Friday, January 28, 2011

Some Irish Contributions To The World.

I thought I would finish off this month with something a little bit different.These are only a few things we have given to the world. There are many many more, why not think of some.

Cheese and Onion Crisps
At one time you could only get potato crisps in one flavour, plain with salt. In 1954, along came an Irishman of the name Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy, a pure genius. It was he who in a kitchen on Dublin’s Moore Street developed the now classic Cheese and Onion flavour and the rest is history.

The Submarine.
John Philip Holland, an engineer born in Liscannor, County Clare not only developed thefirst submarines for both the U.S. Navy and the British Royal Navy at the turn of the last century but he also built one for the Fenians.

The Tractor.
Harry Ferguson, born in County Down developed the first four wheel drive Formula One car and was also the first Irishman to build and fly his own plane. In 1929 he also gave us the modern tractor. His name lives on in the Massey-Ferguson Name.

Robert Boyle, born in County Waterford he came up the foundations of modern chemistry in 1661 when he published The Sceptical Chymist.

Nuclear Physics.
Ernest Walton could also be described as the inventor of a new field of scientific endeavour, and he was from Waterford too. Born in 1903 in Dungarvan, Walton, together with John Cockcroft, was the first person to artificially split the atom, thus creating nuclear physics and making possible power-stations, A-bombs and everything they brought with them. In 1951, he became Ireland's only Nobel science laureate, when jointly awarded the Prize for Physics.

The White House.
An architectural competition was held to find an architect that could design a House for the U.S. President, Goerge Washington. Washington had long admired the work of James Hoban, in particular Charleston County Courthouse which he saw when visiting the southern states and he gave the Kilkenny man the commission. Hoban was influenced by our own seat of government, Leinster House in his 1800 design, so in effect you might be forgiven for referring to Leinster House as ‘The Green House’.

Guided missile.
Louis Brennan, born in Castlebar County Mayo in 1852 (died 1932). He was the inventor of the world’s first guided missile. It was a torpedo type device which was used as a coastal defence weapon. Brennan also designed a momorail and a helicopter. Ironically for a man who lived for machines, he was killed when he was struck by a car.

Beer drinkers around the world have the Irish to thank for the invention of the Black Stuff. The stout, which is the best-selling alcoholic drink of all time in Ireland, but also popular globally, originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness at St. James’s Gate, Dublin. On 31 December 1759 he signed a 9,000 year lease at £45 per annum for the unused brewery.

Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels. C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia. Bram Stoker, Dracula. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas. Oscar Wilde, Playwrite. J.M. Synge ,W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and John B Keane to name just a few.

Nicholas Callan.
The induction coil -- found in car ignition systems, TVs and other electronic devices -- was invented by scientist and priest Nicholas Callan in 1836. Callan was from Darver in Co Louth, and he studied at Sapienza University in Rome. After returning to Maynooth as the new Professor of Natural Philosophy (what they called Physics back then), he began working with electricity in his lab -- which sounds like something Baron Frankenstein might have done. In 1837, he was generating an estimated 600,000 volts -- enough to give life to any monster.

Dr. James Drumm.
On a related note, Co Down-born chemist Dr James Drumm invented the rechargeable nickel-zinc battery, which is today used in cordless tools and telephones, digital cameras, electric vehicles and loads of other places. Drumm, born in 1897, was also involved in other scientific breakthroughs during a varied and colourful career: he produced an unusually fine soap and worked on an early version of food processing, as well as devising the battery which was used on Dublin trams for many years.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lady Betty. Public executioner.

Lady Betty: 1750-1807. Public executioner.

Lady Betty was famous as a cruel hangwoman who worked in Roscommon Jail in the eighteenth century. According to Sir William Wilde, she drew a sketch of each of her victims on the walls of her dwelling with a burnt stick.

Born into a tenant farmer’s family in County Kerry, the woman who came to be known as Lady Betty married another poor farmer, named Surgue, and they had a family. On his death, Betty and her three children were left destitute.

She set out with her children on the long walk to Roscommon town to look for a better life. En route her two younger children died of starvation and exposure, leaving only her elder son. On reaching Roscommon, Betty and her son moved into an abandoned hovel and begged, borrowed and stole to eke out a sparse living. She was known to have a violent, cruel temper and whether it was because of this or the grinding poverty (or a combination of both) her son decided to leave and go to America to seek his fortune. He promised to return one day a rich man.

