The ‘Hurricane’ of 1903 – Midleton’s ‘9/11’


St John the Baptist Church Midleton

The elegant spire of St John the Baptist’s Church, Midleton, completed in 1825 to the design of Richard Pain. The top of this spire collapsed onto the roof of the church during the storm on the evening of 10th September 1903 and narrowly missed some workmen. The spire has since been repaired. (Horgan Brothers Collection, Cork County Library)

The dramatic and horrific images of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th 2001 are forever etched in the minds of anyone who witnessed those events either in person or on television. The scale, method, and nature of the attack, and the loss of life was, and still is, traumatic for so many. Apart from the image of the hijacked airliners striking the twin towers of the WTC, the other image that stays in the mind is of the collapse of the vast towers in a shower of dust and smoke, pulverising those who never had a chance to escape, including many members of the New York emergency service. .

Without wishing to trivialize New York’s trauma, it’s worth pointing out that Midleton, yes, little Midleton, woke up to the aftermath of its own version of ‘9/11’……a century earlier. Thankfully there was no loss of life. The storm that burst over Midleton in September 1903 was reported in The Cork Examiner newspaper on Friday, September 11th, 1903.



Midleton, Thursday

One of the most violent storms experienced within the memory of the oldest inhabitant swept over Midleton and district this evening. It commenced at about 4 o’clock, and increased with such severity that about an hour after it assumed the character, the wind blowing from the north-west. Pedestrianism in the streets was almost a matter of impossibility, and vehicular traffic was for the time suspended. Some of the strongest trees were torn up from their roots, and the public roads were rendered in numerous parts of the district actually impassable. A large part of the public road near Killeagh was blocked with trees,  and the mail car from Youghal to Midleton had, in consequence, to come another route, via Mogeely. Telegraphic communication was suspended own to the fact that the wire got broken or twisted by the force of the gale, and the falling on them of heavy trees, and though a good effort was made to repair the damage, the work was abortive, with the result that communication with Cork, Dublin and London, was out of the question. The intensity of the storm might be realised from the fact that about six feet of the finely formed steeple of the Protestant church at Midleton was swept on to the roof of the church and penetrated it to the interior., the gap in the roof being plainly visible from outside the windows. Some men who were working inside had a narrow escape. One of the graves was torn up, portion of the coffin in it being visible. The roofs of houses were in many instances broken. Some sheds were altogether unroofed, including one at Bailick and Midleton, and along the streets are scattered slates and other debris, hurled from the housetops. All kinds of agricultural work had to be suspended, very serious damage having been done to the corn crop not yet cut down.

‘Pedestrianism’ – now there’s a new word to enjoy!

A number of points are clear from the account. First, it wasn’t just Midleton that suffered – even as far as Killeagh there was damage. Much of this was the disruption of the telegraph system. This posed a danger to the railway service linking Cork to Youghal via Midleton, because the signalmen and stations at Carrigtwohill , Midleton, Mogeely, Killeagh and Youghal couldn’t issue hazard warnings ahead. Furthermore the Royal Irish Constabulary at Midleton, Castlemartyr, Killeagh and Youghal were unable to send  or receive reports. The mail car was either an early motor van or horse-drawn van and it had to be diverted from Killeagh to Mogeely around Ballyquirke townland to get to Castlemartyr and Midleton. Shades of the flooding that cut the present N25 (also called Euroroute 1) linking Castlemartyr to Killeagh winter of 2015/2016.  On that occasion the heavy traffic also had to be diverted onto the narrow road linking Mogeely and Killeagh to allow trucks to continue to Rosslare ferry port. One blessing was that Midleton and the surrounding villages didn’t have any electricity at the time, and only Midleton and Ballinacurra had coal gas laid on.

The second point is that the storm actually began about 4.00 pm on Thursday 10th September, just before people went home for their supper. No doubt people fled the open streets and took shelter when the storm struck, but flying slates (also experienced in Midelton in 2009/10 and in 2010/11) are deadly to exposed pedestrians and to window glass!

The loss of the tip of the spire of St John the Baptist’s Church in Midleton must have been a real surprise. This was the only spire in Midleton at the time since the much larger spire of Holy Rosary Church had yet to be constructed.  The spire of St John’s had stood since 1825 but it seems that the slender tip of Richard Pain’s elegant design, made of solid stone, may have required some internal metal reinforcement by then. Midleton has faced many a fierce gale since 1903 but never again has the repaired spire of St John the Baptist’s Church fallen. The repair was clearly well done at the time.

