The Great Famine in Ireland caused death and suffering for people throughout the country. Many people died, and many others emigrated from Ireland in order to escape the famine. When most people in the modern world think about Irish immigration during the Great Famine, they think of a very typical, simplistic narrative that focuses on a sense of exile from one’s home country, the hardships that immigrants faced on their journey, and their eventual success upon reaching the Americas. Aspects of this typical narrative of Irish immigration are often memorialized; for example, the National Famine memorial in Ireland invokes Irish experiences on coffin ships.
However, this typical narrative of Irish immigration to the Americas ignores some important aspects of Irish immigration, such as the fact that Irish immigrants were major participants in the draft riots. Even aspects of the Irish famine experience that are commemorated by memorials, such as the Kindred Spirits memorial commemorating Choctaw efforts to aid famine victims, are left out of the typical narrative of Irish immigration. The reality of the Irish immigrant experience was much more complicated that the typical narrative of Irish immigration lets on.
CLICK HERE to learn about the Great Famine. CLICK HERE to learn about potato blight. CLICK HERE to learn about immigration on coffin ships. CLICK HERE to learn about the immigrants’ arrival in North America. CLICK HERE to learn about living conditions of Irish immigrants. CLICK HERE to learn about the draft riots. CLICK HERE to learn about memorials to famine victims.
Whyte, Robert. Robert Whyte’s 1847 Famine Ship Diary: The Journey of an Irish Coffin Ship. Edited by James J. Mangan. Cork: Mercier Press, 1994.
Anbinder, Tyler. “Lord Palmerston and the Irish Famine Emigration.” Historical Journal 44, no. 2 (June 2001): 441-469. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3133615.
Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Corporaal, Marguerite and Christopher Cusack. “Rites of Passage: The Coffin Ship as a Site of Immigrants’ Identity Formation in Irish and Irish American Fiction, 1855-85.” Atlantic Studies 8, no. 3 (September 2011): 343-359. http://proxy.geneseo.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hia&AN=64133810&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2001.
Eide, Marian. “Famine Memory and Contemporary Irish Poetry.” Twentieth Century Literature 64, no. 1 (Mar 2017): 21-48.
Ireland Story. “The Famine 2: Distribution of Famine Effects.” Last modified 2001. http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/famine/distribution.html.
Jackson, Pauline. “Women in 19th Century Irish Emigration.” International Migration Review 18, no.4 (Winter 1984): 1004-1020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2546070.
Lloyd, David. “The Indigent Sublime: Specters of Irish Hunger.” Representations 92, no.1 (Fall 2005):152-185. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2005.92.1.152.
“National Famine Monument, Westport in Co. Mayo.” County Mayo: Where Ireland Goes Wild. Accessed November 13, 2018. http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/westport/visitors-guide/national-famine-monument.html
O’Rourke, John. The History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847: with Notices of Earlier Irish Famines. London: Dodo Press, 2009.
Wikipedia contributors. “Blight.” Last Modified October 2, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blight.
Wikipedia contributors. “Kindred Spirits (sculpture).” Last modified September 15, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindred_Spirits_(sculpture).
Immigrants from Ireland faced difficulties upon arriving in the Americas. In 1847, especially, some ports were flooded with sick immigrants, and these ports were not equipped to deal with the amount of sick and hungry people who were arriving. Once quarantine measures were put in place, passengers were forced to stay on their ships for eight days so that they could be checked for contagious diseases. The quarantine did not work as effectively as it might have due to the number of immigrants needing to be quarantined; in September of 1847, there were at least 14,000 immigrants stuck in quarantine in the ships they had arrived from Ireland in. On these ships, the dead passengers were not removed regularly, and sometimes the dead would remain in the ships alongside living and extremely ill passengers for days. Sick passengers were sent from quarantine on ships to hospitals on islands such as Partridge Island and Grosse Ile. Even these hospitals were not equipped to deal with the amount of sick immigrants who passed through their doors; they quickly became overcrowded, and at Grosse Ile, the doctors and officials were overwhelmed and many passengers died. The death toll of quarantined immigrants was 50 people per day at one point in the summer of 1847. Additionally, immigrants arrived in North America poor, sick, and starving, and many were initially too sick to find work, which only worsened their lot in life. Even the people who were healthy when they arrived in North America often became sick because the temporary shelters they lived in after arriving were often overcrowded and unsanitary.
