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Did you Know? Irish Coffin Ships

irish coffin ships3As mentioned in a previous blog, the Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1849 had a huge impact in Ireland with the greatest impact being in the western and southern areas of Ireland. It was a time of mass starvation, disease, and emigration. During the famine, about one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland.

The tenant farmers could no longer grow potatoes to feed their families and could not afford to pay their rent. Landlords would apply for a legal judgment against the male head of the family for outstanding rent. He would be thrown in jail and his wife and children would be left homeless. Hundreds of notices to appear in court were handed out causing most poor families to just flee.

Some landlords would pay to send their poor tenants overseas to North America. They would make false promises of money, food, and clothing, then pack them into overcrowded British sailing ships. These ships were poorly built and often unseaworthy. They became known as coffin ships.

This is the story of the Dunbrody Famine Ship. The original Dunbrody was built in 1845 in Quebec by the expert shipwright Thomas Hamilton Oliver, an Irish immigrant from Co. Derry. The ship was built in only six months under the supervision her first master Captain John Baldwin, who captained her from 1845 to March 1848. The Dunbrody was designed as a cargo ship to haul timber from Canada, cotton from the southern states of the U.S.A. and guano from Peru.

irish coffin ships2

But In 1845, the very year of her launch, famine struck Ireland causing widespread starvation and forcing more than a million people to flee Ireland. With so many people leaving there were not enough passenger ships to carry them all. Entrepreneurial merchants took the opportunity to fit out their cargo ships with bunks to meet the extra demand. Between 1845 and 1851 the Dunbrody carried thousands of emigrants to North America. However, because of lax regulations ships the size of the Dunbrody carried anywhere from 160 passengers to over 300.

The travelling conditions on the ship were deplorable. Only two classes of passengers were carried by the Dunbrody. The cabin passengers, paying between £5 and £8 per person, had substantial food and services provided. The steerage passengers were not so fortunate. They had to pay between £3 and £4. A steerage ticket for the average tenant farmer was beyond their means as they only made a little more than £1 per month. Steerage passengers largely had to fend for themselves. Bunks six-foot square was allocated to up to four passengers and their children and not necessarily related to each other. Often 50% died on passage so they were known as "coffin ships".

irish coffins shipsIn the spring of 1847, there were 40 ships containing 14,000 Irish immigrants waiting in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence River waiting to disembark at the quarantine station at Grosse Ile in Quebec. The facility was overwhelmed by the numbers arriving forcing many people to wait weeks before they could even leave their ships. Captain Baldwin of the Dunbrody wrote that “the Dunbrody was detained in quarantine for five days because there were too many ships queuing in the St. Lawrence River….. dozens of corpses are thrown overboard from many ships….. many ships ran out of fresh water leaving passengers and crew to drink the water from the river. God help them!”

Join Tour Host, Jo-Anne Tinlin, to visit one of these coffin ships and learn more about this tragic period in Irish history.  More details at The Travel Broker's "Exploring Ireland Coast to Coast" tour. Everyone is welcome.


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