Setting Sail: Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine

The tale of the Irish plight during the potato famine is a terribly tragic one. In a previous post I gave a brief account of the Irish Potato Famine. In this post I will seek to tell the story of those who left their beloved isle for new life on the continent of North America aboard ‘coffin ships’, sometimes for better, other times for worse.

engraving of 'Emigrants leaving Ireland'

‘Emigrants Leave Ireland’ Courtesy Wikipedia

Mass immigration among the Irish populace began in 1846. The potato crop had failed once again and times were only going to get harder. So immigrants packed their bags, that is if they had anything to pack, and headed for places such as North and South America and Australia, but with North America being the popular destination. Unscrupulous shipping companies renovated their cargo ships to transport the fleeing Irish. ‘Renovation’ usually consisted of building bunks in the hold.

In comparison to British ships, American vessels were generally more well regarded. They made quicker passage, given they weren’t driven back by strong winds or bad weather. They were also thought of as much safer. One British ship was over 80 years old. The Passengers Acts helped somewhat to make travel safer, but also proved more troublesome for the Irish to immigrate. Only a certain amount of immigrants were allowed into the US, ships were only allowed so many passengers, depending on its size, and fare was raised among other things.

St. Lawrence River Courtesy Wikipedia

Traveling in tightly packed holds across the Atlantic proved to be the death of many poor souls. Typhus was a major killer, making victims of young and old alike. The fever that came with typhus killed hundreds of people on their voyages and a many a burials took place at sea. Typhus spread quickly, as much of the time steerage passengers were kept in the hold. In Canada action was taken. On Grosse Isle a hospital was set up to deal with the sickly immigrants. Victims of typhus were quarantined. The hospital quickly filled until personnel were absolutely overwhelmed. Ships lined up daily, waiting for their pitiful cargo to be taken off and put into the hospitals. Ships under quarantine, sometimes weeks at a time, continued to lose passengers and crew. It wasn’t too rare either for a ship to come into port with much of the crew down with typhus and healthy passengers having taken their places at manning the ship. On the St. Lawrence River one immigrant who was traveling with his wife (both would later die of typhus) watched as several “heaps” floated by on the river.

Another came and it caught in our cable and before the swish of the current washed it clear, I caught a glimpse of a white face

There was another ship ahead of his own and they were throwing the dead overboard.

Landlords who emigrated their starving tenants often sent those people to a speedy death. But what mattered to them was money. It was cheaper to send their tenants to North America than to keep them on and pay required fees toward the workhouse. One absentee landlord Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston emigrated his tenants too late in the season. Ice on the St. Lawrence closed ports down. Three different ships arrived bearing Palmerston’s tenants. He ‘inadvertently’ murdered former tenants, as they soon fell sick or were ill-prepared for the Canadian winter. Palmerston ‘passed the buck’, blaming his agents (who took care of his land in his absence), for the deaths.

Ocean Monarch Courtesy Wikipedia

A newer ship, the Ocean Monarch set sail in August 1848 carrying Irish famine immigrants. Not far from the Welsh coast disaster struck. A fire was discovered and it quickly grew out of control. The captain, James Murdoch, tried to beach the ship, but there wasn’t time so he instead dropped anchor. He didn’t want the fire to spread anymore than what it had. People were forced to jump overboard as the fire licked at them. Whatever would float the crew threw to those in the water to latch onto. Several ships came to the rescue of the survivors, but 161 would be missing or dead. Out of 396, 226 were saved.

Aboard the Londonderry, en route from Ireland to Liverpool, a storm came up. The captain had the steerage passengers shoved into a cabin. It proved fatal. There just wasn’t enough room and the next day when the door was opened 72 men, women and children were found dead. Suffocation or crushed to death was their cause of death.

On April 29, 1849 the Hannah headed for Quebec, ran into an iceberg. The captain and two officers abandoned ship, leaving the passengers and rest of the crew to fend for themselves. The officers had thought that the ship would go down at any minute. But the Hannah stayed afloat long enough for 129 passengers and crew to get off onto the iceberg. There were casualties, however, 50-60 were thought to have died. Some in their haste to get onto the iceberg slipped and fell between the ice and the ship and were crushed. Others drowned or froze to death before help arrived.

On one voyage in October 1850 the Washington was carrying about 900 passengers . Although a nicer ship in comparison to others, the Washington’s crew abused passengers physically and verbally. They kicked the immigrants around and yelled profanity at them. Also upon age 16, individuals were to receive the same amount of rations as adults. The crew dished out only half rations for them, the same as what those under 14 would receive. Water was not given freely either. As if it wasn’t bad enough that a 16 year old would not get their full rations, the crew soon began withholding food from the immigrants. “The mate” knocked a man down on his face and later threatened to give him a “singeing before he leaves the ship” with a hot iron. The captain acted in the same manner. Thanks to the treatment at the hands of the crew many children died of dysentery “for want of proper nourishing food”.

Jeanie Johnston (Courtesy AJ Vosse)

We cannot change what happened to the poor immigrants who made the decision to immigrate, but we can remember. Two immigrant ships, long since gone, have been replicated and can be visited today. They are the Dunbrody and the Jeanie Johnston.

