On a blustery July day, I descend the narrow ladder into the depths of the Dunbrody, an exact replica of a three-masted sailing ship that ferried thousands of Irish people across the Atlantic to New York and Quebec during the Famine years.
I have often wondered what it would have been like to make that journey. Would I have had what it takes to survive the five-to-six-week passage? I know for sure that I wouldn’t have been much fun to travel with. I suffer acutely from motion sickness, so God help anyone who was sharing my berth.
I’m also a borderline claustrophobe. What strikes me as I stand at the bottom of the ladder surveying the lower deck, is how small the hold of the ship is. When you take away the crew’s quarters, the captain’s cabin, the cargo area, and the space for cabin passengers, you are left with the middle “steerage” section and it’s not that big.
Stacked bunks set up on both sides of this section measure six feet by six feet, which would be fine if it was for just one person. It wasn’t. An adult was allotted 18 inches of sleeping space, a child half of that. Whole families and their belongings were crowded into these bunks. There was no separation of men from women, single from married, and no privacy. A rudimentary toilet served the two first class cabins; the steerage passengers made do with a bucket. If the weather was good you were allowed on deck once a day for 30 minutes, if it was stormy, you were locked in below. Rations were meager; dry, hard bread was a staple.
I would have had to be pretty desperate to get on such a ship. Most of the passengers on the Dunbrody were. They were escaping starvation and evictions – they had little choice but to leave.
The Dunbrody, moored now in New Ross, Co. Wexford, the port from which she sailed, was designed to carry 187 passengers, but we know from records that when she arrived at the quarantine station on Grosse Ile, in July 1847, she had 317 passengers on board. Four had already died – two old people, a young girl, and an infant. Three people were detained in quarantine. We don’t know if they recovered or are buried with the other 4,000-5,000 Irish who lie in mass graves on the island.
The rest of the passengers continued on their way.
The Emigration History Centre
What the journey was like for these passengers, the scene on the quayside before they left, and their experiences on landing in the New World, are all stories explored in the new Emigration History Centre that has been built up around the Dunbrody. The archive of Graves & Sons, the shipping firm that built the original ship, is at the heart of the exhibition. Every passenger you hear or read about is based on a real person who made the journey. Actors in period costume bring you their stories, and audio and visuals help enhance the experience. Photographs from the 1800s – of logging camps in Canada and tenements of New York (the two ports of call for the Dunbrody were Quebec and New York) help us understand what life was like for the new immigrant.
The Irish America Hall of Fame, which was established by Irish America in 2010, occupies its own
section and honors those immigrants and their descendants who made significant contributions to America. On July 8, Michael Flatley, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, was guest of honor at the opening ceremony.
“To be here is a very humbling experience,” he said, addressing the 400 or so gathered. “Standing in this magnificent structure, I’m reminded of all the tears that were shed right on this very spot. How many mothers cried right here?” he wondered. His own mother who emigrated from this area looked on. “When people said goodbye here and landed in the New World, they weren’t always welcomed with open arms. It was a hostile new world and many were greeted with signs that read ‘No Irish need apply.’ They didn’t sit around crying, they didn’t go on the dole – they fought, they worked and many of them came back as heroes. And this is something this center allows us to celebrate and acknowledge. It’s very important that we recognize not only the difficult times but also celebrate our achievements as a race,” he said.
I spoke to Michael after he toured the ship with his wife, Niamh, and their son, Michael St. James. He was visibly moved. “This place is not just important now. It will be important a hundred years from now that this history is recorded,” he said.
Sean Reidy, the man behind the Dunbrody and the Emigration Centre, is also the CEO of the JFK Trust, which promotes development in this area of the southeast.
Back in 1991, the Trust was looking to build a heritage center in New Ross, and Sean had the idea of building a sailing ship that would reflect the maritime heritage and the emigration
history of the port.