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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 .
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