NIGHT OF THE BIG WIND IN THE ROSSES – THE LOSS OF THE ‘ANDREW NUGENT’
First appeared in the Derry Journal in July 1955.
“Along its wild indented coast,
There were frequent heavy losses;
The “Andrew Nugent” went down in Thirty-nine,
The Big Wind Night in the Rosses.”
There has been many fierce storms in the course of the nineteenth century, but amongst all these one seems to stand out in broad capitals in the memory of the Irish countryside, namely, that of January 6th, 1839, or the Night of the Big Wind, as it has been popularly called. The stories about that dreadful hurricane were told by the Irish seanchaidhes until the last of them was called away; and, even to-day, echoes of that memorable night are yet to be heard although naturally the details now are becoming more vague and blurred with the passage of years. The purpose of this article is to put on record some facts and experiences of the Night of the Big Wind in the Rosses in order that the present generation, and especially the younger generation, should know them and, as it were, pass them on to posterity. As the Big Wind swept in from the Atlantic and howled across the country from the west, its full force was felt along the bleak western seaboard, stripping the poorly constructed thatched cabins in its path. Little wonder, then, that Oiche Na Gaoithe Móire, La An Bhriste Mhóir (Tone’s Last Fight Off The Rosses) and tales of the Great Famine were the main topics of seanchas along our coast for the century just past.
Social and Political Background
A word about the social and political background of the year of the Big Wind. The lot of our forefathers in 1839 wasn’t a lot different from what it had been in the dark century preceding it. It was the Ireland of the Tithe Agitation, of Father Mathew and the recently-established “Poor Law” The latter was but a superficial remedy for the many ills of the time. The conditions for a national calamity were already in existence, and it only required the culmination of tragic events In the years immediately following to bring about the catastrophe commonly referred to as The Great Famine. The landlords were still the ruling class of the day but if they only stoped to think they could even then have seen for themselves the writing on the wall. Around that time somebody reminded them that property had its duties as well as its rights and privileges but all this they, of course, ignored. It was the age of Fintan Lalor whose teaching fore-shadowed the Land War of later in the century and whose sound principles no present-day system of government can afford to ignore. It was the era of rack-rents exacted from tenants-at-will reduced to a state of abject poverty so vividly described in the Report of the Devon Commission. After 39 years of Union the people of Ireland had yet, to see its benefits. Instead of the prosperity it enjoyed under the Dublin Parliament it now was on the brink of economic and social ruin. The country was worse off than ever.
Coming of the Wind
January 6th, 1839. the Feast of the Epiphany, was a Sunday. The wind began to rise about six o’clock in the evening it increased to gale force around bedtime and by midnight it had become a hurricane. For six long hours, from midnight until six o’clock in the morning, the storm raged. It was generally stated that the wind was westerly but that is not strictly correct, it was a point north westerly. A contemporary report for instance, describing the storm in Enniskillen, states that the direction of the wind changed from N.W. to West at six o’clock on Monday morning, January 7th. when the storm moderated somewhat. Whether westerly or north-westerly, the force of the wind was felt in no small measure along the coast of the North-West. In the towns of the South and Midlands slates were ripped off and chimneys came tumbling down, causing whole towns to blaze. Eighty-seven houses were burned to the ground in Loughrea; half of Kells was reduced to ashes, while Navan also suffered severely. Before morning the countryside was like a place devastated by a modern bomber force using both high explosives and incendiaries. A newly-built church was left roofless in County Galway while great damage was caused to tree plantations, and housing in the towns of Kilkenny, Moate, Belfast and elsewhere. In towns no one stayed indoors as the fear of falling masonry and slates kept them off the dark muddy streets. The skies were further Illuminated by the dazzling beams of the Northern Lights which added to the terror of the grim spectacle. As one might expect, there was little rain but where showers fell it is said that the force of the raindrops broke panes of glass as they were lashed against them by the driving wind! This would be unimaginable in the Donegal Gaeltacht at that time, because the windows in the houses then (where there were such) had very small panes. There were no housing grants then.
