The Post Office in Sligo since 1901

On the first of January, 1909 pensions were granted to men and women over 70 in Ireland ( and Great Britain).

It was a momentous day with queues of claimants turning up at post offices all over the country. Many signed with a mark, x , as many older people at the time did not read or write. Back then people did not know their dates of birth, there was no reason to! Official registration of births marriages and deaths only started in 1864, but was not comprehensive. Not all citizens were compliant in registering , in what they saw as British state intervention!

it was soon noted by the authorities that, compared to Britain, there was a very high rate of applications from people, aged 70 or over. The average life expectancy in the early 1900s was mid-50s.

The Irish Times newspaper commented on the subject at the time ( tongue in cheek! ) that “ this was surely a major tribute to the longevity of our race, and the healthy character of our much-abused weather”

In 1909, applicants were asked as a test of eligibility “ Do you remember the Night of The Big Wind” ( occurred in 1839).  If they answered yes, they were deemed eligible ! No doubt, the folk memory of this traumatic night did figure strongly in the minds of our ancestors. It would seem that they didn’t mind stretching their age by quite a few years either! We wouldn’t dream of doing that nowadays!

No surprise that this test for eligibility for the pension was soon discarded!

Yes, according to records there was an extreme weather event that occurred on the night of the 6th January 1839. Hundreds died and thousands were left homeless. It was a storm of apocalyptic proportion in the minds of the people. Many believed it was divine intervention, others blamed the fairies.

The population of Ireland at the time was 8.2 million ( now just over 5 million). Most of the population lived in mud-walled thatched cabins, with wide open chimneys. These structures would not withstand the ferocious devastation of the storm.

The Dublin Evening Herald wrote on the 12th of January 1839

Comparing it with all similar visitations in these latitudes, of which there exists any record, we would say that, for (the violence of the hurricane, and deplorable effects which followed, as well as for its extensive sweep, embracing as it did the whole island in its destructive career, it remains not only without a parallel, but leaves faraway in the distance all that ever occurred in Ireland before. With the exception of the frightful disasters amongst the shipping at Liverpool,Manchester and the surrounding towns, in the interior of Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire, the sister island appears to have escaped with comparative good fortune … Ireland been the chief victim of the hurricane — every part of Ireland — every field, even town, every village in Ireland have tells dire effects, from Galway to Dublin — from the Giant’s Causeway to Valencia. It has been, we repeat it. the most awful calamity with which a people were afflicted”

Indeed, the folk memory was still very much alive a hundred years after the event, as evidenced in the Duchas Schools’ Collection, collected in the 1930s. More than 50,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish free state were enlisted to collect folklore in their own localities. I particularly like this tale written down by  a child in County Kerry in 1938

The Big Wind, 1839

The Big Wind fell on Little Christmas night. A man by the name of Paddy Cronin who lived in Beal was in the house with his mother. The storm lifted the roof off the house. He took out his mother and tied her on to an ash tree, lest she would get hurt. While he was going back for some blankets to put around her from the cold, the tree was uprooted and there was not a trace of the tree or the woman to be found”