From 1845 to 1855, famine ships brought 2 million Irish emigrants to ports in Boston, New York and Canada. They were fleeing the starvation and disease caused by the potato crop failure. But the famine ships carried their own dangers. Sharks were said to follow them because so many bodies were thrown overboard.
An Irish priest, the Rev. John O’Hanlon, wrote a guide for Irish emigrants to help them survive their ordeal of the famine ships. Patrick Donahoe published O’Hanlon’s Irish Emigrants Guide for the United States in Boston in 1851. (Donahoe, by the way, started publishing The Boston Pilot in 1836, and it’s still in circulation.)
No, The Streets Aren’t Paved with Gold
Father O’Hanlon’s guide began with a caution: “Change of location does not always bring better fortune to the emigrant.”
He described the perils of arriving penniless and alone in the United States. “Even supposing him to have escaped the extravagant demands of ship agents, the dangers of the sea, confinement in the sick hospitals, &c, if he lands friendless, and without sufficient funds, his case, indeed, is one that may well excite our commiseration,” wrote O’Hanlon.
Ship owners and their agents lied about the cost of passage, so the emigrant should demand to pay only $10 for a ticket, half the advertised fare, he advised. If they could get a ship that sailed directly to North America, they should take it. That way they’d avoid the dangers of Liverpool.
But two out of three of Irish emigrants to North America sailed famine ships from Liverpool.
Sometimes famine ships didn’t leave Liverpool when advertised, and Irish emigrants found themselves stuck. They took refuge in squalid boardinghouses or disgusting basements. Sometimes the bodies of entire families were found in the dark Liverpool cellars where they’d spent the last of their money. Some committed suicide, some committed mercy killings and many went insane.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, posted as U.S. consul in Liverpool during the famine years, compared the Irish emigrants to maggots. His friend Herman Melville thought Liverpool the worst seaport in the world. It,
…most abounds in all the variety of landsharks, land-rats and other vermin, which makes the hapless mariner their prey. In the shape of landlords, barkeepers, clothiers, crimps and boarding-house loungers, the land-sharks devour him, limb by limb; while the land rats and mice constantly nibble at his purse.
O’Hanlon cautioned the Irish emigrant against bringing too many clothes or belongings to Liverpool. You’ll have to pay someone to carry them, and they might get stolen, he warned.
Try to find a reputable boarding house before leaving home, he wrote. Convert all banknotes to silver or gold and prepare to protect it. Be careful of swindlers. And never give your money to a banker, or you might not get it back.
Sailing the Atlantic
The famine ships were almost always packet ships that made regularly scheduled voyages between Britain, the United States and Canada. Most were brigs, two-masted vessels that, as O’Hanlon put it, were “low between decks, badly ventilated and small.” The law, often broken, required only five feet of headroom between decks.
Liners, which had three sails, had more room. U.S. ships were faster than British ships, and steamships were fastest of all. However, the steamers cost too much, and the Irish emigrant shouldn’t even think about taking a steamer, wrote O’Hanlon.
Under shipping regulations, convicts were treated better than emigrants. Convicts at least got meat four days a week, and for every 100, the ship had to have four seamen. The emigrants got no fresh meat, and only three seamen for every 100 of them.
The Passenger Laws of the United States required each adult passenger to get three quarts of water a day and a weekly allowance of six pounds of meal, two-and-a-half pounds of Navy bread, one pound of wheat flour, one pound of salt pork free from bone, two ounces tea, eight ounces sugar and eight ounces of molasses and vinegar.
Survival on the Famine Ships
Even if the captain followed the regulation, which he often didn’t, that wasn’t enough to sustain a passenger for the six-week voyage, wrote O’Hanlon. The salt pork was usually poor quality, the Navy bread hard as flint. He advised buying a barrel of potatoes – and putting a lock on it.
