Coffin ship

Last updated

Replica of the "good ship" Jeanie Johnston, which sailed during the Great Hunger when coffin ships were common. No one ever died on the "good ship". Jeanie Johnston.jpg
Replica of the "good ship" Jeanie Johnston , which sailed during the Great Hunger when coffin ships were common. No one ever died on the "good ship".

A coffin ship (Irish : long cónra) was any of the ships that carried Irish immigrants escaping the Great Irish Famine and Highlanders displaced by the Highland Clearances. [1]


Coffin ships carrying emigrants, crowded and disease-ridden, with poor access to food and water, 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. [2] Owners of coffin ships provided as little food, water and living space as was legally possible, if they obeyed the law at all. [3]

While coffin ships were the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic, mortality rates of 30% aboard the coffin ships were common. [4] It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships, because so many bodies were thrown overboard. [5] [6] [7]


Legislation to protect emigrant passengers, the Passenger Vessels Act, was first enacted in Britain in 1803 and continued to evolve in the following decades. A revised Act in 1828, for example, marked the first time that the British government took an active interest in emigration matters. Within a few years, regulations were in force to determine the maximum number of passengers that a ship could carry, and to ensure that sufficient food and water be provided for the voyage.[ citation needed ]

But the legislation was not always enforceable, and unscrupulous shipowners and shipmasters found ways to circumvent the law. In addition, ships sailing from non-British ports were not subject to the legislation. As a consequence, thousands of emigrants experienced a miserable and often dangerous journey. By 1867, regulations were more effective, thus providing people with the promise of a safe, if not comfortable, voyage. [8]


Famine national monument at Murrisk Famine national monument at Murrisk - - 965072.jpg
Famine national monument at Murrisk
The obverse side of a medal given to Samuel Plimsoll showing a coffin ship Samuel plimsoll medal b.jpg
The obverse side of a medal given to Samuel Plimsoll showing a coffin ship

The National Famine Monument at the base of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, County Mayo, Ireland depicts a coffin ship with skeletons and bones as rigging. Sculpted by John Behan, it is Ireland's largest bronze sculpture. The "Coffin Ship" was unveiled by then President of Ireland Mary Robinson in 1997 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. [9]

In The Pogues song "Thousands Are Sailing", the ghost of an Irish immigrant laments, "...on a coffin ship I came here/And I never even got so far that they could change my name."[ citation needed ]

Also the Kenn Gordon & 1916 song "The Ships" describes how they were crammed in and not really expected to actually survive the journey that they had paid for. Both those from the Highland clearances of Sutherland and Caithness and those poor Irish farmers.[ citation needed ]

Additionally, the Irish metal bands Cruachan and Primordial both have songs entitled "The Coffin Ships". Primordial's version was released on their 2005 album The Gathering Wilderness , whilst Cruachan's (unrelated) song was written for their 2007 album, The Morrigan's Call . The Australian/Irish band Clann Zú also makes mention of coffin ships in the song "Black Coats and Bandages".

Irish poet Eavan Boland mentions the coffin ships in her poem "In a Bad Light" from the collection In a Time of Violence, and in her memoir Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time.

Flogging Molly, an Irish-American band with punk tendencies, uses the term "coffin ship" in their song "You Won't Make a Fool Out of Me" from their album Float . The quote is as follows:

But green is the heart of your greed
That much I can tell
you may think you're the captain of me
But I'm your coffin ship from hell

Frank Herbert's novel The White Plague , about a worldwide plague-like virus that only killed women, featured modern coffin ships which carried Irish people back home to their deaths, as demanded by the novel's antagonist who had released the virus. [10]

Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 novel Star Of The Sea is set aboard a coffin ship and against the backdrop of the Irish famine. The book became an international bestseller.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Great Famine (Ireland)</span> 1845–1852 famine in Ireland

