"The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine" explores the accepted truisms that limit our understanding of Irish migration through history.

Editor's note: This is an extract from the introduction to Cian T. McMahon's book "The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine".

In his colorful history of the Kennedys—Irish America’s first family— John H. Davis imaginatively reconstructed the “probable shipboard experiences” of JFK’s great-grandparents, who sailed on an emigrant ship from New Ross to Boston during the Great Famine. Life below deck, where the emigrants were quartered, was dark and dangerous.

“The sick vomited and moaned, women shrieked in childbirth, and men fought over a few inches of bunk or an insult to a county of origin,” wrote Davis.

Rape was “a common occurrence” as crew members regularly molested female passengers during storms. Worst of all, death ran rampant in these vessels, leaving only one in three passengers to survive the ordeal.

“‘Coffin ships,’ these were called,” Davis claimed, “and indeed the only coffins the dead had been the ships they died in.”

This one-dimensional portrait of Famine-era emigrant vessels as “coffin ships” has long overshadowed any hope for a true understanding of the voyage.

When we use the actual words of the emigrants themselves to scratch its surface, however, we get a much more complicated but clearer picture of what life was actually like.

In the autumn of 1847, when shipboard mortality was at historically high levels, Thomas McGinity emigrated with his son from Ireland to New York. Soon after arriving, he penned a letter to his loved ones back home to let them know they had arrived. That note sits, along with hundreds of other emigrant letters, in Belfast’s Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

An illustration of life inside a coffin ship.

An illustration of life inside a coffin ship.

“I take this favorable opportunity of writing to youse to let youse know that I and John arrived safely, thank God, after a passage of thirty days,” wrote Thomas.

“I never had better health than that which I had at sea.”

Of course, McGinity ought not to be taken as representative of all emigrants who sailed from Ireland in 1847 (or any other year) for there were many who suffered and died. But his letter is significant because it offers us an intriguing new angle on the strange and complicated story of the Great Famine exodus. And it begs an important question: what would happen if we used the words and experiences of the Irish emigrants themselves to re-create, and thus more fully understand, that epic moment in modern history?

We need this kind of fresh perspective because historians have long ignored the sea journey, treating it as little more than a brief interlude in the grand drama of human migration. This is particularly true of those who study Ireland’s Great Famine.

“The miserable epic of the Atlantic crossing in these years has been told so often and well that it hardly seems necessary to recount its dreadful details,” explained historian Robert Scally, in 1995.

“Flanked by the scenes of Skibbereen and Grosse Isle at either end of the voyage, the ‘coffin ship’ stands as the center panel of the famine triptych.”

A detail of the Famime Memorial along the quays of the Liffey in Dublin.

A detail of the Famime Memorial along the quays of the Liffey in Dublin.

Although most academic historians, including Scally, have long questioned the veracity of the proverbial “coffin ship,” their lack of a robust alternative has allowed a range of ahistorical elisions and distortions to survive. It is still often assumed, for example, that the term “coffin ships” originated during the Famine.

In fact, the phrase predated the 1840s, was barely mentioned during the Famine and became popular among Irish nationalists only in the early 1880s as a rhetorical weapon with which to combat landlords and British misgovernment during the Land War.

The notion of the “coffin ship” also limits the story of Ireland’s Famine migration to a primarily transatlantic one, thus crowding out the smaller but important streams of people (including transported convicts) who traveled to Britain and Australia between 1845 and 1855. Perhaps most importantly, the picture of Irish emigrants as trapped in “coffins” has stripped them of their liveliness, creativity, and agency.

I have titled this book "The Coffin Ship", therefore, precisely as a way to open up and then challenge the accepted truisms that have limited a fuller understanding of not only Irish migration during the Famine but also human migration more broadly.

The emigrant voyage began long before one’s ship set sail and lasted beyond that first sight of land. My goal in this book is to rescue that process from its historical obscurity and thus resituate the sailing ship, alongside the tenement and the weekly newspaper, as a dynamic element of migration history.

An illustration of the grief felt during the Great Hunger.

An illustration of the grief felt during the Great Hunger.

Using letters, diaries, government documents, and newspapers scattered across archives and libraries on three continents, The Coffin Ship focuses on the lived experiences of the migrants themselves.

My original goal was to identify and understand the strategies that Famine-era Irish emigrants used to survive crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Given that folks who were headed to Britain and Australia employed many of the same tactics used by their friends and families en route to Canada and the United States, however, it soon became clear that maintaining strict distinctions between migratory streams to the northern and southern hemispheres would only hamper the project’s full potential.

Nationalist politician John O’Connell’s 1854 demand that emigrant vessels be at least as seaworthy as convict ships points to another important factor: that those Irish who sailed on convict transports (many of whom did so voluntarily) constituted another trickle in the flood of migrants during this time period. At a broader level, it also became apparent to me that the weeks or months one spent on a ship were only part of the journey.

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A nineteenth-century sea voyage was actually a long process, which began with the collection of resources to leave and ended as one started to settle in one’s host community. At every step of the way, migrants relied on local and international networks of communication and exchange.

This book’s core argument, therefore, holds that the migratory process was not merely about enabling individuals to move here or there. In fact, by encouraging the transnational exchange of money, tickets, advice, and news, the voyage itself fostered the development of countless new threads in the worldwide web of the Irish diaspora.

* "The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine" is available online here.