Years passed, and Betty supplemented her meagre income by taking in desperate lodgers and travellers for a few pennies a night. One stormy night a traveller arrived at the door looking for a room. Betty took him in but she noticed how well dressed he was and he had a purse full of gold, not like her normal guests. The temptation proved too much, she waited until he was asleep, then stabbed him to death and robbed him.

Tragically for her, as she was going through his belongings she found papers that identified him as her son, unrecognisable after years apart. It has been suggested the reason why he had not identified himself to her was that he wanted to find out if she had changed from the violent bad tempered person he had known, unfortunately for him she had not. Betty was arrested and tried for murder and sentenced to hang.

The day of her execution arrived and she was led to the scaffold together with others due to be hung. Amongst the various thieves, sheep stealers and murderers were some Irish rebels and Whiteboys. However, because of local loyalty to the rebels, no hangman could be found so the authorities did not know what to do. This was when Betty made her mark on history. She said to the Sheriff “Set me free and I’ll hang the lot of them”. She killed twenty five that day and with the full support of the authorities she continued her gruesome work right across Connacht.

She lived rent free in a third floor chamber at the prison, and although she was paid no salary she loved her work and never had to worry about food. She had a very public method of hanging too; a scaffold was erected right outside her window, and the unfortunate person had to crawl out, ready- noosed, and stand there as she pulled a lever, swinging him to kingdom come. She had a nasty habit of leaving the bodies placidly "do the pendulum thing" while she sketched them in charcoal. When she eventually died, in the first decade of the 19th century, her room was decorated with the images of the hundreds of people she had happily sent to their deaths.

Lady Betty’s cold-hearted actions meant that she was universally feared, loathed, hated and shunned. Eventually she was given lodgings inside the prison grounds for her own safety. In 1802 she received a pardon for her own horrific crime. By the time of her death in 1807 a powerful myth had built up around her, but it would be many years before mothers stopped threatening their children to watch out, if you don’t behave Lady Betty will get you. She is buried inside the walls of Roscommon Jail, the scene of her hideous handiwork.

the top image is of Roscommon Jail.

She was not a Great Irish Woman of history but I thought it an interesting piece of folklore.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Anam Cara.

Anam Cara.

Anam is Irish for soul and Cara is Irish for friend put them together and you have Soul-friend. However, what is an Anam Cara?

In the Celtic spiritual tradition we believe that each person has an aura that radiates from them. Sometimes when you meet another person a connection is made and you become so trusting and open with that person your two souls/auras flow together and this is when you have found your Anam cara.

An Anam Cara is a friend, a loved one, who will awaken within you the freedom and possibilities that will enable you to experience life in all its beauty. They will listen to you without feeling the need to interrupt, advice you if you ask. Be understanding yet non judgemental.

You feel as if you can share you innermost self, your thoughts, doubts, fears, hopes and aspirations. Everyone needs an Anam Cara in their life, someone who you can be truly yourself with but unfortunately not all of us are lucky enough to find them in this lifetime and we may have to wait for rebirth. Some may be extremely fortunate and they will find their Anam Cara and it may even be their life partner/spouse. An Anam Cara understands you and where you are coming from and with this understanding comes a feeling of warmth and comfort. A sense of home.

Each one of us at one time or another has felt lonely or misunderstood, as if we are looking though a misty window at the party going on, never feeling part of it or longing to be invited. Even in a crowded room you can be lonely. Your Anam Cara will help to ease that feeling of isolation and unhappiness for they will remind you that you are never truly alone. They will shelter you from the cold of loneliness and light a candle in the dark.

As I’ve said you may meet your Anam Cara later in life, they may become your spouse or partner fulfilling the role of best friend and confidant. They may appear in your childhood and become a lifelong friend who will be at your side throughout the years. They may appear to accompany you on your journey along the path of life for just a short time, like ships that pass in the night. However long they remain with you. Be thankful for you have been truly blessed for they have been a gift from the Gods/Goddesses and just as you have been blessed so also have they for your Anam Cara is like a mirror reflecting back at you all that is good within each of you.

