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The Coffin Ships of The Great Irish Famine

During the Great Famine of Ireland in the mid-19th century, tens of thousands of starving Irish families fled the country and emigrated to Canada and the United States. Most of the ships that sailed during the famine years were overcrowded and poorly built and had a horrible reputation of unseaworthiness.

“Lasting up to six weeks, the Atlantic crossing was a terrible trial for those brave, or desperate, enough to attempt it,” says the website of the Dunbrody Famine Ship museum in New Ross, Ireland. “Packed cheek by jowl below decks, the steerage passengers barely saw the light of day. Allowed up on deck for no more than one hour a day, in small groups, they would gather around open stoves to cook. When their time was up, it was back down into the dark, dank hold. During the regular storms the hatches were battened down, and the passengers would subsist on hard-tack biscuits.”

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Painting by Rodney Charman, Irish Coffin Ship, Below Deck, 1970

“Hygiene was notoriously poor aboard most ships. With nothing more than buckets for toilets, and only sea-water to wash with, disease was rampant. Cholera and Typhus accounted for a great many deaths.”

According to History Places, “many of the passengers were already ill with typhus as they boarded the ships. Before boarding, they had been given the once-over by doctors on shore who usually rejected no one for the trip, even those seemingly on the verge of death. British ships were not required to carry doctors. Anyone that died during the sea voyage was simply dumped overboard, without any religious rites.”

“Belowdecks, hundreds of men, women and children huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation, breathing a stench of vomit and the effects of diarrhea amid no sanitary facilities. On ships that actually had sleeping berths, there were no mattresses and the berths were never cleaned. Many sick persons remained in bare wooden bunks lying in their own filth for the entire voyage, too ill to get up.”

Despite the horrible conditions, Irish emigrants still boarded these ships in order to escape starvation back home. A journalist for the Irish Times observed that passengers "were only flying from one form of death".

Many perished during the journey due to disease and malnutrition. Those who died were buried at sea. So many bodies were thrown overboard that sharks were often seen following the ships. In time, these boats became known as 'coffin ships'.

The ships that survived the Atlantic crossing arrived at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle, a small island thirty miles downstream from Quebec City, Canada. The first vessel arrived on 17 May 1847 carrying 430 fever cases, followed by eight more ships a few days later. One week later seventeen more vessels appeared at Grosse Isle, and only two days afterwards the number of vessels reached thirty, with 10,000 immigrants now waiting to be processed. By the end of May, forty ships containing 14,000 immigrants formed a line two miles long down the St. Lawrence River.

It took up to two weeks before anybody could see a doctor. Many healthy Irish awaiting entry into the island contacted typhus and succumbed to the illness having been forced to remain in their lice-infested holds. One ship reached Grosse Isle with 427 passengers but only 150 survived the waiting period.

Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to British North America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition, including over five thousand at Grosse Isle.

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The National Famine Monument at the base of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, County Mayo, Ireland depicts a coffin ship with skeletons and bones as rigging. Photo credit: Pat O'Malley/Flickr

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Photo credit: Smythe Richbourg/Flickr

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Photo credit: Tanya Hart/Flickr

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A reproduction of the insides of a coffin ship at the Dunbrody Famine Ship. Photo credit: www.dunbrody.com

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A reproduction of the insides of a coffin ship at the Dunbrody Famine Ship. Photo credit: www.dunbrody.com

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Life Onboard the Coffin Ships at Cobh Heritage Centre, Co. Cork, Ireland. Photo credit: Nicola Barnett/Flickr

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