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Famine Ship Memorial, Westport, County Mayo

Emigration, from the BBC websiteClick here for the full text
In 1848 Michael Rush of Ardglass, Co Down, wrote to his parents in America:

'Now my dear father and mother, if you knew what hunger we and our fellow-countrymen are suffering, you would take us out of this poverty Isle…if you don’t endeavour to take us out of it, it will be the first news you will hear by some friend of me and my little family to be lost by hunger, and there are thousands dread they will share the same fate.'

In 11 years, during and after the Famine, Ireland sent abroad over two million people, more than had migrated over the preceding two and a half centuries. Around 1.2 million left the country between 1846 and 1851.

For the vast majority America was the preferred destination. Strict controls imposed by the United States government on its passenger vessels pushed fares up, but lax standards on British ships kept fares to Canada as low as £6 for a man, his wife and four small children.

Vessels carrying timber from the St Lawrence to British ports had not enough cargo to take back even to serve as ballast – owners therefore gladly accepted destitute Irish into their holds, usually at Liverpool, the cheapest point of departure. These were the infamous ‘coffin ships’, grossly overcrowded and inadequately provided with food and clean water.

Some ships sailed directly from Irish ports, 11,000 from Sligo alone, for example. One ship leaving Westport in Co Mayo foundered with the loss of all on board, within sight of land, watched with horror by those who had just bid them farewell.
A typical coffin ship was the barque Elizabeth and Sarah, built in 1762, which sailed from Killala, Co Mayo, in July 1846 with 276 passengers. By law this vessel should have carried 12,532 gallons of water but all it had were 8,700 gallons in leaky casks. Each passenger should have been provided with seven pounds of rations per week but, in fact, no food was ever given out. All but 32 passengers had to sleep on the bare decks, and no toilets of any kind were provided. Forty-two died on the voyage and the state of the vessel when it was towed into the St Lawrence in September was described as ‘horrible and disgusting beyond the power of language to describe’.

Fever flourished in the filthy and congested conditions on board these ships. The Larch, sailing from Sligo with 440 passengers, lost 108 at sea, most of them killed by typhus fever. All ships coming up the St Lawrence were required to stop at the quarantine station on Grosse Isle. Many died there.

On Grosse Isle Robert Whyte went to the funeral of the wife of an emigrant from Co Meath: 'After the grave was filled up the husband placed two shovels in the form of a cross and said, “By that cross, Mary, I swear to avenge your death. As soon as I earn the price of my passage home I’ll go back and shoot the man that murdered you – and that’s the landlord”.'

Another woman buried on Grosse Isle was the wife of John Ford, an emigrant from Co Cork whose grandson was to become the most distinguished founder of the modern automobile industry.

By the middle of the summer of 1847 the line of ships waiting for inspection at Grosse Isle was several miles long. Delays were inevitable and fever continued to spread amongst those cooped up on board. The Agnes, for instance, arrived with 427 passengers but after a quarantine of fifteen days only 150 were left alive. The vast majority arriving in Canada walked south to the United States. Many did not make it. It has been estimated that in 1847 alone, 17,000 emigrants perished at sea (mainly from typhus), 5,300 died on Grosse Isle and nearly 16,000 more died in British North America, most of them while walking to the United States.

Great numbers simply crossed the Irish Sea. During the first five months of 1847 300,000 Irish paupers landed in Liverpool, pouring into a city which, until then, had a population of 250,000. Since there were not enough town police to control this Irish multitude, 20,000 citizens were sworn in as special constables and 2,000 soldiers were brought in and encamped at Everton. The immigrants brought ‘famine fever’ with them and before the year was out 60,000 people in Liverpool contracted typhus.
Meanwhile, the Glasgow Herald reported: 'The streets of Glasgow are at present literally swarming with vagrants from the sister kingdom, and the misery which man of these poor creatures endure can scarcely be less than what they have fled or been driven from at home.'

Other Irishmen, excited by events in other parts of Europe, took up arms against the government.