An Anam Cara can always make you smile, they share your hopes and dreams, they make you whole. Folklore claims that when a soul descends to earth it splits in two, each half of the soul inhabiting a seperate body. These two people are forever after 'soul friends'. As we get older we begin to appreciate our friends more and more and realise how few friends stay friends through our lives, even though you promise to be best friends for life.

If you are fortunate you may have one or two who fit the description ’lifelong friend’. It will not matter how far apart you are or how many miles separate you, it won’t matter how long it has been since you last spoke to each other, as soon as you get together, it will be as though you never parted. You can take up a conversation more or less where you were last time you spoke and within a couple of minutes you will be laughing and joking with each other but no one else will see the joke.

I have noticed that today some people describe an Anam Cara as a spiritual advisor but an Anam Cara is so much more than that. An Anam Cara is like an oasis in a desert, a shoulder to cry on, someone who acts as a harmonising calm within. An Anam Cara will counsel you when you need counselling, guide you when you need guidance, listen when all you need is someone to listen and hug you when you desperately need a hug. If you have found your Anam Cara then you are both blessed and like me you will give thanks each day.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Seamróg, Shamrock

The shamrock in folklore.

Three is Ireland's magic number. Numbers played an important part in Celtic symbolism Three was the most sacred and magical number. It multiplies to nine, which is sacred to St. Brigid. Three may have signified totality: past, present and future, sky, earth and underground. Everything good in Ireland comes in threes - the rhythm of Irish storytelling is based on three-fold repetition. This achieves both intensification and exaggeration. " Three accomplishments well regarded in Ireland - a clever verse, music on the harp, the art of shaving faces."

The first legend is associated with the word “shamrock”. The word “shamrock”, first used by the English herbalist John Gerard in 1596 (Some references claim a reference in 1571), is the English version of the Irish word “seamrog” which means “little or young clover” and also can mean “summer plant” symbolising the rebirth of spring. Irish records were still recording "seamrog" and not "shamrock" in 1707. So it would appear that the word “shamrock” was not accepted or adopted until after the 18th century in Ireland.

Some legends suggest that the plant began its historical and symbolic journey with the Druids of Ireland. As in many religions, three was a mystical number in Celtic religion and the shamrock was sacred to the Druids because its leaves formed a triad. To prove this theory, we may need to look at when the Celtic word "seamrog" was first used, but that proof is elusive, lost in unrecorded times. However, many sources agree that the ancient druids honoured it as a sacred plant.

The druids believed that it had the power to avert evil spirits and that it had mystical and prophetic powers. It is said that the leaves of the shamrock turn upright whenever a storm is coming. It was also believed to be a remedy against the sting of scorpions and the bite of snakes. Actually, many spiritual belief systems, ancient and contempory, find the number 3 to have mystical properties. The shamrock was considered a sacred plant to ancient Iranians, for example. They knew it as “shamrakh” and honoured it as a symbol of the sacred 3’s.

Shamrock/Seamrog has acted as a magical plant for thousands of years throughout the Celtic lands. It has been suggested that the ‘triskle’ is a representation of the trefoil, the three leaves of the shamrock. It is associated with the festival time of beltaine, young women would take a clover dew bath at dawn or at the very least wash their faces with the morning dew.

Throughout recorded history, the number three has always been thought of as being magical. Even in the present day, a person finding a four-leaf clover in a field of three-leaf clovers (quite a rare occurrence) is believed to be the recipient of double good luck. One leaf stands for hope, the second for faith, the third for love, and the fourth for luck.

In Ireland, the four leafed shamrock or seamróg na gCeithre gCluas, was very lucky in folklore because of its rarity. The possessor of such a shamrock was believed to gain a host of supernatural powers. Whoever had it would have luck in gambling and racing, could not be cheated in a bargain or deceived and witchcraft would have no power over him/her. Whatever he/she undertook would prosper and through the power of the shamrock wonderous things could be achieved. It also gave the possessor the power to see and to know the truth and the power of second sight.

Before the 16th century record of the shamrock, there are many stories that connect the shamrock with Saint Patrick and hence, by default, it becomes a major symbol of Saint Patrick's Day on 17th March and Christianity. According to one legend, in the 5th century Saint Patrick plucked a shamrock from the soil to illustrate his Christian message to the Irish. Here was Nature's proof of the Holy Trinity in the three leaves of the shamrock. (The number three was always a number of magic. It is easy to see how the three leafed shamrock meant good luck).

