The Great Frost in Ireland 1740 - 1741
The extremely severe winter we had at the end of 2009 and well into 2010 and then the volcanic eruption and ash clouds from Iceland in April and May of this year caused several people to recall what they had read or heard about the Great Frost of 1740 and Bliain an Air (the year of slaughter) of 1741.
During 1739 a great volcanic eruption on the remote Kamchatka peninsula in Russia pumped thousands of tons of smoke, dust and ash into the upper atmosphere. Most Irish people at the time would have been unaware of this occurrence and if they were, they would not have known that it may have been responsible for the dramatic climate changes in Ireland and Europe for twenty-one months between December, 1739 and September, 1741. Up to this time the people in Ireland had probably become complacent about the power of extreme weather conditions to upset normal life because the winters for the previous thirty years had been relatively benign.
It all started with an extremely violent storm which blew in from the east on the 29th and 30th December, 1739 bringing with it a most penetrating cold. The winds lasted for less than a week but the terrible cold intensified during the course of January, 1740 though hardly any snow fell. The first visible signs were the almost immediate freezing over of the lakes and rivers in the country. The Liffey, the Slaney, the Boyne and sections of the Shannon were frozen within days as were all the lakes, including Lough Neagh. Rivers and lakes in England were also frozen. Some people were delighted at first by the novelty of it all and carnivals and banquets on ice were held at many venues across Ireland where there was music and dancing. Some of the gentry in North Tipperary roasted a sheep on top of nineteen inches of ice on the Shannon near Portumna and later organised a hurling match on the ice between two local teams. Other people used the frozen lakes as welcome shortcuts, sometimes with fatal consequences. A funeral ran into trouble when a thin patch of ice was being crossed and twenty mourners were drowned.
The all-pervasive cold had immediate effects on everyday life, most notably on people trying to stave off hypothermia. Country people who had turf stored for the winter fared better than town people but the necessity to keep the fires high saw supplies running out much earlier than usual. Coal was not available in the towns and fuel was collected where possible with trees cut down and hedges soon stripped bare. Food scarcity rapidly became a problem as the frozen rivers could not turn the waterwheels and mills were
unable to grind oats and wheat. Tens of thousands of small farmers and labouring families across the country had to come to terms with the sudden loss of their principal winter foodstuff – the potato. The fully grown potatoes left in gardens and fields where they had grown had all perished in the ground leaving nothing to eat and no seed potatoes. A run of relatively mild winters during the previous decade had lulled people into a sense of false security regarding their food supply and they had neglected to lay up sufficient provisions either for their families or cattle.
Ireland was in the grip of the frost for almost seven weeks. It ended in late February but this unfortunately, did not ease the situation. The spring did not bring rain and the severe cold north winds persisted. By April the country had a parched look as nothing was growing. There was no sign of wildlife as the cold had killed off the birds and other small animals. 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 the length and breadth of the country from starvation. The one and only compensation during this bleak time was that turf was saved, drawn home and stacked by 20th April which was not known to have happened before. Still no rain fell and the terrible drought and cold continued with heavy snow falling everywhere at the start of May. The price of wheat doubled and by mid-summer 1740 the country was in a most awful social crisis.
The weather meanwhile continued to behave strangely. There had been a violent storm at the beginning of August, followed by a very windy September. Blizzards swept along the east coast at the end of October and there were massive falls of snow across most of the country in the following weeks. There were at least two storms during the month of November followed by rain, snow and frost and a downpour on 9th December culminated in widespread floods. A day after the floods, the temperatures dropped massively. A frost very similar to the Great Frost set in, only this time it was accompanied by a huge fall of snow which was two foot deep in places. Again rivers and lakes in Ireland and England were frozen over. On this occasion however the intense cold only lasted ten days and was broken by yet another storm as temperatures rose significantly. By December, 1740 there was full-blown famine and epidemic everywhere in the country. Poor people all over were dying in their thousands from starvation, dysentery and typhus.
The weather in the Spring and Summer of 1741 continued its strange pattern but not to the same extremes as in the previous seasons. There were violent storms in late January followed by another spring without rain. The weather in March was dry, frosty and dusty with any new grass being blasted and burned and the drought conditions lasted more or less until early July when the weather suddenly changed. 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 England and America and the price of foods dropped.
In early September, 1741 massive floods in Leinster caused huge structural damage but that was the finale of the weather extremes and some people saw it as the purging of the fever at the end of the famine. There was no longer a food crisis and so ended the time of the Great Frost.
Over 310,000 died of starvation, fever and plague out of a population of 2 ½ million.
The famine of 1845-51 needs no introduction but the famine of 1740-41 was more intense and proportionately more deadly.
The time of the Great Frost remains to this day the longest period of extreme cold in modern European history.
Eileen Moloney 2010