‘Coffin Ships’ were the name given to the emigration ships that carried members of the Irish population across the Atlantic to North America and Canada during the Irish famine. Emigrants were trying to flee from the devastating potato famine which began in 1845, when the potato crop began to fail from blight (P. infestans). Ireland’s population has never gotten back to the numbers it was before the ‘Great Hunger’ (An Gorta Mor as Gaeilge). Between the years of 1846- 51 one million people died in Ireland due to starvation and disease, with a further two million people emigrating to places such as North America and Canada between 1845-55. Growing up in Ireland, we were always taught about the devastating effects of the famine, even as far back as primary school. I remember reading the fiction book ‘Under the Hawthorne tree’ by Marita Conlon-Mckenna. This was a children’s book, but it was set during the Irish Famine and dealt with death and dying during this period. The famine is often a politically charged topic, as it is often questioned how effective the British government were in assisting the Irish. Debates surrounding the inaction of Queen Victoria, and around that fact that exports to Britain during the famine may have actually increased during the years of starvation, are often discussed by historians. Tony Blair issued a formal apology to Ireland for the British governments mishandling of the crisis in 1997 when he was prime minister.
There is an extremely rich narrative surrounding the Irish Potato Famine, but for this blog post I will be focusing on ‘Coffin Ships’. I grew up outside the town of New Ross in Wexford which has a replica of the Dunbrody famine ship, so my interest in these floating ‘coffins’ has a long history. JFK visited New Ross five months before his assassination, as his great grandfather sailed from New Ross to Boston during the famine in 1848.
Due to the large number of evictions of poor Irish tenants during the famine, many ended up on the streets. This resulted in many having no choice but to flee the country on a ship, or it was often more economical for a landlord to pay for a poor family’s crossings- making false promises of a better life. The ships immigrants boarded in the hope of a new life during the famine were often not seaworthy, as well as being overcrowded, and unsanitary. There was a severe lack of food and clean water on board, and it was clear the people who set sail on these ships were in a desperate situation. The ships during the famine also set sail during the winter months to accommodate the demand (and to make more money) of those wishing to flee, meaning they were sailing during icy, bad weather – before this, transatlantic crossings were mainly done during the Spring and Summer months. Death was all around the Irish population at home, and now it was all around them as they hoped to sail to a better life. On board the ship there was no escape from disease, dehydration, and starvation either- the very things they were trying to flee. Steerage passengers were only allowed outside on deck for a very limited amount of time each day.
Thousands of ships left the country full of passengers, mostly setting sail from the west coast. Disease such as typhoid, typhus, dysentery, and cholera would spread rapidly throughout steerage- the average death rate on board was 20% but could be as high as 50%. Bodies were usually buried at sea. The British built ships were not required to have doctors on board, and even those who were ill upon inspection by doctors before boarding were still allowed to travel. Passenger shipping laws were neglectful of the passengers, with many taking double the number of passengers the ship was meant for.
If passengers managed to survive the six-week journey, the were often infected with disease and extremely weak upon arrival – they were not exactly opened with open arms when they reached their destination either. Families had been surrounded by death and dying, and now found themselves in a new country where they were poor and illiterate. Many were thought to spread disease amongst the Canadian and American populations, thus resulting in shunning of these immigrants – there was also a lot of anti-Catholic sentiments at the time.
These ‘Coffin Ships’ are an important aspect in Irish history that touches upon the themes of death, dying and bereavement – all over the world we see memorials to those who died during the potato famine. Many were trying escape death, but instead died upon these ships. Many died when they reached the shores, and many were accused of causing death in the populations they newly inhabited. Bereavement was everywhere, with families even holding an ‘American Wake’ for those who purchased a one-way ticket to America – as it was highly likely they never see their family again (and that is if they survived the journey). Many mourned their dead, for the life they once had, and for those who left Ireland.