However, nowhere is the shamrock mentioned in Patrick’s own writings, or in any of the early biographies of his life. Again, it seems very difficult to separate history from symbolism and legend. The shamrock has further Christian association. At one time it was planted on graves.

On a more practical level, clover was prolific, which indicated security and fecundity to the ancient Celts, as well as being a substantial food source for local cattle, which associated it with abundance and provision. Dioscorides believed it could cure fevers and inflammations of the groin, and herbalists use it in the treatment of coughs. By the medieval period it had become a symbol of true love, both wordly and divine, and had influenced architecture in the form of the Gothic three-lobed arch.

In more recent years, highly sensitive drug testing seems to indicate that clover contains traces of morphine, which can be passed into milk produced by cows that graze on clover. This idea is still under investigation. On the positive side, clover is high in protein and quite digestible if boiled for 5-10 minutes. Clover leaves and seed pods can be dried and used for tea or ground into flour for baking.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Black Pebble.


Many years ago in a small Irish village, a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a landlord. The landlord, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmers daughter. So he proposed a bargain. He said he would forgo the farmer’s debt if he could marry his daughter.

Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal. So the cunning landlord suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty moneybag. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag.

1) If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven.

2) If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven.

3) If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.

They were walking on a pebble-strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the landlord bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp- eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag. Now, imagine that you were standing in the field. What would you have done if you were the girl? If you had to advice her, what would you have told her? Careful analysis would produce three possibilities.

1) The girl should refuse to take a pebble

2) The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the landlord as a cheat.

3) The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and jail.

Take a moment to ponder over the story. The above story is used with the hope that it will make us appreciate the difference between lateral and logical thinking. The girl’s dilemma cannot be solved with traditional logical thinking. Think of the consequences if she chooses the above logical answers. What would you recommend to the girl to do?

Well here is what she did, the girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled a let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.

“Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. However, since the landlord dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.

Moral of the Story:

Stand back, see the bigger picture and challenge your assumptions. Remember most problems have a solution, it may not be the solution you wish for or would like, but it is a solution.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Oidhche na Gaoithe Móire. Part Two.

Oidhche na Gaoithe Móire. The Night of the Big Wind (Part Two).

Bridget Mooney and her four young brothers were putting the final touches on a large snowman outside their wooden cabin in County Mayo when the hurricane struck. The Mooneys did not know the hurricane was coming. Nobody in Ireland knew.

Today, we get on first-name terms with our hurricanes long before they threaten Irish shores. Charlie and Katrina, for instance. We watch them coming in on the weather forecast and we know it’s time to wrap up warm.

However, 170 years ago, on 6th January 1839, nobody even knew what a hurricane was. That night, the entire island of Ireland was subjected to a tempest of such ferocity that it became the date by which all other events were measured. The Night of the Big Wind - known as ‘Oiche na Gaoithe Moire’ - was the JFK assassination or the 9/11 of the 19th century. It was the most devastating storm ever recorded in Irish history and made more people homeless in a single night than all the sorry decades of eviction that followed it. If there was one place you didn’t want to be that dreadful Sunday night, it was inside a wooden cabin in County Mayo.

The calm before the Big Wind struck was particularly eerie. Most of the eight million people living in Ireland at the time were preparing themselves for Little Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. The previous day had seen the first snowfall of the year; heavy enough for the Mooneys to build their snowman. By contrast, Sunday morning was unusually warm, almost clammy, and yet the air was so still that, along the west coast, voices could be heard floating on the air between houses more than a mile apart.

At approximately 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the rain began to fall and the wind picked up. Nobody could possibly have predicted that those first soft raindrops signified an advance assault from the most terrifying hurricane in human memory.
By 6 o’clock, the winds had become strong and the raindrops were heavier, sleet-like, with occasional bursts of hail. Farmers grimaced as their hay-ricks and thatched roofs took a pounding. In the towns and villages, fires flickered and doors slammed. Church bells chimed and dogs began to whine. Fishermen turned their ears west; a distant, increasingly loud rumble could be heard upon the frothy horizon.