St John's Midleton

Seemingly unchanged, but actually the spire was repaired without any outward alteration after the storm of 1903.

Finally, the anxiety about the corn crop (that is wheat and barley, not maize) was understandable. The Midleton distillery consumed a lot of the local barley, as did JH Bennett’s malting company in Ballinacurra (they supplied the malt for the Guinness brewery in St James’s Gate, Dublin). In addition, the Hallinan family’s Avoncore Mills on Mill road was another major consumer of the local grain crop. These three firms were also big local employers, hence the anxiety about the corn.

The Cork Examiner of Saturday, 12th September 1903, also reported on the damage caused by the same storm over much of Ireland and the United Kingdom. So Midleton didn’t suffer alone. That year saw ten hurricanes sweep into the West Indies and the south-eastern United States, five of them in September alone, however the ‘hurricane that struck Midleton, Ireland and Great Britain wasn’t actually a true hurricane. Furthermore a very severe storm had struck in February of that year, although Midleton seems to have got off lightly on that occasion. One wonders if that storm had weakened the spire that fell in September.

There is one memorial to the storm of 1903 in Midleton – the undamaged stone that had fallen from the church spire was later recycled as the pedestal of a sundial erected in St John the Baptist’s churchyard, just metres from where it fell. It was erected after 1923 inemory of Henry Penrose-Fitzgerald, of the Grange, Midleton and  agent to Lord Midleton.

One final thing to note. ‘Pedestrianism’ – a new word to enjoy!

Winter has arrived…..finally!

Sunrise January 14th East Cork, looking towards snow covered  Fota and Harpers Island

Sunrise January 14th East Cork, looking towards snow covered Fota and Harpers Island

Millstreet Jan 2015

Snow in the Mushera hills near Millstreet County Cork. Photo by Donal Cashman.

I’m currently preparing a post for later in the week but to fill in the gap I thought I’d let you know, in case you haven’t noticed or heard, that winter has arrived in Ireland.  Now before you all get uppity and say that winter started on 1st November (if you’re Irish) or 1st December (if you’re a meteorologist) let me explain.  The weather since 1st November in Ireland has generally been warmer and more settled than usual, and not particularly wet either.  We’ve had a few days of rain, to replenish our water supply (most welcome) and some days of wind (handy for drying the laundry) and many days of lovely, if cool, sunshine (great for getting my vitamin D fix!).   There has been very little frost at night, and hardly a repeat of last winter’s gales – in short we’ve been very lucky.

In fact it has been so mild that I noticed some buds on the trees!  I went for a walk on Christmas morning and discovered that a very large number of people were doing the same thing – and it felt more like a spring day rather than winter. It’s been like that since Christmas, in fact.

But in the last few days we could sense a change – it’s colder, the winds are more frequent and there’s been rain.  Today the north and west of the country woke to snow – and we had snow showers here in Midleton too.  Met Eireann has issued an orange weather alert – but this is more to do with the Irish inability to drive on iced up or snow-covered roads.  There is also a warning of high winds – this is much more serious – Carrigaline lost power yesterday due to wind damage to power lines.

The trouble with this kind of weather in Ireland is that we’re not really used to it.  We can get by for a day or two, but it can be troublesome when it lasts longer – our public services find

it difficult to respond when there’s more than a few centimetres of snow on the ground for a few days.  There’s already a report of a multivehicle collision on the main road from Cork to Limerick near Blarney.

So far the only problem in Midleton has been the loss of connection to the National Lottery – the ticket machines on Main Street were unable to print out tickets for tonight’s Euromillions draw!  Oh, and the snow that fell promptly froze, especially on cars!  Hardly a crisis, but winter is definitely here.

Mount Gabriel Jan 2015

Snow? What snow? It’s there….on the horizon. View from Mount Gabriel in West Cork at lunchtime today. Mount Gabriel is the site of some of the oldest copper mines in Ireland. It also houses the radar station that guides aircraft across the Atlantic – in both directions.

And how appropriate that the snow fell on 13th January – the feast of St Hilary of Poitiers and traditionally the coldest day of the year!  The feast was the traditional date for the resumption of law terms in the courts after the Christmas break and for the resumption of studies at university before the general adoption of the American semester system.  Hilary Term was the period between January and the Easter break.

Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas – a Christmas tradition with an Irish twist.