The Great Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, the Famine or the Irish Potato Famine was a period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1849, which constituted a historical social crisis which had a major impact on Irish society and history as a whole. With the most severely affected areas in the west and south of Ireland, where the Irish language was dominant, the period was contemporaneously known in Irish as an Drochshaol, loosely translated as "the hard times". The worst year of the period was 1847, known as "Black '47". During the Great Hunger, roughly a million people died and more than a million fled the country, causing the country's population to fall by 20–25%, in some towns falling as much as 67% between 1841 and 1871. Between 1845 and 1855, no fewer than 2.1 million people left Ireland, primarily on packet ships but also steamboats and barque—one of the greatest exoduses from a single island in history.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legacy of the Great Irish Famine</span>

The legacy of the Great Famine in Ireland followed a catastrophic period of Irish history between 1845 and 1852 during which time the population of Ireland was reduced by 50 percent.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irish Canadians</span> Canadian citizens with full or partial Irish heritage

Irish Canadians are Canadian citizens who have full or partial Irish heritage including descendants who trace their ancestry to immigrants who originated in Ireland. 1.2 million Irish immigrants arrived from 1825 to 1970, and at least half of those in the period from 1831 to 1850. By 1867, they were the second largest ethnic group, and comprised 24% of Canada's population. The 1931 national census counted 1,230,000 Canadians of Irish descent, half of whom lived in Ontario. About one-third were Catholic in 1931 and two-thirds Protestant.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Murrisk</span> Village and district in Connacht, Ireland

Murrisk is a village in County Mayo, Ireland, on the south side of Clew Bay, about 8 km west of Westport and 4 km east of Lecanvey.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Highland Potato Famine</span> Major agrarian crisis in the Scottish Highlands from 1846 to 1857

The Highland Potato Famine was a period of 19th-century Highland and Scottish history over which the agricultural communities of the Hebrides and the western Scottish Highlands saw their potato crop repeatedly devastated by potato blight. It was part of the wider food crisis facing Northern Europe caused by potato blight during the mid-1840s, whose most famous manifestation is the Great Irish Famine, but compared with its Irish counterpart, it was much less extensive and took many fewer lives as prompt and major charitable efforts by the rest of the United Kingdom ensured relatively little starvation. The terms on which charitable relief was given, however, led to destitution and malnutrition amongst its recipients. A government enquiry could suggest no short-term solution other than reduction of the population of the area at risk by emigration to Canada or Australia. Highland landlords organised and paid for the emigration of more than 16,000 of their tenants and a significant but unknown number paid for their own passage. Evidence suggests that the majority of Highlanders who permanently left the famine-struck regions emigrated, rather than moving to other parts of Scotland. It is estimated that about a third of the population of the western Scottish Highlands emigrated between 1841 and 1861.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grosse Isle</span> Island in the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada

Grosse Isle is an island located in the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. It is one of the islands of the 21-island Isle-aux-Grues archipelago. It is part of the municipality of Saint-Antoine-de-l'Isle-aux-Grues, located in the Chaudière-Appalaches region of the province.

<i>Jeanie Johnston</i>

Jeanie Johnston is a replica of a three masted barque that was originally built in Quebec, Canada, in 1847 by the Scottish-born shipbuilder John Munn. The replica Jeanie Johnston performs a number of functions: an ocean-going sail training vessel at sea and in port converts into a living history museum on 19th century emigration and, in the evenings, is used as a corporate event venue.

Sir Stephen Edward De Vere, 4th Baronet was an Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament in the nineteenth century.

<i>Death or Canada</i>

Death or Canada is a two-part Canadian–Irish docudrama which was broadcast in Ireland on RTÉ One in November/December 2008. In the UK on The History Channel UK in January and February 2009 as Fleeing The Famine. The film was also featured as part of the celebrations for Toronto's 175th anniversary.

"Thousands Are Sailing" is a song by The Pogues, released in 1988. The song is an Irish folk style ballad, written by Phil Chevron, and featured on The Pogues' album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irish Commemorative Stone</span>

The Irish Commemorative Stone is a monument in Pointe-Saint-Charles, island of Montreal, Quebec commemorating the deaths from "ship fever" (typhoid) of 6,000 mostly Irish immigrants to Canada during the immigration following the Great Irish Famine in 1847-48. It is a 30-tonne, 10-foot high boulder.