Mrs Mooney shouted for her children to come inside this instant. At Glenosheen in County Cork, a well-to-do German farmer called Jacob Stuffle began to cry. At Moydrum Castle in County Westmeath, 78-year-old Lord Castlemaine decided to turn in early and go to bed. In the Wicklow Mountains, a team of geographic surveyors headed up by John O’Donovan, finally made it to their hotel in Glendalough; they had been walking all day, often knee-deep in snow. Sailing upon the Irish Sea, Captain Smyth of the Pennsylvania studied his instruments and tried to make sense of the fluctuating pressures.

By 10 o’clock, Ireland was in the throes of a ferocious cyclone that would continue unabated until 6 o’clock in the morning. The hurricane had roared across 3000 miles of unbroken, island-free Atlantic Ocean, gathering momentum every second. It hit Ireland’s west coast with such power that the waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher. Reading contemporary accounts, the impression is that if we did not have such magnificent cliffs forming a barrier along our west coast, the entire country would simply have been engulfed by water. The noise of the sea crashing against the rocks could be heard for miles inland, above the roar and din of the storm itself. The earth trembled under the assault; the ocean tossed huge boulders onto the cliff-tops of the Aran Islands.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the hurricane was that it took place in utter darkness. People cannot have known what was going on. The wind churned its way across the land, extinguishing every candle and lantern it encountered. The darkness was relieved only by the lightning streaks that accompanied the storm and the occasional blood-red flicker of the aurora borealis burning in the northern sky.

All across the country, hundreds of thousands of people awoke to the sound of the furious tempest, their windows shattered by hailstones, their brick-walls rattling, their rain-sodden thatched roofs sinking fast. As the wind grew stronger, it began to rip the roofs off houses. Chimney pots, broken slates, sheets of lead and shards of glass were hurtled to the ground. (Rather astonishingly, someone later produced a statistic that 4,846 chimneys were knocked off their perches during the Night of the Big Wind).

Many of those who died that night were killed by such falling masonry. Norman tower houses and old churches collapsed. Factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of Castlebar, Athlone and Dublin. The wind blew all the water out of the canal at Tuam. It knocked a steeple off Carlow Cathedral and a tower off Carlow Castle. It stripped the earth alongside the River Boyne, exposing the bones of soldiers killed in the famous battle 150 years earlier. Roads and railway tracks in every parish became impassable. All along the Grand Canal, trees were pulled up by the roots and hurled across the water to the opposite bank.

The Mooney’s timber cabin was one of thousands destroyed by the storm. Surviving inhabitants had no choice but to flee into the pitch-black night in clothes that were presumably soon utterly drenched by the intense rains and snows which accompanied that cruel, piercing wind. The Mooney family sought shelter in a hedge outside Castlebar; they survived the night but the parents caught a fatal fever and died soon afterwards, leaving five homeless orphans.

Farmers were hit particularly hard. Hay-ricks in fields across Ireland were blown to pieces. Wooden fences and dry-stone walls collapsed, allowing fearful livestock to run away. Sheep were blown off mountains or killed by tumbling rocks. Cattle were reported to have simply frozen to death in the fields. The next morning, one of Jacob Stuffle’s neighbour recalled seeing the distraught German ‘standing high up on a hillock looking with dismay at his haggard farm … his comfortable well-thatched stacks swept out of existence. Suddenly, he raised his two hands, palms open, high over his head, and looking up at the sky he cried out in the bitterness of his heart, in a voice that was heard all over the village 'Oh, God Almighty, what did I ever do to You and You should thrate (treat) me in that way!'

Stuffle was not the only man who believed the hurricane, occurring on the night of the Epiphany, was of Divine origin. Many saw it as a warning that the Day of Judgment would soon be here. Some believed the Freemasons had unleashed the Devil from the Gates of Hell and failed to get him back in again. Others maintained this was simply the night the English fairies invaded Ireland and forced our indigenous Little People to disappear amid a ferocious whirlwind. (Irish fairies, of course, are wingless and can only fly by calling up the sidhe chora - the magic whirlwinds).

The well-to-do did not escape; many mansions had their roofs stripped off. Lord Castlemaine was fastening his bedroom window when the storm blew the windows open and hurled him ‘so violently upon his back that he instantly expired’. His brother-in-law, the Earl of Clancarty, later reported the loss of nearly 20,000 trees on his estate at Ballinasloe. Similar figures came in from other landed estates in every county; one landlord declared his woods were now ‘as bald as the palm of my hand’. On January 6th 1839, timber was a valuable commodity. 24 hours later, so many trees had fallen that timber was virtually worthless. Millions of wild birds were killed, their nesting places smashed and there was no birdsong that spring. Even crows and jackdaws were on the verge of extinction.

