During the Great Famine transatlantic travel which had commenced just a few decades earlier reached unprecedented proportions. Almost one and a half million men, women and children left Ireland for North America in the ten year period to 1855. The emigrant ships generally left from Liverpool, while a few of the smaller and less equipped ships set out from Irish ports such as Derry, Galway or Limerick. Passage boats took upwards of six weeks or so to reach America and the Irish emigrants crowded below decks were susceptible to disease and all forms of deprivation on the long sea journey.
The lucky ones reached America after surviving the terrible on board conditions. Not so lucky were the Irish emigrant passengers on one ship which travelled out of Liverpool bound for Quebec in 1847 and which before docking in the Canadian port had lost 158 passengers to illness. During the six year period to 1851 almost fifty emigrant ships were lost on their way to America. Despite this the number of emigrants travelling from Ireland increased each year. In 1846 approximately 68,000 emigrated. One year later the figure had increased to 118,000 and each year thereafter further increases were noted until 1851 when a total of 184,000 Irish emigrants left for North America. Most of those who travelled did so on old sail driven vessels which were less than seaworthy. The loss of so many of those ships on the transatlantic trip inevitably led to them being referred to as “coffin ships”.
Steam powered ships began to traverse the North American route with the setting up of the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1840. The average Irish emigrant was unlikely to be able to afford the cost of travelling on the steam ships where the fares were approximately ten times greater than that charged for steerage passengers on the old sail driven ships. The Steam Packets could make the Atlantic journey in two weeks, as against the six weeks taken by the sail powered ships.
A change for the better insofar as Irish emigrants were concerned occurred when David Todd, a Clyde ship builder constructed the first of the new longer, leaner, screw driven ships which made the inaugural voyage to New York in April 1850. Carrying 127 passengers at prices which were about one half of those charged by the Steam Packet Company, the new ship reached New York in just under 17 days. Irish emigrants now had a realistic alternative to the expensive steam packets and the cheaper but dangerous sail driven ships. The pace of emigration increased and the emergence of the new transatlantic shipping service in 1850 may explain one of the features of Athy’s past history which has puzzled me for some time. This related to the fall in population in Athy between 1850 and 1860 which, if I recall correctly, exceeded the populations decrease for the previous decade which coincided with the years of the Great Famine.
The Liverpool service provided by Todd and his partners brought an end to the era of the “coffin ships”. Tragedy still however stalked the Atlantic waters. Four years after its inaugural voyage the ship, “City of Glasgow” left Liverpool with a total of 293 steerage passengers, most of whom were Irish, as well as 111 cabin passengers and a crew of 76. It never reached New York and no trace of the ship or its passengers were ever found. It was the worst transatlantic steam ship disaster of its time and would remain so for another 20 years.
Cobh or Queenstown, as it was then called, became a stopover to pick up Irish emigrants travelling to America. Passenger ships sailed for America twice a week out of Liverpool calling at Queenstown, but it was only the Inman Line which carried Irish emigrants as steerage passengers. The Cunard Line confined itself to more wealthy cabin passengers. In time Irish emigration to America fell from a post famine high of 219,000 persons in 1852 to an annual average of 75,000 in the late 1860’s.
I was reminded of the Irish folk who crossed the Atlantic by sea when last week I crossed the same expanse of water on the same route as the ill-fated Lusitania before it sank off the Irish coast on 6th May, 1915. I was travelling on the Cunards latest ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2, a far cry from those ships which brought millions of Irish emigrants to America. The style and comfort of travelling was vastly different but I passed through the same waters and probably over the same route as taken by the early “coffin ships”, the later steam packets and the most famous liner of all, the Titanic. Indeed as we passed near to where the Titanic sank we were approximately 105 miles north of the ill-fated ship, but still 200 miles or so south of today’s iceberg line. The Titanic, it would appear, was extraordinarily unlucky to have encountered an iceberg when it did that April night 93 years ago.
The sinking of the Titanic with the loss of 1,503 lives was the last great maritime disaster involving the loss of Irish emigrants. The story of the Titanic is well known, while the earlier losses involving smaller sea going vessels which left Irish ports with emigrants on board are forgotten. Those same waters over which the luxurious QM2 passed last week marked the graves of thousands of Irish men, women and children lost at sea ever since the early days of emigration from Ireland. The “Lady Sherbrooke” which sailed from Derry in 1831 was one of the first recorded losses at sea when it broke up in a storm near Newfoundland after almost a month at sea. 268 Irish persons lost their lives, including some entire families. Out of one family of 16, only two survived, the father and son. The mother of the family drowned when she was dragged down by gold sovereigns sewn into her clothing.
Ten years later an American sailing ship, the “William Browne” sailed out of Liverpool to Quebec with 65 passengers. Again the passengers were mostly Irish emigrants, all of whom were lost when their ship struck an iceberg and sank. It went to the bottom of the ocean on 19th April, the same month as the other iceberg victim, the Titanic, which sank on 15th April seventy one years later.
These are just two of the long forgotten sea tragedies of the 19th century involving Irish folk who set out full of hope and expectation for a new beginning in America. The tragedies which befell them did not deter others from making the same journey and up to 1921 more than seven and a half million Irish emigrants set out on the long sea journey to America.
Sea travel on the Atlantic is now confined to leisure travel while the few modern day emigrants can arrive in North America after a five hour leisurely air trip. Not only has the mode of travel changed in the intervening years, but gone also is the economic decline which fuelled the emigration drive of the past.