The National Famine Commemoration took place at the Alber Basin in Newry in Northern Ireland over the weekend. At the commemoration, Stormont minister for culture Carál Ní Chuilín gave an account of the sinking of the Hannah, a famine coffin ship.

The Hannah left Warrenpoint, a major port of emigration during the famine years, on April 4 with approximately 170 passengers and crew on board. The ship hit an iceberg on April 29, 1849, and sank in the Gulf of St Lawrence. At least 49 people were killed.

Many children, who were trapped below deck, perished in the sinking. One mother lost six children. Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys told of the Murphy family from Mullaghbane who lost two of their children in the tragedy and whose descendants still live in North Crosby, Ontario. Most of those on board were from south Armagh. 

One eyewitness at the time reported of the survivors: “No pen can describe the pitiful situation of the poor creatures. They were all but naked, cut and bruised and frostbitten. There were children who lost parents and parents who lost children. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible.”

Dr Eamon Phoenix, a member of the famine memorial committee, stated that the famine affected both Catholic and Protestant communities in the North. Between 1845 and 1851, the population of the historic province of Ulster dropped by 16 percent. The worst affected county was Cavan where 43 percent of the population was lost through either death or emigration, the Irish Times reports.

The famine had a “searing impact on the traditionally prosperous parts of east Ulster,” he said, adding that it was particularly notable around Lurgan and Portadown in Armagh.

This year was the first time the annual commemoration, which was first held in 2008, was held in Northern Ireland. Representatives of the diplomatic corps from more than 30 countries attended the event and laid wreathes.

On Sunday, a commemorative plaque honoring all those who emigrated and all of the people who suffered as a result of the famine was unveiled in Warrenpoint, Co. Down.