For further reading consider Famine Ships by Edward Laxton. Famine Ships is an extraordinary read, as Laxton tells the story of the famine immigrants trips. He also provides supportive documents and accounts of events (i.e. shipwrecks) as well as the survivors and victims tales. He also notes some of the famous descendents of the Irish famine immigrants telling of their ancestors trips.

Source: Laxton, Edward. Famine Ship: The Irish Exodus to America

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124 thoughts on “Setting Sail: Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine

  1. Great post. It amazes me that any of those unfortunates survived the terrible conditions forced upon them. The story of the cabin on the Londonderry is just awful. Even worse, I expect that there were probably people who knew the risks and still decided to go, staying home was certain death anyway.

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    • Thank you. And you’re right many knew that the traveling conditions were terrible. In 1847, I think it was, immigration slowed down a bit but started up again because the Irish knew they were going to starve to death.

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    • That’s what I like to hear :)

      I wonder if there had been a serious effort if much of the deaths and suffering could have been avoided? So many ifs in history. I guess that’s what makes it so fascinating. Thanks for commenting and glad you liked the post.

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    • I’ve heard immigration was called The Curse of the Irish. I didn’t know the half of it. When we went to Ireland a few years ago, I would talk to people, who still receive bundles of hand-me-downs from the cousins in America. The population of Ireland has never recovered from The Great Famine. The people I spoke to said they are sill losing many young people to immigration, but at least you know the conditions under which they are traveling have got to be better..

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    • I can understand why it was considered a curse. Yes, conditions are much better nowadays, at least in much of today’s world. I’m forever hearing of overloaded ferries in the Philippines capsizing.

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    • I’m absolutely certain that many of those deaths could have been avoided, both in Ireland, and on the voyage. It just takes someone to be willing to show compassion and value human life over squeezing every last cent out of the human wreckage. While people were dying of starvation in Ireland–it was devastating, and there are even some instances where some people resorted to cannibalism–the English landlords were actually exporting food out of the country for profit.

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    • Yes, greed often brings out the worst in people. In the old days it seems that some sailors prided themselves in being rough and tumble. I think however in the case of the Washington, the crew was just naturally cruel. I hadn’t heard about the cannibalism…whenever, I hear of something like that it brings to mind the Donner Party or the Starving Time in Jamestown.

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    • No, not particularly. I do, however, meet people who tell me, once they find out that I am American, that they have any number of relatives in NYC and Boston. The famine does get mentioned quite often when I find historical documentaries and programming on Irish TV – much like World War II tends to dominate British documentary and historic programming.

      There is still a lot of immigration from Ireland today but now it’s due to financial and unemployment problems.

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    • Ah, New York City was where the majority went. According to Laxton hundreds (can’t remember the exact number) arrived in New York City DAILY for the six years straight. That’s alot of people.

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    • If you read back in US history to that time period, you’ll find there was a lot of resentment on the part of folks already living in the states (even recent immigrants) to the Irish influx, and a tremendous amount of prejudice against the Irish as a result. Kind of like how people feel about Mexicans today.

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    • Yes, at the time of Irish immigration the nativists were gaining support as people became frantic that the Irish would take their jobs, as they worked for very little. Even during the Civil War it wasn’t unusual for businesses to hang signs out Irish Need Not Apply.

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  2. Excellent post (as is your previous post on An Gorta Mor (the Irish ‘potato famine’). We have similar interests and I’m glad to have found your blog (from “like” on my photo blog “a trace of place.”)
    My primary blog is http://therootsystems.wordpress.com which deals with history, but primarily traces the time leading up to and after the famine. Would love to have your thoughts on it sometime.

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  3. I was in Ireland two weeks ago, and I visited the Cobh Heritage Center where there was a lot things about Irish immigration. It was really interresting, like your article.

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    • I just googled that place, it looks very interesting! I’d love to visit it…There’s alot of places I’d like to visit that I’ll never get around to doing. Glad you liked it and happy to have you back aboard!

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  4. Pingback: Reblog/Linkback Project: Map of Time A Trip Into the Past | foodtable // la vie éclectique

  5. When we visited Ireland we drove through one of the valleys where tenant farmers had been chucked off their land and had to walk through on their way to wherever, except naturally most of them died. I must look up the name, it was spectacularly beautiful for such a valley of death. :(

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    • I wonder how landlords/agents could be so heartless as to run tenant off their land. I remember reading that one ‘lady’ evicted all of her tenants (who were at the time better off then lots of the other starving), because she was going use their land for something else, Grazing, I think. I’d be curious about the name of that valley too. Thanks for your comment.

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    • This post along with it’s comments are so interesting, thanks for sharing it. A lot of landlords took advantage of ‘assisted passage’ for their tenants because they wanted to clear the land of smallholdings in order to turn the it into pasture for cattle and sheep. This was more profitable for them than any rent from the tenants who managed to keep up with their payments. During the Great Hunger those who decided to enter the workhouse, most often a last resort, had to sign away the lease to the land their family had been living on, sometimes for generations. By this method and assisted passage, the landowners cleared the land of people in order to fill it with stock.

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  6. A tragic tale, beautifully written and with such compassion. Thankyou. I’m so grateful that my 2 x Great Grandmother, Susan Kelleher and her sister Bridget, didn’t travel on one of those horrific “coffin ships” when they immigrated to South Australia from County Clare in 1855. Although a long trip, conditions were bad and they were shipwrecked, when coming into land, it was a “pleasure trip”, in comparison.

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