Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Coffin Ships and the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor)

Sketch of an Irish woman and her
children from Illustrated London News, 
1849 (From Wikimedia Commons)

By Adrian McGrath

“Oh, son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Til a blight came o’er my crops my sheep and cattle died
My rent and taxes were too high I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason that I left old Skibbereen.

You mother too, God rest her soul, fell on the stony ground
She fainted in her anguish seeing desolation 'round
She never rose but passed away from life to immortal dream
She found a quiet grave, my boy, in dear old Skibbereen.”

(From the traditional song named “Skibbereen," first referenced in 1880 to Patrick Carpenter, about the town in County Cork where the famine was at its worst. See Skibbereen and Wikipedia.)

“They are going! They are going! The Irish are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan.

(From a London Times editorial, as quoted by Seumas MacManus in The Story of the Irish Race p.610. The London Times editorial prophesied that the destitute and starving Irish people would soon disappear from Ireland forever.)

In 1958 in his book A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy wrote about the significance of immigration to America. He quoted a passage from the American poet Walt Whitman who felt the United States was a special place precisely because it welcomed a diversity of people from many lands. Walt Whitman wrote, "These States are the amplest poem, Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations."

Leaving Ireland for America
Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
(From Wikimedia Commons)
In the 1840s the Irish became a part of America’s “Nation of nations.” The Irish did not come to America because of the potato; they came because of politics. They came because of centuries of British political tyranny and racial and religious prejudice which left them dependent almost totally on a single crop for food and trade. And when that crop failed with the potato blight, the Irish -- mainly the Irish Catholics -- starved to death or went into permanent exile, if they survived the horrendous voyage, to various places in Europe, Australia, Canada, and above all, to the United States of America.

The Irish National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon in Ireland tells us at its website that between 1845 and 1850 two million of the then eight million people who lived in Ireland disappeared. One million died of hunger and related diseases and the other million left Ireland for permanent exile. See Strokestown Park.

The Irish Potato Famine (or as it is called in Ireland, the Great Hunger or in Irish Gaelic  “An Gorta Mor”) was the single most important event in the entire history of the Irish people. Why? Because the Famine transformed the entire Irish nation and transplanted the Irish people to a new homeland, America. (More people of Irish descent live in the USA than in any other country, by far, including in Ireland itself.)

In 1840 the population of Ireland was about 8 million. Only about four or five million people live today in the Republic of Ireland (4.7 million Irish population analysis). But about 40 million people in the United States claim some Irish ancestry  (See Irish American population. ) The Irish Americans are the new Irish. Much like with the ancient Israelites from Biblical times who were forcibly scattered to distant lands, the Great Famine was Ireland’s Diaspora.

For too long the Famine was misunderstood as simply the tragedy of a natural disaster. That was not the case. It was the result of centuries of British legalized oppression, forced poverty, and bigotry against Irish Catholics which was transformed into a hell on Earth when the primary, if not the sole, source of sustenance for the Irish peasants blackened and rotted away.

To its credit of state of New Jersey in the United States became the first US state to officially recognize the Great Hunger (Irish Potato Famine) as a part of its curriculum on genocide studies in its state school system. Other American states followed, including New York state, requiring that the Irish Famine be taught in its schools. Here is a link to the “Great Irish Famine” study guide for the schools of New Jersey .

The study guide was submitted to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education in January of 1996 and is included in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum for the secondary level in schools. The state of New York also teaches the Irish Famine. But ignorance, prejudice, and denial still exist.  When the state law requiring the teaching was passed by the New York legislature and signed by the governor, the British embassy protested, as did some other politicians. See New Curriculum From Albany .

Prime Minister Tony Blair
visited Cork, Ireland in 1997
and apologized for Britain's failure
during the Irish Famine
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To his great credit, however, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, while visiting Cork, Ireland in 1997, “That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain … Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event.” See Tony Blair
Famine National Monument
at Murrisk, Ireland
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, history and facts must not be forgotten or denied. And the descendants of the Irish Famine, those who survived, live on in New Jersey and New York and all across America. Thankfully, they will not allow their own tragic history to be forgotten -- not just for the Irish or the Irish Americans, but for all people, everywhere, who believe in humanity and justice.

From 1845 to 1851 the Potato Famine raged in Ireland. Before the arrival of the potato to Europe, brought back from South America in the 16th century by explorers, the staple crops of Europe, and Ireland, were rye, wheat, oats, and barley. The potato was seen as a benefit to Ireland which had small farms with limited land; and the potato was a nutritious, high yield crop requiring little space and little maintenance. The perfect food for oppressed peasants. The Irish could live on potatoes and buttermilk while they worked the small lands -- which were usually owned by absentee English landlords -- and produced various other crops and food stuffs, including beef from cattle, which were shipped for sale abroad to profit the British landowners.