Muiredach's cross

The Adoration of the Magi on the 9th or 10th century Muiredach’s Cross in Monasterboice in County Louth. Four Magi are depicted venerating the Christ Child and the Holy Mother. Note the star of Bethlehem over the child. This scene, like the others on the cross was almost certainly painted in brilliant colours when first unveiled.

Nollaig na mBan is the name given in Irish to the important Feast of Epiphany, which is celebrated by the Church on the 6th January. In the English tradition the term Twelfth Night is used – as immortalized by Shakespeare in his eponymous play. The evening of 6th January was twelve days after Christmas so it was the last chance to have some serious merriment before serious work began again on Plough Monday. The first Monday after Epiphany was the day the fields were ploughed in anticipation of the spring planting.  That is, if they hadn’t been ploughed already following the autumn harvest – a very sensible idea in case of a long hard frost or snow. Sometimes it was necessary to plough the land a second time to break up the soil following freezing weather.  Another name for Epiphany was Little Christmas – for it marked the end of the Christmas season in the Church liturgy.  Admittedly some places ended the Christmas season on the Feast of Candlemas on 2nd February – or the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Ardmore sculptures

Ardmore in County Waterford was founded by St Declan prior to the coming of St Patrick. It bacame a diocese briefly after the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. The small ruined cathedral has stonework dating to the 9th century but the west front may date to the early 12th century. This contains a very important sculpture cycle including this depiction of the Magi venerating the Virgin and Child. Menacingly placed above it is the Judgement of Solomon. Curiously, the Virgin and Child are flanked by an ox, symbol of St Luke, who doesn’t mention the Magi in his gospel. Again, there are four figures for the Magi – but it is possible that the fourth figure is actually the angel who warned them to return home by a different route. This figure could also stand in for the angel that symbolizes St Matthew, who gives the story of the Magi in his gospel.

Epiphany celebrated two events – the arrival of the Magi to venerate the Christ Child and the Baptism of Christ.  It is probably more important than Christmas Day in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.  When I was a schoolchild, Epiphany marked the last day of the Christmas school holiday – we returned to class on the 7th January.  This has now changed with the centralization of the Irish school calendar – the kids went back to classes today (5th January), and they no longer get the Church holiday off.

However, back to Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, as it translates into English.  Nowadays the name is translated as Women’s Little Christmas – which is incorrect, for they are two different terms.  Little Christmas would be An Nollaig Bheag.  This is basically a straightforward reference to the last day of the Christmas season proper.  But what is this business of Women’s Christmas?  Surely Irishwomen celebrate Christmas on 25th December like all the men?

Well, Women’s Christmas was a way of saying that traditionally women had the day off, or rather the evening off, to enjoy themselves and the men were left guarding the home fires.  It seems to have originated as a reward for doing all the cleaning, cooking and organizing of the main Christmas festivities. On the evening of 6th January (in some places 5th January) the women of the community would prepare a meal for themselves to which no men were invited.  The women would gather in a selected house from which the men were evicted for the evening to have this meal and they would spend the evening singing, dancing, playing cards, storytelling and generally enjoying themselves.  And yes, drink would be available.  In reality this was probably the only day of the year in which women could let their hair down, forget the housework and enjoy a girls’ day out.

So today in Ireland, some women take the evening off, and head out with the girls – their sisters, friends, and adult daughters.  They might go for a meal in a nice restaurant, take in the theatre, a trip to the cinema or join someone at a party.  It can be an important source of business for restaurants and pubs, since January can be a lean month due to over expenditure at Christmas. Because Epiphany can fall in the middle of the week and is not a public holiday, this imposes some restraint on the modern observance of Women’s Christmas – especially if the women concerned have to work the next day. Nowadays, the tradition of Women’s Christmas is most widely observed in counties Cork and Kerry – but it is spreading again.  I think we should also rename 6th January as Irish Women’s Day, just to be logical.

Unfortunately, 6th January 1839 was also the Night of the Big Wind – when a hurricane swept through an unsuspecting Ireland and caused immense damage throughout the country.  Some Irish follklore claimed that 6th January would be the Day of Judgement – so on that particular night some people actually believed that the world was about to end. Humorously, when the old age pension was introduced in 1906, one question asked of applicants who could not supply documentation of age was whether or not they could remember the Night of the Big Wind….and they say ’tis an ill wind that blows some good!

Night of the Big Wind

The hurricane of 6th January 1839 – the Night of the Big Wind. This record is from the Armagh Observatory. It reads – Tremendous gale in the night.  I imagine it was the understatement of the year.