Men, Woman and Children Pray
The Night of the Big Wind struck terror into those living along the exposed coast from Malin Head to Erris Head. At that time there were scarcely any slated houses and the frail thatched cabins swayed and trembled under the pressure of the wind. Men, women and children prayed in the flickering light of the turf-fires or the rush-candle in an age when the E.S.B. and modern pressure lamps were unheard of. There were no storm lanterns at that time and the men-folk had to stay indoors as they could do little to secure the roof, etc., in the darkness of a winter’s night with a gale of probably more than 100 m.p.h. raging. Even they had had flood-lighting there was little they could then do. Boats were smashed to pieces on the beaches all along the coast of Donegal, much to the discomfort and loss of their hard-pressed owners. It is said that the spume and spray from the sea was carried miles inland by the wind, rendering the water in wells, lakes, rivers, etc., salt for weeks afterwards. No place seems to have escaped. Great shipping losses were incurred in Liverpool and in Cork harbour, as well as elsewhere around the coasts. The destruction was general.
There seems to have been other great storms earlier in the century, too, particularly in 1802 and later in 1819. In the Rosses the seanchaidhes told us about Oiche Na dTor Buidhe and Oiche Sheain Mhic Shomhairle but Oiche Na Gaoithe Moire seems to stand out by itself. It was, or has been, a milestone in that age of illiteracy which had yet to know the usefulness of both a clock and a calendar! When the Old Age Pension was introduced in 1909 the Night of the Big Wind was adverted to in order to fix or determine an applicant’s name. “Do you remember the Big Wind?” was a stock question with pension officials in those days, as certainly anybody who had remembered that night would have been well over the seventy mark by 1909!
“The Night of the Andrew Nugent”
In The Rosses the Night of the Big Wind was commonly referred to as the Night of the “Andrew Nugent.” The present writer remember asking a Rosses seanchaldhe once if he heard anything about the Big Wind and he replied that he didn’t, strangely enough, but at the same time he could tell me the story of the “Andrew Nugent” from beginning to end. No blame to him he didn’t know that “The Night of the Big Wind” and “Oiche An Andrew Nugent” were synonymous. Wasn’t there a character In Moliere who had been speaking prose for a lifetime without being aware of it? The Andrew Nugent”? After a long night of terror there was a sigh of relief when day dawned on the morning of January 7th, 1839. Neighbours helped each other in their difficulties and exchanged tales in Gaelic by their firesides regarding their experiences of the night before. (Incidentally, one could count on one hand the households that spoke English in the Rosses of 1839, but to-day, alas, the position is almost the reverse). The storm was not yet over, but its fury had abated somewhat, since six o’clock in the morning. Losses were assessed and houses and haggards were fortified and put in readiness for possibly a worse night yet to come. It was a short, dreary day, of anxiety and dread with dark clouds racing across an angry unsettled sky. The folk In the islands and on the mainland of the Rosses were settling down to yet another night of fear and anxiety when a ship rounded the head of Arran, making towards harbour and, as they thought, safety after having battled for two long days with the fury of the Atlantic. She was the ill-fated ‘Andrew Nugent,’ a brig of some 300 tons owned by Messrs. Scott & Patrickson, of Sligo, and bound for London with a cargo of bacon, butter and general provisions. As nobody aboard her survived to tell her full story, it can never be told. But it is well to piece together whatever information has come to hand.
She had left Sligo the previous morning (Sunday) and had thus been two days at sea, as can be learned from the following brief despatches from Lloyds’ agent at Sligo to the head office in London:
“SLIGO, Jan. 7. 1839- It was a very heavy gale last night and this morning from W.N.W. The *Andrew Nugent’ -sailed yesterday morning, for London, and it it is hoped she got round Tory Island before the gale commenced.”
“SLIGO. Jan. 11. 1839 – The ‘Andrew Nugent,’ Crangle, from hence for London. is totally lost with her crew at Arranmore.”
It was about four o’clock in the evening when the “Andrew Nugent” sailed into Arran Roads. Whipped up by the terrible wind of the previous night, the seas then ran mountains high. Had she been fortunate enough to make land a few hours earlier her fate might have been entirely different. As the position then stood, it was a race against time and storm as the shades of night were falling fast and the problem was could she be safely moored before darkness would set in?