In his hotel room in Glendalough, John O’Donovan was fortunate not to share Lord Castlemaine’s fate. He was struggling with the shutters when ‘a squall mighty as a thunderbolt’ propelled him across the room. When he viewed the damage next morning, he described it as if ‘the entire country had been swept clean by some gigantic broom’.

Dublin resembled ‘a sacked city …the whirlwind of desolation spared neither building, tree nor shrub’. The Liffey rose by several feet and overflowed the quay walls. The elms that graced the main thoroughfare of the Phoenix Park were completely levelled, as were the elms at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The trees on Leinster Lawn outside the present-day Dail were uprooted and scattered ‘like prostrate giants on their mother earth’. The back wall of the Guinness Brewery collapsed killing ‘nine fine horses’. A witness next morning described how ‘the noble animals [were] stretched everywhere as if sleeping, but with every bone crushed by the ponderous weight of the wall’. Military sentry boxes were blown off their stands and ‘scattered like atoms’.

A glass shop on Nassau Street became ‘a heap of ruins’. On Clare Street, a chimney collapsed on a woman who had only just got into her bed, killing her instantly. Police stations and churches opened the door for thousands of terrified citizens who brought their young and frail in for protection. Even churches could not be trusted on this night of Lucifer. The steeple of Irishtown chapel caved in and the bell from the spire of St Patrick’s Cathedral came down like a meteorite; mercifully nobody died in either instance. Phibsborough Road was a bombsite of exploded windows and fallen chimneys ‘as if by shot and shell’. One of the 40 female inmates at the Bethesda Penitentiary on the north-side (where the National Wax Museum stands today) took the opportunity to ignite a fire that destroyed the building as well as the surrounding houses, school-house and chapel. Two firemen died trying to extinguish the flames.

The hurricane did not stop in Dublin. It pounded its way across the Irish Sea, killing hundreds of luckless souls caught at sea. It killed nearly 100 fishermen off the coast of Skerries. It killed Captain Smyth and the 30 people on board the packet-ship Pennsylvania. Ships all along the west coast of England were wrecked; dead bodies continued to wash up onshore for weeks afterwards. At Everton, the same wind unroofed a cotton factory that whitened all the space for miles around, ‘ as if there had been a heavy fall of snow’.

Estimates as to just how many died that night vary from 300 to 800, an astonishingly low figure given the ferocity of the storm. Many more must have succumbed to pneumonia, frostbite or plain old depression in its wake. Those bankrupted by the disaster included hundreds who had stashed their life savings up chimneys and in thatched roofs that disappeared in the night.

Even in those days it was ‘an ill wind that turned none to good’ and among those to benefit were the builders, carpenters, slaters and Thatcher’s. The Big Wind also inspired the Rev Romney Robinson of the Armagh Observatory to invent his world-famous Robinson Cup-anemometer, the standard instrument for gauging wind speed for the rest of the 19th century.

However, perhaps the most unlikely beneficiaries of the Night of the Big Wind were those old enough to remember it when the Old Age Pensions Act was enacted in January 1909, 70 years after the event and 100 years ago this month. 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'.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Oidhche na Gaoithe Móire Part One.

Oidhche na Gaoithe Móire. The Night of the Big Wind (Part One).

The Night of the Big Wind is now part of Irish mythology. Obscure accounts, real and imaginary, of events that took place on that famed night have been handed down through the generations.

On the evening of Saturday 5th January 1839 heavy snow fell throughout Ireland. The morning was completely calm and the sky was covered with motionless dense cloud. As the morning progressed the temperature rose well above the January average. The snow quickly melted.

Unknown to all a deep depression was then forming in the north Atlantic. As the warm front which covered the country gradually moved eastwards, and rose in the atmosphere, it was replaced by a cold front which brought with it high winds and heavy rain.

The rain commenced before noon in the west and spread very slowly eastwards. In Mayo, the late afternoon turned chilly while the east of the country still enjoyed the unseasonably high temperatures experienced in Mayo earlier that day. At dusk, wind speeds increased, conditions got colder and alternate showers of rain and hail began to fall.

By nine o'clock at night the wind had reached gale force and continued to increase.

