At more than 700 pages, The Big Wind is an epic, visual, warm, romantic family story that spans the period of Irish history from the night of the big wind in January 1839 through the campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union led by Daniel O’Connell (the patriot, parliamentarian and popular leader known as ‘the Liberator’ who was renowned for his powers of oratory) to the great famine (1845-50), assisted emigration and the land wars that followed. It is a story that spans all classes — from the landowning gentry and their servants to tradesmen, tenant farmers and the poor and destitute.
The edition that I read would have benefited from a foreword or notes giving some explanation and context for the historical characters and movements that provide the backdrop for the story as readers who are unfamiliar with Irish history might find some of the references difficult. But the story and characters have pace and make for a good read.
I first came across this book as a teenager and loved the feisty red-haired heroine, Sterrin O’Carroll who falls in love with a family servant, Young Thomas but has to endure many hardships including financial difficulties in the aftermath of the famine.
The Big Wind depicts a world where scheduled Bianconi mail coaches — an early form of public transport — connect Dublin and the provincial towns and where the railway is just beginning to extend into the Irish countryside. Pennies, shillings and sovereigns are the coins in circulation. Estates are mortgaged to meet rising debts. Terror strikes in raids by whiteboys and militia. Guns and duels are in evidence. Theatre thrives in the city, the Gresham Hotel is a destination for honeymoon couples and Dublin Castle is the seat of power and grandeur.
While scholars may find technical faults with the historical accuracy, few books give a better sense of the drama and color of life and what have actually have been like to live in Ireland in the mid 19th century.
The Big Wind by Beatrice Coogan won the Frankfurt Book Fair “Novel of the Year” in 1969 and has been republished several times. The edition I read was published by Arrow Books Ltd (August 1997). ISBN-10: 0099246422; ISBN-13: 978-0099246428. Recommended for fans of Downton Abbey and anyone with Irish ancestry or an interest in Irish history.