The ferocious storm known as ‘The Night of the Big Wind’, which struck Leitrim and the rest of Ireland on the 6th January 1839, doing incalculable damage to the town and its hinterland, is to be the subject of a new opera.
Belfast composer Elaine Agnew, a former Composer in Residence with RTE Lyric FM and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, has received a Major Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to enable her to undertake research for a new chamber opera based on the story.
Elaine is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s most exciting young composers. 2012 will be a busy year for her. On Saturday, August 4 her newest composition Dark Hedges will receive its first performance at the Proms in the Albert Hall, London. It will be performed by flautist Sir James Galway, the Ulster Orchestra, and the Ulster Youth Orchestra. She hopes to return to composing the opera in the autumn.
To accompany these developments, the book that inspired the opera, Peter Carr’s Night of the Big Wind, has been re-issued. To reflect these austere times, it has been republished not at its 1839 price of a few cents – regrettably this has not been possible! – But at its original 1991 price of €7 (£4.95).
Innumerable houses in County Leitrim were unroofed on that terrible night, with one roof, according to legend, sailing serenely across Fenagh Lough. In the shadow of Slieve Anierin, many left their houses and took refuge in the ‘Alths’, and near Mohill, one mother put her child into an oak chest, setting stones on top of it for the child’s protection. Also at Mohill the dispensary and Roman Catholic chapel were severly damaged. According to Peter Carr’s book “Mr William Blake of Farnaght, had a range of offices lately built, blown down, two heifers killed, and a corn mill completely unroofed.” In Leitrim the wind took the colour of red.
About fifty houses were blown down between Drumsna and Elphin, there was immense destruction of property especially amongst the plantations. In Carrick-on-Shannon several houses were blown down, others stripped of their roofs. The report of the wind said “The produce of the harvest lies scattered over the whole face of the surrounding country.”
In the ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ book, author Peter Carr described the day of January 6, 1839: “The day began well enough ... the children were out enjoying the snow. Indoors all was flutter and bustle, for this was Little Christmas, and everyone was looking forward to the evening’s festivities. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, however, it became almosy unnaturally calm - so calm that voices floated between farmhouses more than a mile apart. The temperature soared, until by evening the heat had become sickly. Something strange was happening. No one knew exactly what - maybe it was just as well.
“For what followed was a nightmare. What followed was the most terrifying night of their lives.”
No date or location for the opera’s premiere has yet been determined, but it is understood that the new opera will tour around Ireland.