Irish Immigrants Sailed on "Coffin Ships" to Escape the Potato Famine

I'm highlighting my Irish heritage this week in preparation for St. Patrick's Day. (See tag below). The famine of 1845-1852 was so bad that one million Irish people had to immigrate to other lands in an attempt to stay alive, mostly to America and Canada. Most of them couldn't afford an American ship so they were forced to travel on British cargo ships. Those ships became known as Coffin Ships, since so many immigrants died on the eight week voyage. They were forced to stay down below in extremely crowded conditions. When the sea became rough they were shut in for days without any ventilation, and the latrine facilities were piss poor, if you catch my drift. Lice and disease were prevalent. Many of them died. The total death toll is estimated at 30%. So they traded death in their Irish homeland for death at sea. The captains of many of these ships waited until just before arriving before allowing them to clean out their quarters. If captains had allowed this periodically it could have saved many lives. Those that survived the journey often had just one thought on their minds: to be free of British oppression. Here's more, and some songs:
“Coffin Ships” were...death ships. The death rate could easily be 30% for some of these voyages. Although there was technically British regulation for passenger ship standards, these were often ignored by the shipping lines and the captains. British regulations were much better by 1867. The American shipping industry had tightly regulated standards.

The plight of the passengers was due to poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of food and water. When people died, burial was at sea. The logical question is why people would take a British ship over an American bound ship. The answer was costs. The British ships were all these people could afford.

Up to the middle 1840s, ships from Northern Europe sailed only in spring and summer to ensure they avoided ice and bad weather on their transatlantic voyage.

But in 1846, the most severe winter in living memory, immigration ships continued to sail from Ireland. Most headed southwest, to US ports. Alarmed at the level of destitution and illness arriving with these vessels, the US Congress quickly passed two new Passenger Acts in order to make the voyage even more expensive. That following March, the minimum fare to New York rose to £7, an amount way beyond the majority of families facing starvation in Ireland. Even so, all tickets had been sold by the middle of April.

That year, some 85,000 sailed directly from Ireland’s ports in the south and west. Another 11,000 departed from Sligo while 9,000 left from Dublin and 4,000 crossed the Irish Sea to catch a ship from the English port of Liverpool. Who knows how many also sailed from Baltimore, Ballina, Westport, Tralee, Killala and other tiny fishing harbours, where the passenger acts were not enforced.

In time, these boats became known as ‘coffin ships’ because, as the Irish Times described, their passengers “were only flying from one form of death.” While they may have left starvation behind, many of these passengers were already in extremely bad health after a year or more of inadequate nutrition and exposure to illness. With their physical state already desperate, the last thing they needed was to be crammed into overcrowded, insanitary conditions with hundreds of others.

Just one case of typhus, which was rampant among the poor at this time, could spread like wildfire in the conditions on the coffin ships, and many were to die before, or shortly after, reaching the other side of the Atlantic. Others drowned when their ships were overwhelmed by ocean storms or fell upon rocks.

The ships that survived the Atlantic crossing arrived at the quarantine station of Grosse Isle, the Canadian immigration point and depot set up in the Gulf of St Lawrence (Ontario) in 1832, to contain diseased immigrants to British North America. Statistics for just one month – July 1847 – indicate the horrors that were being indured. Ten vessels arrived that month; of the 4,427 Irish immigrants that had started their journeys (all had departed from either Cork or Liverpool), 804 had died on the passage while 847 were sick on arrival.

By the end of 1847, the awful toll could be calculated from the 200 immigrations ships that had made the crossing. Of 98,105 passengers (of whom 60,000 were Irish), 5293 died at sea, 8072 died at Grosse Isle and Quebec, 7,000 in and above Montreal. In total, then, at least 20,365 people perished (the numbers of those that died further along in their journey from illnesses contracted on the coffin ships cannot be ascertained) ? one-third of each vessel’s passenger list. LINK
Skibbereen was probably the hardest hit area of Ireland during the famine, so here's the Irish song "Old Skibbereen," telling the sad tale of why a father had to leave it, with a vow for revenge:

Oh father dear, I oft-times hear you speak of Erin's isle
Her lofty hills, her valleys green, her mountains rude and wild
They say she is a lovely land wherein a saint might dwell
So why did you abandon her, the reason to me tell.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o'er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that's the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Oh well do I remember that bleak December day
The landlord and the sheriff came to take us all away
They set my roof on fire with their cursed English spleen
I heaved a sigh and bade goodbye to dear old Skibbereen.

Your mother too, God rest her soul, fell on the stony ground
She fainted in her anguish seeing desolation 'round
She never rose but passed away from life to immortal dream
She found a quiet grave, me boy, in dear old Skibbereen.

And you were only two years old and feeble was your frame
I could not leave you with my friends for you bore your father's name
I wrapped you in my cóta mór in the dead of night unseen
I heaved a sigh and bade goodbye to dear old Skibbereen.

Oh father dear, the day will come when in answer to the call
All Irish men of freedom stern will rally one and all
I'll be the man to lead the band beneath the flag of green
And loud and clear we'll raise the cheer, Revenge for Skibbereen.
Perhaps we can now understand the Irish War of Independence of 1919–21 and the rise of the Irish Republican Army. Is there really much of a difference between that and America's Revolutionary War?

Here's "The Boys of the Old Brigade" song:

The "Black and Tans" in the following song refers to the British paramilitary police auxiliary force in Ireland during the 1920s.