December 29

Published in On this Day listing

  • 1989 Václav Havel, writer, dissident and former political prisoner, became president of Czechoslovakia, the first non-communist president for 41 years.
  • 1739

    Above: The Great Music Hall on Dublin’s Fishamble Street. George Frideric Handel premiered his Messiah there in April 1742 as a fund-raiser for the distress caused by the ‘Great Frost’ of the previous years.

    A violent easterly storm introduced the ‘Great Frost’, prelude to the first major famine in modern Irish history. Unlike the Great Famine (1845–9), which mainly affected people dependent on the potato, the eighteenth-century event was a meteorological one that affected all classes. The frost lasted some seven weeks. All the major rivers—the Liffey, the Shannon, the Boyne—froze over in days and the entire eco-system was traumatised. Sheep and cattle perished from the cold and lack of fodder, and the entire potato crop was wiped out. When the thaw finally arrived, it was followed by months of drought, leading to rocketing food prices. By Christmas 1740 food prices had reached record levels and people were starving. Landlords, local clergy and the authorities sponsored relief schemes but failed to check the tide of hunger. The catastrophe reached its climax in the spring and summer of 1741, when a cluster of deadly diseases—smallpox, dysentery and typhus—began to appear, initially amongst the undernourished poor and, in the case of typhus, amongst the wealthy as well. Revd Philip Skelton, a curate in Monaghan, wrote about ‘whole parishes left almost desolate’ and ‘the dead being eaten in the fields by dogs for want of people to bury them’. Then, in September 1741, a series of abnormal floods swept the country, seemingly purging the land of disease, and the subsequent harvest was reckoned to be the best for 60 years. During the 21 months of the crisis between 310,000 and 480,000 people perished out of a total population of c. 2.5 million—in relative terms more devastating than the Great Famine a century later.

  • 1968 Captain Terence O’Neill, prime minister of Northern Ireland, was named ‘Man of the Year’ by the Sunday Independent.
  • 1948 Peter Robinson, founding member of the DUP (1972), leader of the DUP (2008–15) and first minister of Northern Ireland (2008–16), born in Belfast.
  • 1937 The Constitution of Ireland came into force.
  • 1809 William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal Party leader, four times prime minister and advocate of Home Rule for Ireland, born in Liverpool of Scottish parents.
  • 1739 The Great Frost, seven weeks of sub-zero temperatures which at once wiped out the entire potato crop, began. It was the prelude to the famine of 1740–1, during which between 310,000 and 480,000 perished out of a total Irish population of c. 2.5 million—more devastating, in relative terms, than the Great Famine (1845–9).

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