New facts about Great Famine emigration out of Ireland revealed
Between 1845 and 1855, more than 80,000 Irish died on coffin ships bound for America
“The Famine emigrations represent one of the greatest population displacements of modern times, an exodus on a stunning scale that has no other nineteenth century parallel,” writes Dr Ciarán Ó Murchadha in his latest book, The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845 – 52, which was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Longman – History Today ‘Book of the Year’ international award.
“Between 1845 and 1855, approximately one-quarter of the inhabitants of an entire European nation, amounting to some 2.1 million persons, were permanently removed from their homeland.”
Over 95% of those who left Ireland during the Famine travelled across the Atlantic and about 70% of all emigrants who arrived in the United States settled – typically in cities of over 100,000 – in seven northerly states: New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts.
The total numbers who died during passage is unknown, but Dr Ó Murchadha, who teaches history and Irish at St. Flannan’s College, Ennis in County Clare, estimates that it may have been more than 80,000. Fever – due both to the condition of those who embarked and the filthy conditions aboard – was the primary cause of death.
The Great Famine includes a vivid description of life on these ‘coffin ships’ written by Stephen de Vere, son of a County Limerick landlord, who travelled steerage to Quebec in 1847. Passengers were “huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere”. They were “sick in body, dispirited in heart…living without food…dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep without the rites of the Church.”
However, surviving the voyage was not the end of the hardship for Famine emigrants. In fact, for most, it was just the beginning of a new chapter of desolation.
“A great number of these emigrants had never previously ventured outside their own local areas,” says Dr Ó Murchadha. “Suddenly, they found themselves transported thousands of miles away: from a rural to an urban landscape, to a very alien social environment where the inhabitants didn’t speak the same language and, frequently, showed a deep loathing for their Irishness and their Catholicism. This was bewildering and devastating to them.”
Gullible and unprepared for exile, many Famine emigrants were overwhelmed by their new surroundings and became easy prey for exploitation. In most cases, the book suggests, the predators were not unscrupulous Anglo-Saxons but, instead, fellow Irish who wielded their soothing, familiar tones – in Irish or English – to lull the new arrivals into trusting them.
Most of the Famine Irish struggled to improve their circumstances. “For all but a lucky few,” the author writes, “the lot of the Famine immigrants was grinding poverty, unemployment or backbreaking, dangerous work for little pay. Immigrants’ lives were shortened by work-slavery, psychological alienation and the alcohol with which many sought to obtain relief from both.”
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