By midnight it had reached hurricane force and remained at that level until five o'clock in the morning when it reduced again to gale force. During the hurricane the wind blew variously from the south-west, west and north-west. Gales continued until six o'clock on Monday evening.

From the ecological point of view the storm was a disaster. Millions of wild birds were killed causing the near extinction of crows and jackdaws. Their traditional nesting places were wiped out. When spring eventually came the absence of song birds was noticeable. Historic ruins such as Norman tower-houses and churches were badly destroyed never to be restored. Tombstones in cemeteries were knocked over. Roadways were rendered impassable by fallen trees thus causing havoc to transport and mail deliveries for the following week.

Sea water was carried inland by the force of the storm and flooded houses when it poured down chimneys. The most abiding memory of the night, and its aftermath, that remained with people was the smell of salt which lingered in houses for weeks. Seaweed too was carried inland for great distances. Herrings and other fish were found miles from shore.

There were people in every community who practiced weather forecasting (with a degree of success) using such factors as the lunar cycle, appearance of the sky and sea, wind direction, the behaviour of birds, animals, fish and insects and their own intuition. The concept of meteorology was alien to the vast majority who experienced the Big Wind. Amateur weather forecasters failed to predict the event. Consequently people sought their explanations elsewhere.

The superstitious, that numbered among its ranks the vast majority of the peasantry, were quick to attribute the storm to the fairies. Traditionally the 5th of January was the feast of St. Ceara, when, it was believed, the fairies held a night of revelry. The fairies, they thought, caused such ructions that the storm resulted. Others believed that on that night all but a few of the fairies of Ireland left the country never to return and that the wind was caused by their departure.

Freemasonry, traditionally seen by Irish Catholics as associated with demonic practise, was considered to be another possible cause. Some people were of the opinion that Freemasons had brought up the devil from hell - and couldn't get him to return.

The weather remained unsettled in the days after the Night of the Big Wind and occasionally the wind became gusty causing people to fear that the storm would return.

In mid-January the aurora borealis reappeared again stirring up panic. The ill wind blew well for some people: merchants, carpenters, slaters, Thatcher’s and builders in particular were busy renovating public buildings and the properties of the wealthy. The poor, who could not afford to hire such services, had to survive as best they could.

The Night of the Big Wind happened prior to the introduction of government relief measures and widespread insurance. The relationship between landlord and tenant dictated that the tenant made good damage caused by storms. What little reserve of cash was held by the poor was used up in rebuilding and restocking.

In many cases houses were re-built in sheltered locations at the bottom of hills, and for many years, until the advent of sturdier building materials, shelter from the wind was a primary factor in choosing a house-site Famine followed seven years later. It almost completely wiped out the class that suffered the most on the Night of the Big Wind.

As the century progressed, the Night of the Big Wind became a milestone in time. Events were referred to as happening before, or after The Night of the Big Wind.
Seventy years later, in 1909, old age pensions were introduced in Ireland entitling persons over seventy years, whose income did not exceed ten shillings per week, to an allowance of five shillings per week from the State. Those who met the means qualification, but had no documentary proof of their ages, were granted pensions if they affirmed recalling the Night of the Big Wind.

There were other big storms in Ireland's past - 856, 988, 1362, 1548 and 1703 AD. Despite the advances made by science since 1839, we still do not have the means to predict or prevent the next storm of its calibre.

The above article appeared in Vol. VIII of the South Mayo Family Research Journal published in 1995. The South Mayo Family Research Foundation publishes a journal annually containing articles of interest to historians and genealogists.

Part Two will follow in the next post.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Celtic Tree Zodiac. This is just a bit of fun.

Listen closely and you will hear whispers of rebirth and growth within your soul.

Birch. The Acheiver.

December 24 – January 20.

If you were born under the energy of the Birch you can be highly driven, and often motivate others they become easily caught in your zeal, drive and ambition. You are always reaching for more, seeking better horizons and obtaining higher aspirations. The Druids attributed this to your time of birth, which is a time of year shrouded by darkness, so consequently you are always stretching out to find the light. Birch signs (just like the tree) are tolerant, tough, and resilient. You are cool-headed and are natural-born rulers, often taking command when a situation calls for leadership. When in touch with your softer side, you also bring beauty in otherwise barren spaces, brightening up a room with you guile, and charming crowds with you quick wit. Celtic tree astrology Birch signs are compatible with Vine signs and Willow signs.