The Irish people became dependent on the potato not merely because of economics but because of centuries of political oppression. An early example of the English attempt to control the Irish, and the Anglo-Irish who followed Irish ways and became “more Irish than the Irish,” was the group of laws from the Middle Ages designed to eliminate the influence of Irish Gaelic culture and replace it with English beliefs and values -- the Statutes of Kilkenny of 1367 AD. These laws, for example, forbade the English who lived in Ireland to marry an Irish person, speak the Irish language, play Irish music, and accept Irish clergymen for an English settlement. Although in many cases, these laws were unenforceable, the existence of the laws revealed the English mentality towards the Irish and were harbingers of much more destructive things to come.

What did eventually come were the brutality of Oliver Cromwell’s invasion which killed and enslaved the Irish Catholics, driving many to exile into the west of Ireland (to Hell or Connacht), and the anti-Catholic “Penal Laws” of the 1600’s which stripped Irish Catholics of all fundamental human rights and left them homeless, destitute, and persecuted in their own land.  The British statesman Edmund Burke referred to the Penal Laws as “ a machine … of impoverishment and degradation of a people and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man. “

And there were also the “Plantations” where the English monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth and beyond confiscated the lands of Irish Catholics and gave them to Protestant English and Scottish settlers who were loyal to Britain and who were “planted” on Irish soil to make a British society flourish in Ireland and destroy the old Irish one.

British laws criminalized Irish culture and eventually persecuted the followers of Catholicism. To rotten British laws were now added rotten potatoes.

“Phytophthora infestans” or potato blight blackened and rotted the potato, but it did not affect any other food source. There was an abundance of fruit, vegetables, dairy products, seafood, and even meat, and indeed beef, in Ireland. So, why did the Irish starve? They starved because these sources of food, under British law belonged to the British, not to the Irish.

The British Parliament, steeped in prejudice and following a callous and extreme form of economics of Laissez Faire capitalism, refused to do anything to significantly help starving people if it would tamper with their rigid economic philosophy -- not to interfere with the “natural course of trade” was the expression commonly heard. (Of course, it was a “free trade” built upon past and continuing tyranny and unjust and discriminatory laws.)

And so nightmarish scenes appeared at Irish sea ports as British ships packed with livestock and food stuffs, guarded by British police and soldiers, set sail for Britain or for sale overseas, while Irish peasants starved to death all around these ports and along the city roads leading out to the countryside.

The Irish could no longer eat the potato, and they could also not sell it. So, they could not raise money to pay the rent on their pitiful homes and farms on the lands owned, usually, by English absentee landlords who actually lived back in England. As a result, the Irish were evicted and left homeless to roam the countryside and starve.
A Workhouse in 1846, overcrowded
and filled with disease
(From Wikimedia Commons/ Ridpath's History of the World)
Some went to workhouses which were in themselves hellish with minimal food and medical services and harsh labor like grinding corn or breaking rocks for roads. (Oddly enough, the British did not want this labor force to compete with regular labor for economic reasons, so workhouses were not encouraged or properly maintained; and much of the work was actually not very useful, although the rules and living conditions were strict if not brutal. Workhouses were overcrowded, and workers there often became seriously ill. It was often that people died there and were buried in mass graves. See  

In the countryside, in many cases, the peasants died of malnutrition and opportunistic diseases which went hand-in-hand with starvation. Fever, from whatever the source, was a prevalent killer.

It is true that the British Parliament took some limited actions to deal with the famine. For example, it allocated one hundred thousand pounds to famine relief. But first, it allocated two hundred thousand pounds to beautify London’s Battersea Park. (See The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas Mac Manus, p.602. Devin - Adair Co. New York, 1975.) The aid package was, of course, completely inadequate and could help about two million of Ireland’s then population of eight million.

Some humanitarian aid did come from overseas -- notably from America which sent “Indian corn” -- a type of unrefined cornmeal which in many cases caused digestion problems, from the Sultan of Turkey, and impressively from the impoverished Cherokee Indians from America, who freely gave what they could though they were themselves destitute and oppressed.

The British passed laws such as the Coercion Bill and the Vagrancy Act which made it a crime to be out at night after curfew. As a result many homeless Irish were simply arrested and swept away to jail or even transported to a British penal colony.  Parliament also passed the Disarming Act which increased police powers. So, instead of passing laws to help starving people, Parliament passed laws to oppress starving people.

