Our cold snap was nothing compared to the Great Irish Frost of 1740
Published 30/12/2010 | 05:00
THE record-breaking cold snap that brought Ireland to its knees this month was little to compare with the Great Irish Frost of 1740 that killed more than a third of the population.
Between 310,000 and 480,000 people out of a population of 2.4 million are believed to have died during the Great Frost which swept across Ireland between 1739 and 1741, according to a new book called 'Arctic Ireland' .
By Trinity College history professor David Dickson, the book explores the causes of the calamity.
Mr Dickson said the frost "remains to this day the longest period of extreme cold in modern European history", and its causes remain unknown.
But it wreaked utter devastation across Ireland leading to food riots, famine, epidemic and death.
In an eerie similarity to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland last April, the Great Frost of 1740 is believed to have been precipitated by volcanic eruptions on the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia which sent thousands of tons of dust into the upper atmosphere.
While much of the country has coped with weeks of unseasonably cold temperatures, snow and ice this winter, our forebears endured "21 months of bizarre weather" that was "without known precedent and defied conventional explanation," according to the book.
And there was no let-up for almost two years in which extremely cold and bitter wind, freezing temperatures and drought were regular features.
The Great Frost began shortly after Christmas on December 29, 1739, and "introduced a cold so penetrating that liquids froze indoors and ice floes appeared at the river mouths".
Three ships sank in Dublin Bay, drowning all on board while the body of one of the crew members was found washed up on Merrion Strand covered with ice.
But unlike our wintry conditions this year, there was hardly any snow due to a vast high pressure system affecting most of northern Europe.
Such was the cold that the rivers Liffey, Slaney, Boyne and parts of the Shannon froze over within days as well as Loughs Cong and Neagh. Huge numbers of frozen fish were found along the shores of Strangford Lough and Lough Neagh.
Coal could no longer be brought in from across the Irish Sea due to ice-bound quays and frozen coal yards causing coal prices to soar.
As a result "hedges, fine trees, and nurseries around Dublin were stripped bare as desperate people searched for substitute fuel," Mr Dickson wrote.
"The frost also plunged the streets of Dublin into darkness at night, for not only were there problems in milling the rape-seed to make the customary lamp oil, but even fully serviced lamps were being snuffed out by the intense cold," according to the book, published by White Row Press.
Things took a turn for the worse when the frost virtually wiped out the potato crop the following spring.
As if that wasn't bad enough, widespread drought coupled with unseasonably low temperatures and bitter northerly winds killed off sheep and cattle as well as crops of wheat and barley.
At the port of Drogheda, locals ransacked a grain ship bound for Scotland while in Cork city a full-scale food riot erupted aimed at grain wholesalers planning to ship their wares outside of Ireland.
And just when things couldn't get worse, blizzards hit the east coast in late October 1740, followed by widespread flooding in December and a mixture of snow and thaw leading to mini-icebergs careening down the Liffey.
Climate change expert Prof John Sweeney of the Irish Climate Analysis Research Unit (ICARUS) at Maynooth University said the cause of the catastrophic winter of 1740-41, often referred to as the mini Ice Age, remains a mystery.
A change in solar or volcanic activity is one possible theory, he said.
"But certainly extreme winters are part and parcel of history. Now and again we'll get the odd extreme event like the current cold snap," he said.