And what of the men on Women’s Christmas?  They probably had to make do with bread, cold cuts of meat and strong tea for one night.   Nowadays they resort to readymeals – unless they learned something from all the cookery shows on TV. Oh, and one more thing – the men probably had to take down and pack away all the Christmas decorations that the women had so carefully put up! Tough!

Women's Christmas

To all the women following this blog – A happy Women’s Christmas to you.

The Winter Solstice and Newgrange – a new old approach to Christmas in Ireland

Newgrange about 1880

The entrance to Newgrange about 1880 – not a ‘window’ to be seen.

Some people in Ireland start their Christmas celebrations with an ancient pagan ceremony – if they can get tickets!

Over five thousand years ago the inhabitants of the Boyne Valley in modern County Meath built a great passage tomb to contain the bones of their ancestors.  Curiously the remains of just five individuals were found inside the burial chamber when it was excavated by Professor Michael J Kelly in the 1960s.  Perhaps these individuals were especially significant to the community that built Newgrange and the mound was actually a temple to the ancestors. During the excavation, Kelly and his team made a bizarre discovery. There was an unusual ‘window’ over the entrance to the tomb and they speculated what its purpose was.  Suspicion fell on the alignment of the ‘window,’ or lightbox, as it is now called.  It seemed to be facing the direction of sunrise on the winter solstice.  There really was only one way to test it…..

Newgrange entrance

The reconstructed entrance to Newgrange, with the lightbox above the doorway. The superbly carved stone can be seen in the previous image from the 1880s.

On December 21st 1967, Professor Kelly and some colleagues were the first people in modern times to witness the sunlight enter the lightbox and illuminate the entire interior of the tomb right to the very back of the passage.  The whole event lasted just seventeen minutes but it confirmed the extraordinary skills available in Ireland five thousand years ago.  More recently it has been noted that the Newgrange alignment with the solstice sunrise appears to be more precise than similar alignments elsewhere, such as at Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands.  Our ancestors valued this moment because it marked the turning point of the year and the assurance that spring was not far off.

Newgrange Solstice

A five thousand year old phenomenon restored – the light entering the passage at Newgrange at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Clearly our ancestors valued the winter solstice.  The reason is not difficult to discern – they were farmers and the solstice marked the point of the year when the sun stopped slipping further and further down towards the southern horizon with each passing day.  It would now begin to climb higher in the sky.  This heralded the promise of spring and the new season for planting crops. Today the winter solstice in Ireland gives us a bare seven and a half hours of daylight!  So the increasing brightness and (hopefully) warmth of the sun is still a welcome sight.

Today, if you are lucky, you can enter a lottery to obtain tickets from the Office of Public Works Heritage Service to enter the passage at Newgrange before sunrise on 21st December and wait expectantly for the eerie and spectacular event.  The space inside the passage is very limited so only a small number of people are admitted on the winter solstice.

Back when it was built, the light entered the lightbox at Newgrange at exactly sunrise, but today, because of a wobble in the earth’s axis (called precession), the sunlight enters about four minutes after sunrise.  The whole phenomenon is fraught because the weather in Ireland does not always guarantee a clear sunny morning – cloud does obscure the whole sky in some years.  However the phenomenon is so popular that large crowds gather outside the mound to witness the sunrise.  When you live this far north of the Equator, the assurance that the sun has stopped sliding towards the southern horizon is something we look forward to!  The Newgrange experience is now part of the run-up to Christmas for many people in twenty-first century Ireland.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!

A perfectly glorious winter’s day and the view from the next parish.

I went for a walk today and it was glorious!  What a truly perfect winter’s day!  Clear blue skies (Veronese blue in fact, honestly!), a few puffballs of cotton wool to enhance the blue.  Very strong winter sun – aviator shades being required eyewear! It was perfectly dry underfoot and only a light jacket was required – in fact a good woollen pullover would have sufficed, since it was comfortably warm, due to the almost total lack of wind.  Yesterday was so dull!  A thick uniform blanket of low cloud and no wind made the place dark by 4.30 pm.

There is a view in both Ireland and the USA that if you said due west from Ireland, the next piece of land you encounter is somewhere around Boston – Massachusetts, that is.  Hence the phrase used in the Dingle Peninsula – the next parish is Boston.  In fact this couldn’t be more wrong.

