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Famine Ships

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The Famine Ships: A Wing and a Prayer The Famine Ships is a book written by Edward Laxton about the Irish exodus from their ravished homeland. The focus on the book is describing what it was like to travel on these ships across the Atlantic Ocean while encountering storms, icebergs, disease, and starvation. The trips were often long and horrifying for the passengers, but they were forced to make the journey due to worsening conditions in Ireland at the time. As the potato crop continued to fail, more and more Irish left their homeland for America and Canada on these famine ships. In search of a better existence, many Irish risked their lives by taking the 3,000-mile voyage on ships that weren’t fit for service. Many of them died from sickness, starvation or accidents while in route, yet they kept coming, for their fate at home was even worse. Between 1846 and 1851 emigration from Ireland to America and Canada increased drastically due to the deteriorating famine conditions in Ireland. When the potato crop failed in 1846, “more than 100,000 had crossed the Atlantic by year’s end” (Laxton 13). This mass evacuation of people required more ships than were available, so many ships were refitted in order to carry passengers one way and then freight the other. The living quarters beneath the ships were over crowded and unsanitary. Wooden boards were thrown together in the ship’s hold as makeshift bunks, and each passenger had a very small space to live during the trip. The crews were often abusive and the food and water rations the passengers were promised frequently never materialized, so several starved on the voyage. The navigational systems on the ships were limited to “Atlantic seas charts, a magnetic compass, a simple chronometer for measuring time and a longitude and a sextant for checking position” (124). Bad weather was a lingering problem and could not be accurately forecast and icebergs were always a danger if not spotted in time through a telescope or by a lookout on the ship. There were no radios to send out distress signals, so if a ship were in trouble it would turn its flag upside down as a signal of distress, and hope another ship passed by to help them. One such ship, the Hannah, was on her way from Newry, in Ulster, when she struck an iceberg. The captain and crew cowardly abandoned ship in a lifeboat leaving the passengers to fend for themselves. The passengers climbed aboard the iceberg they hit and waited for 15 hours huddled together in the bitter cold, until luckily, another ship came by and rescued 129 of them. The captain of the rescuing ship estimated that “the number that perished by being crushed to death between the ice and being frozen to death, were between 50 and 60 (129). The crew in the lifeboat who abandoned the passengers were rescued a few days later and “no official record exists of any disciplinary action” (129). The famine ships were also notorious for spreading disease in their close quarters. A good deal of the emigrants from Ireland were sick before they set sail, but once they got on the crowded and filthy ships, disease spread like wildfire throughout the hold on the long trip. Many of the passengers and crew died as a result of sickness before reaching land and their bodies thrown overboard. One such ship, the Agnes, buried 63 at sea on the voyage, and out of “427 passengers aboard when she first dropped anchor in the St. Lawrence, only 150 remained alive when the ship was cleared to enter port” (47). The Sir Henry Pottinger had “300 passengers in steerage, 98 died at sea, and more than 100 were sick on arrival” (47). Landlords in Ireland sent their tenants on some of these ships even though they were already dying of sickness and had almost no chance to make it to the other side of the Atlantic alive. For landlords, the cost of keeping the tenants was more expensive than for paying to send them on the ships. It would cost about half the amount to send a pauper tenant on a ship then keeping them in a poor house each year. This encouraged many landlords to charter the cheapest ships they could get in order to fill them with emigrants, no matter how old or sick they were. During the mass exodus from Ireland, “no fewer than 5,000 crossings are estimated to have carried the million Irish Famine emigrants westward over the Atlantic” (49). They left mostly due to the potato crop failure. Some left willingly and some were forced to make the trip by their landlords. They were looking for a way to escape the starvation and the indignity of eating in soup kitchens and working in poor houses. They left because of the oppressive rule of British government. They gambled with their lives, and many never made it to the other side, but they were determined to find something better than what they knew. They hoped to find “fertile soil, wholesome air and water, […] kind neighbors, good laws, a free government and a hearty welcome” (1). Some made it and found success, some found life just as difficult as in Ireland, but many others became victims of the famine ships in the abyss between, never to know what lies on the other side of that great ocean.

Works Cited

Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

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