This week marks the 168th anniversary of a British periodical’s announcement that potatoes in Ireland were infested with blight. On September 13, 1845, the Gardeners’ Chronicle printed the notice that they had stopped the press “to announce that the Potato Murrain has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland.” What followed was a nation filled with people weakened by dysentery, typhus, cholera, starvation and death.
From 1845 to 1851, over 1 million people died as a result of the blight and another million boarded ships bound for Canada and the United States. Those vessels had anywhere from 160 to over 300 passengers crammed in steerage during the voyage across the Atlantic. These ships became known as “coffin ships” with 20 to 50 percent of the passengers dying at sea. The historic replica of the famine ship Dunbrody in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland, details what passengers endured during “the Great Hunger” (an Gorta Mór in Irish), including hardships on the voyage to North America.
Cargo Ship to Passenger Ship
A local family of merchants, named Graves, lived in New Ross. The family had commissioned a new cargo ship to be added to their existing fleet. Dunbrody, was built in Quebec by shipwright Thomas Hamilton Oliver, and would sail to and from Canada, the U.S. and South America. She was launched in 1845, the same year the potato blight began.
So many people were leaving Ireland that there weren’t enough ships to handle the crowds. Even though Dunbrody was designed to carry timber, cotton and guano, the Graves’ and other merchants had their cargo vessels converted to passenger ships by outfitting them with bunks. It cost money to cross the Atlantic and passengers either had to purchase tickets or landlords paid to have the poor families sent overseas. Those passengers who purchased a higher priced ticket had better accommodations during the voyage. Most passengers, however, could barely afford the minimum price. They either could only go as far as England, or they made the voyage below deck in steerage.
Depending on the weather, passengers could expect to spend anywhere from six weeks to three months at sea. They were allowed one hour a day on deck. The rest of the time was spent down below in a space that was overcrowded and dirty with only buckets for toilets and wooden bunks for beds. Hatches remained closed during storms which made the lack of fresh air even worse. Passengers existed on hard-tack biscuits. Disease was rampant followed by numerous deaths and burials at sea.
Arrival of Emigrant Ships
Many of the ships sailed to Quebec during the famine. When they reached the St. Lawrence River, they were supposed to be inspected and passengers who were ill were to be taken to a medical facility on Grosse Island. By June 1847, 40 ships stretched for two miles down the river, filled with over 14,000 Irish who were waiting for their chance to disembark. The situation rapidly grew worse. Later that summer, the line of ships had lengthened to several miles. Passengers who had survived the voyage contacted typhus while they were waiting to go ashore. Many died on board. The only way to bury them was to dump them in the river.
Dunbrody made several voyages to Quebec and, like so many others, had to wait several days in the St. Lawrence River with her passengers still aboard. She also took Irish emigrants to New York. She had a lower percentage of deaths than the other ships due the skill of Captain John Baldwin, from 1845 to 1848, and his successor, Captain John W. Williams. By the time the famine was over, she had taken thousands of Irish to Canada and the United States.
She continued in service as a cargo ship until 1875 when she was blown off course by fierce winds onto the shore of Labrador. She was carrying a heavy load of timber at the time and sustained damages beyond repair.
New Ross and the Kennedy Legacy
New Ross is where Patrick Kennedy, the great-grandfather of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, boarded a ship in 1849 and sailed to Boston. President Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, stopping at New Ross and his ancestral home of Dunganstown. The JFK Trust was formed in 1988 to commemorate his legacy.
The replica of the famine ship Dunbrody was made possible by the JFK Trust. The design of the original ship was thoroughly researched. Top naval architect Colin Mudie and shipwrights headed by Michael Kennedy supervised apprentice shipwrights and carpenters. It took five years, but the historic replica was launched February 11, 2001. Since then, she has told the story of one of the darkest periods of Irish history in a way that only she can provide.
She is moored at the Quay of New Ross but has also participated in the 2005 Waterford Tall Ships Festival and the 2006 Maiden International Voyage Festival. She is open year-round, seven days a week.
Written by: Cynthia Collins
Irish Potato Famine