Cork, and therefore Midleton, lie on the 51st parallel.  Or 51 degrees 54 seconds north to be more precise.  This is a similar latitude to the northern parts of London (England) and the town of Gloucester (England), or slightly further south than Amsterdam and Haarlem in the Netherlands!  (And we Irish think of continental Europe as ‘south’!)  On the other side of the Atlantic, the equivalent places are: Saskatoon (Saskatchewan, Canada) and Adak in Alaska!  For your information, Boston, Mass., is located at 42 degrees 21 seconds north – nearly ten degrees further south!  Even Detroit and Chicago are located further south than Ireland!

Yes, we have such balmy weather on 30th November 2014 – how come?  Well, it’s due to the Gulf Stream bringing lovely warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico (you know, that bit of water south of Texas!).  This keeps Ireland wrapped in a nice warm bath through the winter – so temperatures rarely drop below freezing long enough to give us the type of snowstorm that hit Buffalo NY recently.  Indeed, one snowflake is all it takes to bring the country to a halt!  Okey, I’m exaggerating but you get the picture.

The Gulf Stream is what gives us our forty shades of green – because, when combined with the Jet Stream, it brings a lot of moisture to Ireland (rain – yes it DOES rain in Ireland!).  The Jet Stream wasn’t fully functional here today, due to a ‘blocking high’, that is a high pressure area over Ireland blocking the weather fronts.

Among the benefits of being so far north are the sixteen and a half hours of daylight in June (when it isn’t raining!). Sadly, we pay the price in December with a mere seven hours and fifty five minutes of daylight – why do you think pubs are so popular here?

So, the next time someone tells you that the next parish to the west of Ireland is Boston, you might usefully suggest to them that the next parish to the west is actually in NEWFOUNDLAND!

It’s Ireland, in November, so it’s raining…..whaddya expect?

Rainclouds over St John the Baptist Church Midleton

Rainclouds over St John the Baptist Church, Midleton

A few weeks ago I posted about the joys of a long dry autumn with lovely golden leaves displayed on the trees.  Well, okey, this isn’t New England (or Canada, for that matter!) but it is always lovely and the leaves in many cases are still clinging on for dear life!

But…’s Ireland.  In November.  And the weather has changed to its winter mode – rain.  And lots of it.  We were spoiled by an almost rain-free summer and autumn, and now we have to break out the raincoats and galoshes (or wellies!) and brave the elements as we venture outdoors.  The thing about rain in Ireland is that it doesn’t just fall vertically from the skies – it also falls horizontally, depending on the strength of the wind.  Umbrellas are dangerous things to use here – the wind can gust so suddenly that your umbrella canopy ends up looking like a rag draped over a telephone cable!

To make matters worse, the falling leaves were not cleared away by the local authorities so the rainwater drainage systems are blocked by packed leaf litter.  Mind you, that never surprises me – our rainwater drainage systems are either Victorian or are still built according to Victorian designs.  Clearly Civil Engineering education in Ireland hasn’t caught up with the twentieth century – let alone the twenty-first!

I admit I have often concluded that the first thing Irish civil engineering students learn in class is ‘It’s Ireland, and it rains here, so there’s nothing we can do about it!’  Er, learning to drain off excessive rainwater would be a nice start!  Flooding affected an arc from Dungarvan in County Waterford to Dundalk in County Louth.  In County Cork we found the main Dublin-Cork motorway was flooded despite the special surface texture designed to absorb rainwater and percolate it into drains!

To make matters worse, on my trip to Limerick on Thursday 13th November I could see that many fields had standing water in them, suggesting that the ground was thoroughly saturated.  This could lead to further trouble for farmers if there is no letup in the rain – remember, Irish farmers leave their livestock outdoors all winter, simply because it is usually mild enough to do so!  Other northern European and North American farmers find this a difficult concept, given that they are usually obliged to house livestock indoors during the cold winter weather.  If the rain continues, our cattle and sheep will have to be moved to higher well-drained ground to avoid flooding.  They will then require a lot of fodder at a very early stage of the winter.  The good news, the hay and silage crops were excellent this year – a far cry from the situation in the spring when we had to import feed from France!

On 20th September 2000, the Irish singer Enya released her new hit song called A Day Without Rain.  The song was released on the same day that Belmullet in County Mayo recorded over two hundred continuous days of rain! Something tells me that Enya’s song became the unofficial anthem of Belmullet!  I fear it may become the anthem for Irish people this November!