To the Druids, the Birch (often referred to as the "Lady of the Woods" due to its grace and beauty) represented renewal, rebirth and inception, since it was the first tree to come into leaf after the Winter Season. The Birch along with the Elder were said to stand on either side of the one "Nameless Day" (December 23). This slender but determined tree, which represented the seed potential of all growth, is hardier than even the mighty Oak and will thrive in places where the Oak will fail to flourish. It also signifies cleanliness and purity.

The Birch once fulfilled many purposes...from providing handles for brooms and axes to the manufacture of cloth and children’s cradles. It is particularly well-known for its use in making writing parchment and oil from the bark was often used to treat skin conditions and depression. People were once "birched" in order to drive out evil spirits, while twigs were given to newlyweds to ensure fertility. Witches would use Birch twigs bound with Ash for their broomsticks or "besoms." Birch has been known to cure muscular pains and the sap used in the manufacture of wine, beer and vinegar.

It is the rod of a Birch that Robin Red Breast used to slay the Wren in a furze or gorse bush on Saint Stephen's Day. In Wales, the Birch is a tree of love and wreaths of Birth are woven as love tokens. Its trunk was frequently used to form the traditional maypole and boughs were hung over cradles and carriages to protect infants from the glamour of the Little People.

There are two distinct types of Birch individuals (a division which relates to all Celtic Tree Signs). The "new moon" character is associated with the first two weeks of a sign and the "full moon" character is associated with the last two weeks.
The "new moon" Birch individual has a more impulsive and emotional nature, but is inclined to be subjective and/or introverted.

The positive traits of these people are displayed by their resolve or faith in themselves in overcoming all obstacles, thereby being more tenancious in pursuing their objectives in life. The "full moon" Birch individual possesses a clarity of purpose combined with a visionary nature. Such people are inclined to be more objective and/or extroverted. The characteristic negative traits, however, hinge upon a lack of reality which can sometimes cloud the judgment.

In general, Birch individuals are determined, resilient and ambitious. Being goal-oriented, they make for excellent leaders, good organizers and supreme strategists. Usually undeterred by setbacks and possessed of an intense need to succeed, Birch individuals believe that hard work, patience and persistance will eventually triumph. Birch people are loyal, reliable and trustworthy, but prone to be reserved in displays of affection, although they are sociable with those they choose to socialize with.

Personal limitations are not readily accepted by Birch individuals and due to their drive and ambition, there is sometimes a tendency to grow cynical. These people thrive best under a well-regimented lifestyle and are often known as the workaholics of society. Serious by nature with a somewhat droll sense of humour, Birch individuals sometimes aim to become less serious, which can lead to identity problems.

There is a tendency for Birch people to become obsessive about health, but they are unlikely to be affected physically or mentally, having developed a powerful resistance. They prefer to keep a low profile, even in high office, preferring not to flaunt their successes, and have an acute sense of money, having worked hard to acquire their financial status. On the more negative side, Birch individuals can have a pessimistic attitude at times and may impose upon themselves a large amount of self-discipline.

There is a tendency for the Birch individual to experience loneliness and successful marriages frequently occur later in life, since it is often difficult for such people to easily find someone willing to fit into their strict routine. Divorce is rare for those governed by the Birch...separations being more likely or the premature death of spouses. Birch people need a goal in life in order to avoid becoming depressed and pessimistic. They possess much individual potential but must cultivate great persistence in order to overcome personal setbacks.

Animal Zodiac Signs.

Date of Birth: December 24 – January 20

Celtic Birth Animal: STAG

Gaelic Name: DAMH (approximate pronunciation: DAV)

Ruling Planet: The Sun

Birthstone: Crystal

Key Words: Independence, Majesty, Integrity, Pride

Description: Stag people direct their energy and enterprise through ambitious strategy; they are also reliable and trustworthy; very successful financially.

Gift, Quality or Ability: Sensitivity to the Otherworld, Shape Shifting, Initiation, Journeying.

Compatibility: Harmonious relations with Adder and Salmon; will also relate well to Seal, Otter & Goose; difficulties may be expected in relation to all other signs.

The bottom image is of a Birch tree in Russia that they call the Lion Tree. You can see why.