Beacon Fires Lighted
The residents of the islands perceiving that she was steering on a dangerous course —probably towards Cruit and Keadue Bar—decided to light beacon tires to direct her on a safe course to the anchorage between Arranmore and Rutland. With this object in view, a fire was lighted on Pollawaddy Hill in Arranmore, and some say a second fire was lit in Eighter. The fires were successful for after they were lighted the “Andrew Nugget” tacked and sailed across the North Bay until she was near the shore off Pollawaddy in Arranmore. Although far from being safe, she yet had probably her first respite from the storm since the previous evening. Rutland Harbour was still in its hey-day at that time and piloting was a career, so to speak in the islands then. There were two pilots living in Pollawaddy (Arranmore) at that time; one Tom O’Donnell and another whose surname (Coll?) is now unknown. but who is remembered by his nick-name, Slip-on.” There was a certain amount of rivalry and jealousy it is said between these two men of the same calling, but for once, at any rate, they joined hands in face of the common danger! They both put out in the same boat to reach the “Andrew Nugent.” The heavy seas made it almost impossible for their small boat to come within safe distance of the distressed vessel. After much manoeuvring however, Pilot O’Donnell managed to get aboard by taking advantage, I suppose, of a lull in the storm and clambering on to the ‘Andrew Nugent’s” fore-rigging. Immediately Tom O’Donnell managed to get aboard, “Slip-on” and his boat-mates rowed back towards the shore in Arranrnore leaving the pilot to his unenviable charge. Tradition has it in the Rosses that the ship’s steering was by that time defective and that on hearing this, O’Donnell decided to return to his island home. He called to the pilot-boat to return for him. but his calling was in vain. Night was falling and the men in the pilot-boat realising their perilous position decided to get to safety. O’Donnell was left aboard the ”Andrew Nugent.”
Pilot O’Donnell’s Bravery
It remained for the Pilot O’Donnell then to bring the ship to the anchorage south of Calf Island in Arran Roads where there would a reasonable hope for her safety if conditions did not deteriorate entirely. At any rate there was no time to lose. They set sail again and negotiated the narrow channeI between and Meallagh Beacon and Calf !stand on their way towards the anchorage. With the conditions that prevailed and their ship probably damaged from her two days in the Atlantic, this part off the operation was dangerous, especially for a sailing vessel. Local tradition in the Rosses has it that when she was midway through this channel a dangerous reef known as The Blind Rocks broke over her washing most of her crew off her deck! There will be something further to say about this later on. Despite this set-back, Captain Crangle and Tom O’Donnell succeeded in bringing the “Nugent” to the anchorage in Arran Roads where they dropped anchor for the night. Had they be in a position to do so, they would have taken the ship probably to Rutland Harbour but the elements robbed them of any opportunity of doing so. There should have been sixteen men aboard her for the night- her master, Captain Crangle, her crew of fourteen and pilot Tom O’Donnell, but, as it will be shown later. most of these may have been drowned beforehand.
The Last Struggle
At nightfall with heavy seas running the “Andrew Nugent” seemed to have been riding the storm safely, but before dawn things were different. The wind changed from west to north during the night and both sea and wind combined, tore the ship from her moorings so that she drifted on the rocks. She was buffered southwards before the tide, wind and heavy seas and carried to her doom. She struck at Duck Island and her wrecked hull was carried farther southwards before the elements before finally settling on the beach west of Rutland. She became a total loss and everybody aboard perished. Her remains can still be seen there at low tide and only a few weeks ago the “Derry Journal” carried a report that part of the wreckage was washed up there. When found, the wreckage had fifteen fathoms of chain attached to it.
The “Andrew Nugent” was built in Portaferry, Co Down in 1826, and the “Belfast Newsletter” of the 31st January of that year tells of her launch there. She was built at Thomas Gelston’s yard and the account of her launch gives a description of her build, design, etc., and says the “ as a specimen of naval architecture few excel her.” There is a proverb in Irish which say: “Deireadh gach long baitheadh” and though its truth does not apply to modern ships, it certainly was true of the great majority of the old sailing ships. The Nugents were and still are Lords of the Manor in Portaferry and this, I take it, explains the ship’s name.
Her master. Captain Crangle, was a Co. Down man according to tradition in the Rosses, but it is obvious that his domicile prior to his death was Sligo. His body was washed up on the beach at Innishinna, a little island north of Innishfree in Dungloe Bay, his remains were left over-night in St. Peter’s, Dungloe, and later buried in Templecrone. The writer remembers hearing from an old man in the Rosses that “the church was lighted the night the remains were there” while the residents of the town or village as it was then, came in to say a prayer for the brave Captain’s soul.