There is currently a memorial in Grosse Ile to those who died during the famine, created over a mass grave. It is the largest mass grave of famine victims, including the mass graves in Ireland. The monument claims that 5,424 people are buried in that mass grave; however, this estimate doesn’t begin to encompass the number of Irish immigrants who died while immigrating to the Americas. One scholar estimates that, all told, just under 50,000 people died due to immigration on the coffin ships. Included in this number are people who survived the coffin ships and quarantine, and traveled from Grosse Ile to cities in Canada, before dying in one of those cities in a fever hospital or an emigrant shed. These sorts of deaths are not commemorated by the Grosse Ile memorial, and they are also left out of the typical narrative of the Irish immigration experience. Immigration is typically thought of following the “American Dream” narrative, which not only ignores the fact that Irish emigrants traveled to countries other than the United States, but also ignores the fact that many immigrants were treated poorly or callously, and died of disease and poor conditions, upon their arrival in the Americas.
CLICK HERE to learn more about the difficulties immigrants faced upon arriving in the Americas.
CLICK HERE to learn about other memorials to famine victims.
Although many Irish people emigrated from Ireland in order to escape suffering due to the famine, they faced a new set of challenges while immigrating. During the year 1847 especially, immigrants were crowded into disease-ridden ships, which have been referred to as ‘coffin ships’ because of the high death that tolls for passengers. Not only were the ships overcrowded, in many cases, they had been intended to hold lumber, rather than passengers. The ships were not designed for the comfort and safety of many passengers, and furthermore, many of them were not in good condition for sailing.
Diseases such as typhus and dysentery spread quickly on crowded ships. Many peasants were already ill when they boarded these ships, and the unsanitary conditions on the ships aided the spread of disease. In 1847, especially, the spread of typhus and dysentery on coffin ships reached levels that have been referred to as “epidemic.” The immigrants who died on board coffin ships were quickly buried at sea. Out of the 4,427 immigrants who traveled to Montreal in July of 1847, 804 died at sea and 847 were sick when they arrived in Montreal. Not to mention, illness threatened the supply of rations, as the sick tended to be thirsty, and rations could be further threatened if the conditions of a ship or the weather conditions caused a voyage to stretch on longer than intended. In other cases, passengers had been so desperate to leave Ireland and the famine behind that they didn’t prepare well enough for long voyages.
Robert Whyte, a passenger on one of the coffin ships, described the conditions on these ships in the diary he kept of the experience, saying in one entry, “A few convalescents appeared upon deck. The appearance of the poor creatures was miserable in the extreme. We now had fifty sick, being nearly one half of the whole number of passengers. Some entire families, being prostrated, were dependent on the charity of their neighbors… The brother of the two men who died on the sixth instant followed them today… The old sails being all used up, his remains were placed in two meal-sacks…” Whyte’s account highlights the hardships that passengers faced on coffin ships, as almost half of the ships’ passengers were sick, and so many had died that the old sails were used up burying people at sea.
However, Whyte’s diary simultaneously reveals the gaps in the typical narrative of the Irish immigrant experience. In one of his earliest entries, Whyte says that “On account of this discovery [of a stowaway], there was a general muster in the afternoon, affording me an opportunity of seeing all of the emigrants- and a more motley crowd I never beheld.” When people think of Irish immigration, they typically think of the Irish as a unified class of people, and Whyte’s account reveals that this was not the case, as Whyte clearly thinks of himself as separate from the rest of the immigrants. Earlier in his account, he notes that he has his own stateroom, which shows that he was of a higher economic class than most of the immigrants on the boat. Whyte’s account also shows that Irish famine immigrants were looked on with pity and disgust, even by their own countrymen, an aspect of Irish immigration that is often left out of the typical narrative.
On top of all the difficulties that immigrants faced on board coffin ships, they also had to contend with the looming threat of shipwreck. On one voyage in May of 1847, for example, a ship called the Carricks was wrecked off of the coast of Quebec. Only a quarter of the passengers were able to swim to shore and survive.
Even once they reached their destinations, immigrants weren’t guaranteed an easy life. CLICK HERE to learn more about the challenges that immigrants faced upon reaching North America. CLICK HERE to learn about living conditions for Irish immigrants.
The immigrant experience still looms large in the public mind. The National Famine Monument in County Mayo, Ireland, depicts a coffin ship surrounded by skeletal figures. The monument was created in 1997 by sculptor John Behan, and is dedicated to all those who lost their lives during the Great Famine, although it specifically invokes Irish experiences on coffin ships. By commemorating the coffin ships in the way it does, the Mayo monument reaffirms the typical, simplistic narrative of Irish immigration history. Since it is the National Famine Monument, it implies that coffin ship experiences were emblematic of the entire Irish immigrant experience, or even the entire Irish famine experience. It’s especially important to consider the disconnect between the emotions the memorial invokes and the reality of the situation, considering that the worst of the coffin ship experiences were mostly confined to 1847; the coffin ship experience by no means encompassed the entirety of the Irish immigrant experience.
CLICK HERE to learn more about other monuments to the famine.