The worst year was 1847, called “Black ‘47.” In that year the dead, the dying, and the starving could be found all over Ireland.

As a result many Irish gathered whatever minimal resources they had and sailed for America.
The ships they sailed on were invariably poor quality, almost unseaworthy, overcrowded, and typically filthy. Some were indeed of good quality, however; but the impoverished Irish usually stayed well below decks in steerage where conditions were poor and harsh.

The Irish immigrants sailed on a dangerous and often deadly voyage across the Atlantic with many dying from an illness called “famine fever.” This illness was simply a result of various harmful things -- lack of food, bad food, no medicine, no doctors, inadequate warm clothing, hazardous and unsanitary living conditions onboard ships, various communicable diseases like dysentery, typhus, and a host of fevers and flues. Add to this the hazards of the sea and any pre-existing medical conditions, both physical and psychological, all of these abuses resulted in physical and mental deterioration and in very many cases death.

These ships which the Irish immigrants had to sail on to America were, as a result, known as
“coffin ships.”  In many cases a person was as good as dead once he walked on board. But there was little alternative. Die in Ireland or risk death at sea.

Replica of a Famine Ship, Jeanie Johnston (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
See more at
There were many coffin ships and many dangerous and deadly voyages to the United States and to Canada. The Larch, for example, which sailed in 1847 had 440 passengers -- 108 died. The Queen had 493 passengers; 137 died. The Avon had 552 passengers, and it had 236 deaths  in the voyage. (See MacManus p.610.)

In Canada at a spot called Grosse Island in the St. Lawrence seaway, the Irish immigrants were put ashore into quarantine. It was reported that about 6,000 Irish immigrants died after being removed over time from various coffin ships. They typically arrived emaciated, sick with fever, and poorly clothed for the harsh climate. We can only speculate as to their mental health.

Here are just two examples of the many which carried thousands upon thousands of Irish to a new life where they at first met nothing but more prejudice and poverty but eventually, after much struggle, equality and prosperity.

Fr. Thomas Hore led a group of 1,200 of his Irish Catholic parishioners from County Wexford in Ireland to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1850. This difficult trip of over 5000 miles went from Dublin to Liverpool to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi River to Iowa. They sailed on three ships headed to America  -- Ticonderoga, Chacsa, and Loodianah. The fare was five pounds. For this a passenger got a small space to put luggage, if they had any, a bunk bed, and sustenance consisting of limited drinking water, some flour, oatmeal, rice, some sugar, molasses, and tea. The journey across the Atlantic Ocean would take over a month. Fr. Hore established a community for his Irish travelers in Allamakee County in Iowa near the border with Wisconsin. They cut down trees and built a church and called it St. George’s Church. Then they named the place where they settled Wexford. So, Wexford, Ireland now became Wexford, Iowa.

In 1849 an Irish Catholic named Patrick sailed on the Washington Irving from Liverpool to Boston, Massachusetts. His family had a farm but could no longer pay the rent due to the potato blight. His older brother had died. He had a sister named Mary, a brother named James, and two elderly parents. Patrick felt that the only way he could help his family, since to remain in Ireland was impossible without employment or funds, was to emigrate to America. And so when Patrick saw an advertisement for the Train & Company’s Regular Line of Packets going from Liverpool to Boston, he decided to sail away on one of their ships, the Washington Irving. He might be able to get a job in America and maybe, somehow, someway, help his family. At least now they would have one less mouth to feed.

Patrick was 26 years old when he left home in New Ross never to return for an uncertain future.
The Washington Irving had a class for the rich which was very nice indeed with accouterments even for fine dining -- linen cloth, proper dining china, and silver forks, and spoons. Where the Irish immigrants stayed below decks in steerage, however, was a totally different situation. Patrick, like the other Irish emigrants would be lucky if they got some salty fish, or cheese, and bread which were typically old, stale, and nearly inedible.

Patrick met an Irish girl on board named Bridget Murphy. They liked each other, fell in love, and were eventually married. The couple joined the many, many Irish Catholics who landed in Boston only to be met with disdain and outright bigotry and hate by the established population. “No Irish Need Apply” is what Patrick and Bridget faced -- anti-Irish and Anti-Catholic bigotry.

But, Patrick did get work as a cooper -- a workman or smith who produced copper products. He made barrels from wood to earn money too.

