The history of Ireland from the ninth to the twelfth century covers the first Viking raids in Ireland up to the Norman invasion. The most significant event in the eleventh century in Irish History was on 23 April 1014 when at the famous Battle of Clontarf, the Vikings and the men of North Leinster were defeated by King Brian Boru, who was murdered in his tent by Danish king Brodar after the victory. Just 40 years later another significant event took place when the first ever tornado in Europe was recorded on 30th April 1054 in Ireland at Rosdalla, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath.
The story of the tornado was recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, Chronicon Scotorum (Scottish Chronicles) and by Patrick W. Joyce (1827-1911) in his book The Wonders of Ireland and his source was the Book of Ballymote and a famous Norse book called Kongs Skuggio. Joyce was born in the Ballyhoura Mountains on the Limerick/Cork border and died in Dublin in 1914. He wrote many other books including Origin and History of Irish Names of Places and A Social History of Ancient Ireland.
WRITTEN ACCOUNTS OF THE TORNADO
The Annals account of the event on 30th April 1054 is as follows:
A steeple of fire was seen in the air over Ros-Deala, on the Sunday of the festival of George, for the space of five hours; innumerable black birds passing into and out of it, and one large bird in the middle of them; and the little birds went under his wings, when they went into the steeple. They came out, and raised up a greyhound, that was in the middle of the town, aloft in the air, and let it drop down again, so that it died immediately; and they took up three cloaks and two shirts, and let them drop down in the same manner. The wood on which these birds perched fell under them; and the oak tree upon which they perched shook with its roots in the earth.
Joyce’s account is as follows:
On the feast day of St. George, the people of Rosdalla, near Kilbeggan in the present county of Westmeath, saw standing high up in the air, a great steeple of fire, in the exact shape of a circular belfry, or what we now call a round tower. For nine hours it remained there in sight of all: and during the whole time, flocks of large dark-coloured birds without number kept flying in and out through the door and windows. There was among them one great jet-black bird of vast size; and while he remained outside the others flew round him in flocks; but whenever he entered the tower they nestled in thousands under his wings, remaining there till he returned to the open air, when they again came forth and flew round him as before.
Sometimes a number of them would swoop suddenly down, and snatch up in their talons dogs, cats, or any other small animals that happened to lie in their way; and when they had risen again to a great height they would drop them dead to the ground. At last they flew away towards a neighbouring wood; and the moment they left the tower it faded gradually from the people’s view. The birds perched on the trees, the great bird choosing a large oak for himself; and so great were their numbers that the branches bent to the ground under their weight. There they remained for some time as if to rest; when suddenly they all rose into the air; and when the great bird was rising he tore the oak tree by the roots from the earth, and carried it off in his talons. The birds then all flew away, no one could tell whither, for they were never seen or heard of afterwards”.
What does it all mean?
The above versions were written in the language of the Middle Ages but what exactly does it mean. In an article in the Journal of Meteorology Volume 14 No. 137 in 1989 an expert, Michael Rowe, analysed the above description and was satisfied that it was a genuine tornado. The Chronicon Scotorum version refers to the ‘tower of fire’ ‘birds’ around it lifting up objects from the ground. The word fire in this context does not mean the flames were observed but that it resembled a column of smoke or the vapour in the funnel resembled the motion of the smoke in a large fire. Seeing smoke or fire in a tornado was common in the past including sometimes getting the smell of sulphur but it was an illusion (although sometimes there could possibly be an electric charge due to masses of dirt and objects being swirled up in the air).
It was not birds that were in the tornado but debris like houses, trees and any other objects in the way, taken aloft and circling the tornado or sometimes a portion of cloud detached from the funnel. Over many years, in various tornados, birds were described as swirling in the tornado. In 1931 in Bermingham a man thought he saw a flock of pigeons but on a closer view realised it was roof slates. The levitation of animals like the dog was very common in tornadoes. The levitation of a dog high enough to be killed by the fall is conclusive evidence of a whirlwind of some kind, while the shaking or uprooting of trees signifies a localised strong wind (the great bird described as uprooting a tree and carrying it away with its talon’s was the swirling Tornado). The reference to the tornado being as long as five or nine hours would not be correct. It could be a case of ‘poetic licence’ in the annals. The date of the events varies between some accounts and sometimes is given as 1055 (like Joyce) but an analysis of the date of the feast of St George has established that the correct date is 30 April 1054. It has now been accepted that the first recorded tornado in Europe was at Rosdalla, Kilbeggan (confirmed on all sources and books on the internet). Interestingly, the second oldest recorded tornado was in London on 23 October 1091, which caused a lot of damage, although only two people were killed.
Rosdalla (Rostella) is just on the outskirts of Kilbeggan and it is signposted at the second roundabout off the M6 going towards Tullamore and it is fascinating to think that the first recorded tornado in Europe was down that side road over 963 years ago.