The Coffin Ships

The Artemis

Emigration from Ireland in the 1850s was a dangerous business. Steerage on passenger ships were dank miserable places and thousands died on the 12 week journey to the promised land.

Emigration became an intrinsic part of Irish life from the Famine onwards, but Irishmen had been travelling to find a better life for generations before that. In the 1600s, thousands of Irish Catholics left, some were forced to move, others left voluntarily for the Caribbean and Virginia, while from the 1680s onwards Irish Quakers and Protestant Dissenters began to depart for Atlantic shores.

Although the Irish potato blight receded in 1850, the effects of the famine continued to spur Irish emigration into the 20th century. Still facing poverty and disease, the Irish set out for America where they reunited with relatives who had fled at the height of the famine. Many of the first emigrants from Ireland went to work on the Erie Canal and then upon the host of other canal projects started in its wake. They then found work on the railroads.

In 1849 the Armagh Guardian published a guide entitled 'ADVICE TO EMIGRANTS'. Reading through it today, it gives an interesting insight into the lives and times of our Irish Ancestors debarcation

The Irishman who contemplates emigration to America or elsewhere, will do well to consult with others in like circumstances and if practicable without too much trouble or risk, hold a meeting of all intending to emigrate in the Parish, or even in the county. If one hundred single persons and heads of families are found ready to form an emigrating association, each member putting down his passage-money and binding himself to be ready by the day agreed on for starting, it would be advisable to send a capable and trusty agent to Liverpool and engage the whole steerage of some first class packet for the voyage, for the use of this emigrating company. The passage could doubtless be made cheaper in this way, the passengers, being relatives, friends, and neighbours, would endure the crowding and mixing up of steerage with less inconvenience, and they would be safe from the intrusions of vile characters, who often abuse the opportunities afforded by an ocean passage for the perpetration of their iniquities and villainies.

It will be found wretched policy to bring to this country bulky or heavy articles merely because they cannot be sold where they are. - Clothing, bedding, etc. should be carefully packed so as to be safe from moisture or vermin, and brought with table furniture, but very few cooking utensils of any considerable weight. Most articles of furniture can be bought here cheaper than they can be transported. The true general rule I take to be, sell off all your effects, except clothing, etc, that will bring near their value, and all that are of considerable bulk or weight, and bring the money, with which you can readily buy what you need, as you need it. Most of the implements of agriculture etc, used in Ireland are unsuited to the conditions and demands of American industry. For instance, begin by reducing the number of cloth coats and trousers, if pressed, have no coat, be content with a shooting jacket and one pair of warm, loose, cloth trousers, then cut off the best shirts; then reduce the pairs of drawers, and so on. Of course, a man will take any clothes he has by him; any old things do for a sea voyage. In the United States and Canada, plenty of woollen and flannel are indispensable. Plenty of shirts are the greatest requisite. For ladies, for shirt read chemise, and so on. The clothes they have they can take, and if they buy any, good cotton and muslin gowns; one warm dress for Australia will do very well. Very fine tweed is made in Sydney, and we believe in Adelaide lately. For Canada, a good stock of warm woollen dresses and furs, which may often be purchased cheaper in London than in Canada.

The only option for many was to take steerage on the Coffin Ships. A Coffin Ship was any of the ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the Great Irish Famine and Scottish Highlanders displaced by the Highland Clearances. Crowded and disease ridden, with poor access to food and water, the Coffin Ships resulted in the deaths of many people as they crossed the Atlantic, and led to the 1847 North American typhus epidemic at quarantine stations in Canada. Owners of coffin ships provided as little food, water and living space as was legally possible, if they obeyed the law at all. But death, starvation and disease were not the only perils that awaited those desperate for a better life. Many emigrant ships sunk with the loss of all onboard. An American newspaper article from April 1854 gives a glimpse of how regular an occurrence this was.

By the arrival of the American ship 'Pride of the Ocean', in the river on Saturday, from New York, intelligence has been received of the loss of the emigrant ship Sea Nymph bound to New York from Liverpool, &c., and but for the timely aid of the former vessel all on board would have perished. With crew and emigrants, the latter all Irish the number amounted to upwards of fifty.

She left Liverpool on the 21st February, and had scarcely been out more than a week before she experienced most terrible weather. This continued off and on until the 13th March, when increased to a hurricane, and her top masts, sails, and yards had been carried away over the ships sides. She then became utterly unmanageable, the fearful straining she had undergone caused her to leak down, and as she lay in the trough of the tempestuous sea, which kept breaking over and sweeping her deck, her foundering was momentarily expected. She continued in this critical position for twenty-four hours, the crew doing their best in keeping the leek down, by pumping and clearing away the wreck.

At length the 'Pride of the Ocean', bound for London, appeared in sight, and on observing the signal of distress, instantly bore down to the Sea Nymph. Two of the boats were lowered, and, after much difficulty, the emigrants, men, women, and children, were dropped into them as the boat rose with the sea alongside. After several trips, all were got on board of the Pride of the Ocean, which has brought them to London. The Sea Nymph was fast settling down when last seen.

Another loss is reported by 'The Issac Webb', which reached Liverpool on Friday from New York, with 50 passengers, of the ship 'Russell Sturges', bound to Boston, United States, from the Mersey. She was met with on the 16th March, in a sinking state, having encountered the same heavy gale at the Sea Lymph. The Issac Webb succeeded in taking off the emigrants and the rainbow the captain and the crew.

Another loss has been announced in the wreck of the Jullie, from Newcastle to New York, which lost her topmasts and yards, in a gale, on the 12th of March. Two of the hands perished: the remainder were taken off by ship Roger. The barque Orline, from St. John's, for Barbados, was dis-masted in a gale, and filled. The second mate and a seaman were drowned in the cabin. The captain's wife and a sailor died from exposure on the wreck. The survivors were without, and, to sustain life, devoured the flesh of a dead sailor. They were taken off by the Saxonville, in a very deplorable state, and landed at Boston. Two other Liverpool and New York ships are missing.

Of the 98,105 passengers (of whom 60,000 were Irish), 5293 died at sea, 8072 died at Grosse Isle and Quebec, 7,000 in and above Montreal. In total, at least 20,365 people perished on the voyage across the sea. The numbers of those that died further along in their journey from illnesses contracted on the Coffin Ships cannot be ascertained.

Seagoe Graveyard

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