A some shaped stone structure with an open rectangualar doorway and plants taken root on it standing in a medow.

Famine Ships

By Stephen J. Greenberg

Ireland is a beautiful country, but it is a haunted one as well.  Invasions, civil wars, massacres, religious and political repression, terrorism and counter-terrorism, famine, disease, forced emigration: all mar her history with a doleful regularity.  But there can be no doubt that the greatest scar on the national memory is the Great Famine of 1845-1852, when the failure of the potato crop, destroyed by blight, reduced much of the population to a level of poverty, starvation, and disease rarely matched in history.

This is not the place to detail all the history and anomalies of the famine, although it is worth noting that, even in the worst years of the famine, Ireland was still a net exporter of food.  But these exports were of grains (wheat and barley) that the poor people who normally subsisted on potatoes and little else could not afford to buy. It is also worth noting that Ireland had another export that peaked during the famine years: her people. Ireland’s population, if they could, fled in unprecedented numbers: to England, to the Continent, but most importantly, to America.

A some shaped stone structure with an open rectangualar doorway and plants taken root on it standing in a medow.
A deserted stone hut, once inhabited by dispossessed farmers waiting to make the voyage to America.
Courtesy Stephen Greenberg

It is not easy to determine how many people left Ireland in those years. Certainly the population plummeted, with the usual estimates being a drop of 20-25%, or from over eight million in 1841 to six million or so in 1851.  In 2011, the population of Ireland was still under six and a half million. It is unclear how many died of starvation outright, and how many succumbed to disease brought on by their debilitated condition.  For those who emigrated (at least a million and probably many more), the statistics were nearly as grim.  At a conservative estimate, perhaps one in five of those who sailed to the United States or Canada did not survive the voyage. On some trips, the mortality rate was much higher.  In the over-crowded ships, with only the most rudimentary sanitary arrangements, cholera and typhus were inevitable.

In the town of New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland (about two hours south of Dublin), there is a unique memorial to the famine and the immigration it triggered.  It is a fully rigged sailing ship called the Dunbrody, and it is a modern replica of an actual ship that took Irish immigrants to the United States and Canada during the famine years. The captain of the Dunbrody was said to be a good man, merciful, God-fearing, and considerate of his passengers.  Nevertheless, the passage was grim.  For £7, a mother and two small children could book steerage passage to New York, sleeping eight persons to a bunk bed (four upper, four lower).  Some landlords even put up the fare for their starving tenants, in order to clear the land for the grazing of sheep and cattle, far more lucrative enterprises than subsistence farming. The passage was supposed to take three to four weeks, but could easily take six if the weather was poor and the winds contrary.  Passengers were confined below for most of the trip, with an hour a day on deck for fresh air, weather permitting. Toilets facilities consisted of an oaken bucket. Food was provided, but it was often hardtack biscuits and a bit of salted meat.

Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that many passengers fell ill, but adding to this that many of the passengers were already weak and debilitated, it is hardly a shock that a “good” ship like the Dunbrody might have a routine mortality rate of 20%. There was no proper doctor on board, so cause of death was not always recorded.  A burial at sea was the end for many.  But there were many ships with far worse conditions than the Dunbrody.  Numerous reports of 50% mortality rates on these ships exist. The bark Ajax sailed from Dublin on 30 May 1847, with over 100 passengers, half of who died at sea, with others ill and dying at their port of arrival, Grosse Isle, a quarantine station hastily set up on an island in the St. Lawrence River.  A monument to the immigrants was dedicated on Grosse Isle in 1997; 5000 are believed to be buried there. There can be little wonder why the Dunbrody and the Ajax and so many others were dubbed “coffin ships.”

There is no graveyard at New Ross, where the reconstructed Dunbrody is moored (the original ship foundered off the coast of Canada in 1875).  But there is a visitor center with an “Irish Emigrant Wall of Honour” and access to a database of Irish immigrants (40 million American can claim some level of Irish ancestry). There is also an eloquent monument at the site to those who risked on the voyage: a world globe enclosing an eternal flame.  The flame was lit earlier this year by Caroline Kennedy, on behalf of her immigrant ancestors.

A darkened, repaired cover of the book The Prevention and Treatment of Disease in the Potatoe and Other Crops.
The Prevention and Treatment of Disease in the Potato and Other Crops by John Parkin, M.D.
NLM #62310190R

The famine and the subsequent immigration are represented in the collections of the History of Medicine Division (HMD), but the impact is remarkably small. The Index Catalogue print volumes and the IndexCat™ database have a few dozen articles and dissertations about “potato-disease” (as it was called in the contemporary literature), but fewer than one might expect. One such pamphlet, written by John Parkin, MD, and published in London in 1847, is entitled The Prevention and Treatment of Disease in the Potato and other Crops. Parkin notes that the disease affecting the potatoes in Ireland was totally unknown before 1830, when similar outbreaks with much less virulence were seen in Germany and the United States.  Nothing, however, matched the sheer destructiveness of the Irish outbreak.  Parkin suggests that, as a preventative, fields to be sown with potatoes be prepared with a mixture of powdered chalk and common salt, or Glauber’s salts (a crystalized form of sodium sulfate), or magnesium sulphate. Phytophthora infestans, the microorganism that causes potato blight, is still difficult to control today.  It is doubtful that Parkin’s suggestions would have made much of a dent.

Another HMD pamphlet of 1847, John Walker’s Essay on the Epidemic and Pestilential State of the Elements, draws attention to the historical correlation between crop failures and epidemic disease. Walker was living in Kilbirnie, a small town on the western coast of Scotland at the time.  He would not have needed to go far to see the effects of the potato blight on the health of the Irish people, whether they stayed in their stricken country or chose to emigrate.

One of the tasks of the United States Public Health Service (it would have still been the Marine Hospital Service in the 1840s) was to guard against ships entering US ports bearing cholera cases, but there had been no severe outbreaks of cholera in this country since 1834, and would not be again until 1866.  Quarantine was not mandatory in the 1840s and 1850s, and the tighter control of the health of immigrants belongs to a later period (Ellis Island did not open until 1892). But one must only look once at the rebuilt Dunbrody and the bright, shining monument at her mooring to remember what the blight, the famine, and their aftermath did to an entire people.

Stephen J Greenberg in his officeStephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Coordinator of Public Services for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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