The shores of the ‘Rosses were strewn with wreckage for weeks to come. Some, it was said, prospered by the calamity. There were an old ballad which ran:
“Many a drowsy merchant has built an awful shop.
For they have got fat from greasy pots.
All by the wreck the ‘Andrew Nugent:”
The authorities did their best to salvage the wreckage but times were hard in the Rosses at that time and those that found butter, etc., were loathe to hand it over to the Receiver of Wrecks. A lot of butter, etc., it is said was buried temporarily in bags to be dug up weeks later.
Ship Owner’s Report
The “Sligo Journal” of January, 1839, has this interesting account of the disaster:
“It is our painful duty to record the total wreck of the ‘Andrew Nugent; the well-known trader of Messrs. Scott and Patrickson, of Sligo, commanded by Captain Crangle, whose body has been washed ashore, and all on board perished. The ‘Andrew Nugent’ was wrecked at Rutland, on the coast of Donegal, and as soon as the distressing intelligence reached Sligo, John Scott, Esq., of the respectable firm of Scott and Patrickson, immediately proceeded to Rutland. The following is an extract of a letter written by that gentleman, dated, Rutland 15th January, 1839:
“I saw the spot on which the body of poor Crangle was found; he had on only his trousers, vest, shirt, and stockings, no shoes or jacket, but his cap on his head. He could not have been dead when the vessel was wrecked. He has been the most respectably interred in the graveyard of Templecrone by Priest Mac Devitt—the captains of the vessels here (Rutland), the coast-guard, etc., attending. It was impossible to procure a leaden coffin here, otherwise I would have had the remains conveyed to Sligo.”
“None of the crew has as yet been found. I have reason to believe that the vessel must have been run into at sea by some other vessel and disabled or she would not put back. Between the chains there is a piece of plank with canvas under it, nailed on, where she would appear to have been stoved in by a vessel running into her. I understand she did not appear to have had hands sufficient to work her when she came into the Sound, round Arranmore. It was about four o’clock in the evening with dark and heavy squalls. She appeared to have been taking the wrong course, and a light was put up in Arranmore. She then tacked—a boat went off and put a pilot aboard. with the greatest danger. This man was also lost. The men in the pilot boat say that they could not see more than two or three men on board the brig.”
“Shortly after she got into Arran Roads between Arranmore and Rutland Island, the anchor was let go and she appeared to be riding safely, but no boats from Rutland could approach her, the sea was so heavy. It became awfully dark, with heavy squalls, and during the night she must have dragged on the rocks, when all on board perished. In the morning she was found with her decks blown up, all the masts and rigging gone and the shores strewn with wreck.”
“Nine hundred and ninety-two casks of butter and about one hundred and eighty-two casks of provisions in a damaged state were saved. We are happy to learn that the owners of the “Andrew Nugent,” Messrs. Scott and Patrickson, are fully insured both for vessel and cargo.”
This letter makes no mention of the Blind Rock Reef breaking over the ship. It is possible that the damage he attributes to a collision with another ship or floating object at sets was caused by the ship damaging her under-structure somewhere in this locality. She may have been leaking after the anchor was dropped and that the canvas was then tacked on to staunch the leak.
Captain Crangle, it is said, was a very strong swimmer. It has been said that his brother (?) later visited the scene of the disaster and could not understand how the captain was drowned in such a short stretch of water as there is between where the ship foundered and where his body was found. The visitor (Mr Scott (?) was stated to have said that thought Captain Crangle could swim the whole length of Boylagh Bay. It would be hard for even the best swimmer in the world to have made shore from the “Andrew Nugent” in the place and at the time she was lost.
Tragic and Pathetic Story
The story of the “Andrew Nugent” is both tragic and pathetic. For twenty-four long hours, she battled with fearful odds against probably the worst storm of the century and then, having sought refuge and safety, she only met, tragedy and doom. Captain Crangle and his men must have come through a terrible ordeal off the Donegal coast the previous night. The fact that they survived it is, indeed, proof of their great courage and superb seamanship. They must have come through death on one of the worst coasts in Ireland. It is quite obvious that they had not passed Tory Island or Captain Crangle would have made for Lough Swilly. Instead, he turned back to Arran Roads where he met his doom.
First appeared in the Derry Journal in July 1955.