and mills were unable to grind oats and wheat thus adding to the food scarcity.

The frost ended in late February but this, unfortunately, did not ease the situation.  The Spring rains did not come and the severe cold north winds persisted.  By April the country had a parched bare look as nothing was growing.  There was no sign of wildlife, birds and other animals had all died off.  Crops of wheat and barley planted the previous Autumn had failed  and grass and other fodder for farm animals was non-existent.  Cattle and sheep were dying all over the country of starvation.  No rain fell and the terrible drought and cold continued with snow falling in May from Cork to Antrim.  The price of wheat doubled and there were no potatoes available, while the news from Europe was equally bad with bad harvest prospects and food scarcity.  Storms, blizzards, great amounts of snow and widespread flooding were reported from August to December.  The end of December was particularly bad with snow and a great frost which lasted for ten  days.

From January to late June of 1741 the frost and drought continued and the weather suddenly changed in early July.  The rains fell and the remainder of the summer was very hot.  The harvest was fair with a reasonable crop of potatoes and a good crop of wheat.  Quantities of wheat were also imported from America and the prices of foodstuffs eased.  Thus ended the great frost.  Over 310,000 died of starvation, fevers and plague out of a population of 2 ½ million.

The Night of the Big Wind

Old people in times gone by were never sure of their age or the date of their birthday and when the Old Age Pension was introduced in 1909 some found it difficult to establish whether they were entitled to it or not.  In most instances parish records were not available but if a person could produce any evidence that he or she was born in the year of the night of the Big Wind or thereabouts then that increased  his or her chances considerably.

January 6th, Little Christmas, 1839 is a night that was much talked about for a long time in this country, and one hears reference to it occasionally to this day.  There was a great calm as the sun was setting and the western sky was a blaze of the most wonderful colours.  However a few hours later the sky changed and snow fell accompanied by a great blizzard.  This was followed by the fiercest of gales which lasted for twelve hours from 8 pm to dawn.  Houses were stripped of their roofs, the thatched cottages suffering the most damage.  Falling thatch was blown onto the open hearths and furniture and belongings were lost in the flames.  Huge old trees were blown down all over the country causing death and damage to people, stock and buildings.  The strong winds overturned many ships and others were dashed to pieces on the rocks.  Over 1,000 sailing ships went to the bottom with losses of 40,000 lives.  Farmers left their houses to look after their stock and drove them out to the open spaces to avoid being killed by falling trees and falling houses.  The tremendous winds wrecked havoc throughout the country and rivers overflowed their banks sweeping trees and bridges before them.  Next morning the wind had abated but it left a trail of desolation in its wake.

The Moving Bogs

In the old newspapers we often come upon another phenomenon, the Moving Bog, which happily has not happened for some time now.  Monday 28th December 1896 was fair day in Killarney and the people of the Rathmore district slept uneasily waiting for daylight to walk over the hill to the fair.  Many had been awakened by a strange sound in the night as if an earthquake was taking place.  When daylight arrived they found the road blocked "with the mountain".  As they assessed what had happened they realised that the mountain was on the move "in fits and spurts".  They could hear the rumbling and hissing sounds as the bog rose and fell in it's movement.  The panic stricken people soon discovered that Donnelly's house had been swept away taking with it Con, his wife and five children.  Over 200 acres of the bog was on the move in a southerly direction taking everything before it, leaving a deposit 30 feet deep in a ravine.  It followed the course of the Ownachree river into the river Flesk.  Donnelly's children's ages ranged from 1 ½ years to 16 years and were Daniel, Humphrey, Margaret, James, Lizzie and Kate.  Kate was the sole survivor as she had been staying with her aunt.  The bodies of Con, his wife and five children were found some ½ mile, others 1 mile and 1 ½ miles from where their home once stood.  No trace was found of his hay, outhouses, three cattle and few pigs.

An inquest on the victims was held in the schoolhouse at Gneeveguilla.  The verdict was "death by suffocation".  The funeral to Knocknagoppal included all kinds of horse drawn vehicles and over 100 farmers on horseback.

The bog continued to move until New Year's Day.  It then came to rest covering hundreds of acres of pastureland.

Donal Fitzgerald is from Bantry Co. Cork and is a member of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society.