To make bread, the emigrant had to use the lid of his trunk, which doubled as a table and chair. The emigrant must also furnish knives, spoons, cups, plates and cooking utensils. Buy tin cups and plates, urged O’Hanlon, because they won’t break when the ship lurches, and it will.
Boil milk in sugar before leaving to keep it sweet during the voyage, he advised.
“The cooking is performed on deck, over coal or wood fires, contained in long grates,” he wrote. “Most differences among passengers arise from the undue monopoly of fires.” He advised a system of taking turns at the fires, though in stormy weather it wasn’t an issue – the emigrants couldn’t light the fires and had to eat cold meals.
The emigrant had to bring his own bedding for the wooden berths. They could fit two, but often three crowded into a bunk. Upper bunks were better than lower bunks, because the emigrant was less likely to get splashed by the inevitable vomit.
Emigrants also had to supply their own soap aboard the famine ships, though they could get washing buckets on board.
The vast majority of Irish emigrants could only afford steerage on the famine ships. Melville compared the steerage compartment to a crowded jail in his semi-autobiographical novel, Redburn’s First Voyage.
From the rows of rude bunks, hundreds of meagre, begrimed faces were turned upon us; while seated upon the chests, were scores of unshaven men, smoking tea-leaves, and creating a suffocating vapor…In every corner, the females were huddled together, weeping and lamenting; children were asking bread from their mothers, who had none to give; and old men, seated upon the floor, were leaning back against the heads of the water-casks, with closed eyes and fetching their breath with a gasp.
The United States’ efforts to regulate passenger shipping didn’t work. In 1909, a congressional investigator wrote, “The sleeping quarters were always a dismal, damp, dirty, and most unwholesome place. The air was heavy, foul and deadening to the spirit and mind.”
Canada didn’t regulate passenger vessels at all, so the worst famine ships sailed to Canadian ports. Because of that, fares to Canada were cheaper – and mortality higher.
Many Irish emigrants, known as two-boaters, came to Boston through Canada.
When To Sail on Famine Ships
As the guide’s title suggests, O’Hanlon only had advice for emigrants sailing to America aboard the famine ships.
He urged those bound for New York or Boston to, “leave as soon as possible after the middle or close of January, that they may arrive at the breakup of winter, which is the opening of the business season in those cities; this time affords the best chance of employment, as the tide of emigration has but then commenced.”
For those heading to Maine, New Hampshire or Connecticut, he advised leaving home between April 1 and mid-August because “northern lakes, rivers and canals are closed with ice.”
Cleaning Up the Famine Ships
Brian Murphy, in his book, Adrift, A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It, described how the crew had to clean up after the emigrants disembarked from the famine ships:
The stench quickly grew overpowering. The unmistakable acid-sweet smell of vomit infused every corner. If you couldn’t get to the deck, the only place to retch was in your berth or into the floor. Washing up was out of the question. The only way to do that was on deck with a bucket and some fat-and-lye soap. The two latrines — for more than 120 people — were simple holes that emptied into the bilge water, a horrific concoction of waste and runoff that sloshed in the hold below the steerage compartment. Rags soaked in vinegar were provided for common use as stand-ins for toilet paper.
Cleaning up was horrid, wrote Murphy. “Sailors said it could be worse than slithering down into the head of a giant sperm whale to scoop up that last bucket of oil.”
More trials awaited the poor Irish emigrants once they disembarked the famine ships, and Father O’Hanlon tried to describe them all.
His guide also served as a cautionary tale. And in a concluding chapter, he drily noted that the advantages of emigration are “over-rated.”
Images: The Emigrants’ Farewell, engraving by Henry Doyle (1827–1893), from Mary Frances Cusack‘s Illustrated History of Ireland. Image of Jeanie Johnston By Jnestorius – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3483041. Image of National Famine Monument By Graham Horn, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13657095. Detail from The Irish National Famine Monument by Tanya Hart via Flickr, CC by 2.0.
This story was updated in 2022.