Hannah was a brig, launched at Norton, New Brunswick, Canada in 1826. She transported emigrants to Canada during the Irish Famine. She is known for the terrible circumstances of her 1849 shipwreck, in which the captain and two officers left the sinking ship aboard the only lifeboat, leaving passengers and the rest of the crew to fend for themselves.

Looshtauk was an Irish emigrant ship, captained by John M. Thain, sailing from the Port of Liverpool to the Port of Quebec on April 17, 1847. 462 passengers boarded at Liverpool. Typhus was caught by two male passengers in Liverpool and broke out during the crossing. Scarlet fever also erupted.

The typhus epidemic of 1847 was an outbreak of epidemic typhus caused by a massive Irish emigration in 1847, during the Great Famine, aboard crowded and disease-ridden "coffin ships".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of Saint John, New Brunswick</span>

The history of Saint John, New Brunswick is one that extends back thousands of years, with the area being inhabited by the Maliseet and Miꞌkmaq First Nations prior to the arrival of European colonists. During the 17th century, a French settlement was established in Saint John. During the Acadian Civil War, Saint John served as the seat for the administration under Charles de Saint-Étienne de la Tour. The French position in Saint John was abandoned in 1755, with British forces having taken over the area shortly afterwards.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Highland and Island Emigration Society</span>

The Highland and Island Emigration Society was a charitable society formed to promote and assist emigration as a solution to the Highland Potato Famine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855</span>

The Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 was an act passed by the United States federal government on March 3, 1855, replacing the previous Steerage Act of 1819 and a number of acts passed between 1847 and 1849 with new regulations on the conditions of sea transportation used by passenger ships landing in the United States. The law was passed by the 33rd United States Congress and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce.

Major Denis Mahon was the Irish Landlord of Strokestown in County Roscommon who was shot and killed during the Great Famine of Ireland. His death is considered the first murder of a Landlord during the Great Famine and to this day there is debate over the real reason for his murder and the identity of those responsible. Mahon's murder caused panic among the aristocracy and turned English public opinion against the Irish in the midst of the Black ‘47.

The Murrisk Millennium Peace Park is a five-acre park located north of the R335 road overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the village of Murrisk, County Mayo, Ireland at the foot of Croagh Patrick mountain. The landscaping of the park was purposefully designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, allowing for clear views of Croagh Patrick, the National Famine Memorial, Murrisk Abbey and Clew Bay. The minimal landscaping also serves to reinforce the stark visual impact of Ireland's National Famine Memorial, the "Coffin Ship", a sculpture which stands prominently in the park. The unveiling of the National Famine Memorial by President Mary Robinson on 20 July 1997 predated the opening of the Millennium Peace Park by some four years.


  1. "The Highland Clearances".
  2. Gallagher, The Reverend John A. (1936). "The Fever Fleet - The Irish Emigration of 1847 and Its Canadian Consequences". CCHA Report, University of Manitoba Website. Retrieved 23 March 2008.
  3. Plimsoll Line and coffin Ships
  4. "Early Emigrant Letter Stories". Archived from the original on 12 April 2010.
  5. Hickey, D.J.; J. E. Doherty (1980). A dictionary of Irish history since 1800 . Barnes & Noble. p.  80. ISBN   978-0-389-20160-1. sharks.
  6. Wakin, Edward (2001). Enter the Irish-American. iUniverse. p. 29. ISBN   978-0-595-22730-3.
  7. Davis, John H (1992). The Kennedys: dynasty and disaster . S.P.I. Books. p.  11. ISBN   978-1-56171-060-7.
  8. "Moving Here, Staying Here: The Canadian Immigrant Experience – "Right of Passage"". Library and Archives Canada. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 18 April 2007.
  9. "The National Famine Monument".
  10. The White Plague by Frank Herbert, p. 142.