Patrick’s story is not much different from that of any of the other impoverished and struggling Irish Catholic immigrant in those bad days … except for one thing. This Patrick was Patrick Kennedy, the great grandfather of John F. Kennedy.  In 112 years his great grandson would become the 35th president of the United States.

A descendant of Patrick Kennedy
who left Ireland during the Irish Famine in 1849,
John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Potato Famine killed a million Irish people and drove a million away never to return home.
The coffin ships killed many more, but they also brought many to America. The ancestors of Henry Ford, Eugene O’Neill, and countless others -- famous and not famous -- took a chance -- in most cases the last chance -- on a daring voyage to America. The result was that the majority of the Irish on planet Earth are no longer Irish. They are Americans.

Sources and further reading:

Curriculum guide for the State of New Jersey, USA for the Great Irish Famine for Holocaust studies

New York state teaches the Irish Famine in schools ; The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America by Edward Laxton, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996; Article about Fr. Hore and Wexford, Iowa at ; Wikipedia article on the Great Famine (Potato Famine) at ; States which teach the Famine in schools ; Wikimedia Commons article on Coffin Ships at ; About the song “Skibbereen” at Irish Traditional Music Archives at  ; Site for the New Jersey Department of Education which mentions the Irish Famine ; The Great Irish Famine Teacher’s Synopsis for New Jersey at ; About the Jeanie Johnston famine ship at ; Read about the Irish Workhouses at ; Sketch of Irish woman and children 
from Illustrated London News, 1849 (Wikimedia Commons) ; Leaving Ireland for America Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
(Wikimedia Commons) is at ; A Workhouse in 1846, overcrowded and filled with disease 
(Wikimedia Commons) is at,_comprising_the_development_of_social_(14749361956).jpg ; photo of JFK at,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_up.jpg; photo of Famine Monument at Murrisk at; Story of the Irish Race by Seumas Mac Manus, Devin - Adair Co. New York, 1975


  1. Well done. Enjoyed reading this.

  2. Great article. It is incredible that this was allowed to happen. In fairness the English were not guilty for the potatoe blight per se but their reaction was nothing short of criminal. Would you believe soup kitchens were closed in 1847 at the height of the famine. Research has shown that at least one of my great great grandfathers did not survive the famine. We were all part of the UK back then but some 'citizens' were persona non gratis and dispensable. Would this have happened in the Midlands or the West Country in England? Absolutely not. I would suggest that if it had happened in the Scottish Highlands they would have suffered a similar faith. God bless America for taking the Irish.

  3. At what point in history did Ireland cease to be so dependent on potatoes?

  4. Great article and very comprehensive and accurate. I would urge all those of Irish desent to NEVER refer to that period as a famine, use either an Gorta Mor or the Great Hunger. Even though there were Irish that died during the crossing on Anerican and Dutch ships death rate aboard British ships was unbelieveable. So not only did the British government fail to meet the needs of their Irish tenants they also helped bury many more at sea.

  5. Good read. My gg grandfather Left at the blights onset in May of 1845 with his twin sisters. His to be wife came over from Galway in 1849. The Sheehans came from west Cork in 1863. The earliest to emmigrate came to Newfoundland in 1810 missing the blight. I had ancestors that came out of Waterford in the 1850s.

  6. Very interesting read thank you .

  7. really interesting..but how cruel to treat treat the Irish people starve them throw out of their many innocent lives taken disgusting..r.i.p.

  8. The first time I read a true account of the "famine" I said: "This is genocide!" My dear mother recently passed away at 100... Her Great Grandfather came over mid 19th century with his large family settled in MN.---I assume for the opportunity to have a great farm for his large family. Three of his oldest sons fought in the Civil War. My mother's Grandfather (and thus my Great Grandfather)

  9. I'm in the Boston area and we were never taught about this and I went to Catholic School. My grandmother hated the English and called them John Bulls.

  10. My Great granparents left Eire in the early 1850s. They sailed to Melbourne Australia and took part in The Eureka rebellion at the Balaarat Gold fields. The Condons came from Tipperary and the O'Donohues from Balinasloe. They eventually took up selections to farm and prospered.

  11. Thank you for this most informative article.

  12. I wrote a song about a woman’s struggle to emigrate during the famine of 1845-50. (The name of it is Coffin Ships.) This is a link to the YouTube video:

    If you like it, I’d be honored if you post it and share it. I wrote it after my last trip to Ireland.

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  14. Again, thanks for all the info and sources for further reading. In my writings, I include a settlement on the St. Lawrence River, Hammond, were the Scots settled, then moved out from there, eventually landing in the southern Adirondacks. Patricia Ann Wadsworth