Have you ever heard people using the term windfall to describe unexpected good fortune, especially financial gain?
The word windfall traditionally refers to a piece of fallen fruit, knocked down by the wind. The use of the word to describe unforeseen pennies from heaven may trace its origins to a terrible storm which struck Ireland on the night of January 6, 1839.
This infamous night is often referred to in Irish folklore as the “Night of the Big Wind” or “Oíche na Gaoithe Móire” in Irish or Gaelic. All who experienced the event remembered the chaos and sheer terror caused by the unprecedented hurricane force winds.
I first came across references to the “Night of the Big Wind” while completing research for my never-ending-work-in-progress novel, set at the time of the Great Hunger.
This year terrible storms and gale force winds have once again battered the west coast of Ireland. These recent dangerous weather patterns reminded me of the ferocious Irish storm of January 1839.
Snow fell on Saturday January 5 1839, followed by unusually calm, warm weather the following day. Unknown to all, a deep depression was forming in the Atlantic ocean. Warm and cold fronts soon battled it out over the unsuspecting island with catastrophic results.
On that fateful night, gale force winds howled, as never before. Rain and hail battered the land. Cyclonic gusts tore across the fields, scattering corn and haystacks, sucking burning embers skywards through chimneys. Many lost their savings, when their thatch roofs were shredded by the winds. A favorite hiding place for money was in the rafters beneath the thatch.
Between 250 and 300 people lost their lives in the disaster. Massive storm surges caused inland flooding. What little survived the wind damage soon rotted in the soggy mess. Stone boundary walls surrounding farmers’ fields were blown apart, allowing livestock to wander away. Sheep were blown off the mountains and lost at sea. Millions of wild birds were killed, causing near extinction for some species.
Currachs, traditional Irish fishing boats, were usually left resting on beaches and dunes overnight. These simple vessels, made by stretching and tarring canvas over a wooden frame, were torn asunder and lost forever. The impact on Irish fishermen was immense.
It is estimated that up to one quarter of all homes on the island were seriously damaged or destroyed. In those days, no Irish tenant had the luxury of insurance. They alone bore the full cost of rebuilding their meager homes.
An old Irish poem about the Night of the Big Wind talks about its devastating effects on the town of Drumnacanvy, Co. Armagh.
“It came and it came and it came,
Like all the devil’s bellows loosed out of hell,
Howlin’ and screamin’ and cuttin’ an callin.’
It came and came, and came upon Drumnacanvy.”
The cause of the storm remained a mystery to poor Irish farmers, who blamed it on the fairies, even claiming God and the devil fought over Ireland that night.
“Aye! Surely the devil fought that night wi’ The God of heaven
And God stayed not his mighty hand in torrent, rain, and thunder.
Never again does common man want to see their titanic struggles,
As he thinks upon the all forlorn, that plundered land of Drumnacanvy”.
The complete poem is available on the Wikipedia page for Drumnacanvy.
When starvation loomed merely six years later, many had not recovered from the losses they suffered in 1839. The devastation caused by this storm was overwhelming for a poverty stricken nation. Poor Irish people had little reserves to fall back upon when disaster struck again with the failure of the potato crop in 1845.
If the impact of this storm was so catastrophic, then how might a financial windfall be linked to it?
The answer lies in a strange fact related to the British government’s introduction of old age pensions in 1909. All those over seventy years of age were entitled to a pension of five shillings per week. However, many poor Irish had no birth certificates or proof of their age. Approval for an old age pension was dependent upon the ability to recall the Night of the Big Wind.
And so a new phrase came into being: “You came into a little windfall” if you received your five-shilling old age pension payment.
“It’s an ill wind that blows no good,” is another old saying that comes to mind. I wonder if its origins also lie in a link between the Night of the Big Wind, and the granting of old age pensions.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom