During the Famine period, an estimated half-million
Irish were evicted from their cottages. Unscrupulous landlords used two
methods to remove their penniless tenants. The first involved applying
for a legal judgment against the male head of a family owing back-rent.
After the local barrister pronounced judgment, the man would be thrown
in jail and his wife and children dumped out on the streets. A 'notice
to appear' was usually enough to cause most pauper families to flee and
they were handed out by the hundreds.
The second method was for the landlord to simply
pay to send pauper families overseas to British North America. Landlords
would first make phony promises of money, food and clothing, then pack
the half-naked people in overcrowded British sailing ships, poorly built
and often unseaworthy, that became known as coffin ships.
The first coffin ships headed for Quebec, Canada.
The three thousand mile journey, depending on winds and the captain's skill,
could take from 40 days to three months. Upon arrival in the Saint Lawrence
River, the ships were supposed to be inspected for disease and any sick
passengers removed to quarantine facilities on Grosse Isle, a small island
thirty miles downstream from Quebec City.
But in the spring of 1847, shipload after shipload
of fevered Irish arrived, quickly overwhelming the small medical inspection
facility, which only had 150 beds. By June, 40 vessels containing 14,000
Irish immigrants waited in a line extending two miles down the St. Lawrence.
It took up to five days to see a doctor, many of whom were becoming ill
from contact with the typhus-infected passengers. By the summer, the line
of ships had grown several miles long. A fifteen-day general quarantine
was then imposed for all of the waiting ships. Many healthy Irish thus
succumbed to typhus as they were forced to remain in their lice-infested
holds. With so many dead on board the waiting ships, hundreds of bodies
were simply dumped overboard into the St. Lawrence.
Others, half-alive, were placed in small boats
and then deposited on the beach at Grosse Isle, left to crawl to the hospital
on their hands and knees if they could manage. Thousands of Irish, ill
with typhus and dysentery, eventually wound up in hastily constructed wooden
fever sheds. These makeshift hospitals, badly understaffed and unsanitary,
simply became places to die, with corpses piled "like cordwood"
in nearby mass graves. Those who couldn't get into the hospital died along
the roadsides. In one case, an orphaned Irish boy walking along the road
with other boys sat down for a moment under a tree to rest and promptly
died on the spot.
The quarantine efforts were soon abandoned and
the Irish were sent on to their next destination without any medical inspection
or treatment. From Grosse Isle, the Irish were given free passage up the
St. Lawrence to Montreal and cities such as Kingston and Toronto. The crowded
open-aired river barges used to transport them exposed the fair-skinned
Irish to all-day-long summer sun causing many bad sunburns. At night, they
laid down close to each other to ward off the chilly air, spreading more
lice and fever.
Many pauper families had been told by their landlords
that once they arrived in Canada, an agent would meet them and pay out
between two and five pounds depending on the size of the family. But no
agents were ever found. Promises of money, food and clothing had been utterly
false. Landlords knew that once the paupers arrived in Canada there was
virtually no way for them to ever return to Ireland and make a claim. Thus
they had promised them anything just to get them out of the country.
Montreal received the biggest influx of Irish
during this time. Many of those arriving were quite ill from typhus and
long-term malnutrition. Montreal's limited medical facilities at Point
St. Charles were quickly overwhelmed. Homeless Irish wandered the countryside
begging for help as temperatures dropped and the frosty Canadian winter
set in. But they were shunned everywhere by Canadians afraid of contracting
Of the 100,000 Irish that sailed to British North
America in 1847, an estimated one out of five died from disease and malnutrition,
including over five thousand at Grosse Isle.
Up to half of the men that survived the journey
to Canada walked across the border to begin their new lives in America.
They had no desire to live under the Union Jack flag in sparsely populated
British North America. They viewed the United States with its anti-British
tradition and its bustling young cities as the true land of opportunity.
Many left their families behind in Canada until they had a chance to establish
themselves in the U.S.
Americans, unfortunately, not only had an anti-British
tradition dating back to the Revolutionary era, but also had an anti-Catholic
tradition dating back to the Puritan era. America in the 1840s was a nation
of about 23 million inhabitants, mainly Protestant. Many of the Puritan
descendants now viewed the growing influx of Roman Catholic Irish with
One way to limit immigration was to make it more
expensive to get to America. Ports along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.
required a bond to be posted by the captain of a ship guaranteeing that
his passengers would not become wards of the city. Passenger fares to the
U.S. in 1847 were up to three times higher than fares to Canada. The British
government intentionally kept fares to Quebec low to encourage the Irish
to populate Canada and also to discourage them from emigrating to England.
American ships were held to higher standards than
British ships by the U.S. Passenger Acts, a set of laws passed by Congress
regulating the number of passengers ships coming to America could carry
as well as their minimal accommodations. Congress reacted to the surge
of Irish immigration by tightening the laws, reducing the number of passengers
allowed per ship, thereby increasing fares. America, congressmen had complained,
was becoming Europe's "poor house."
British shipping laws, by contrast, were lax.
Ships of every shape and size sailed from Liverpool and other ports crammed
full of people up to double each ship's capacity. In one case, an unseaworthy
ship full of Irish sailed out of port then sank within sight of those on
land who had just said farewell to the
During the trans-Atlantic voyage, British ships
were only required to supply 7 lbs. of food per week per passenger. Most
passengers, it was assumed, would bring along their own food for the journey.
But most of the poor Irish boarded ships with no food, depending entirely
on the pound-a-day handout which amounted to starvation rations. Food on
board was also haphazardly cooked in makeshift brick fireplaces and was
often undercooked, causing upset stomachs and diarrhea.
Many of the passengers were already ill with typhus
as they boarded the ships. Before boarding, they had been given the once-over
by doctors on shore who usually rejected no one for the trip, even those
seemingly on the verge of death. British ships were not required to carry
doctors. Anyone that died during the sea voyage was simply dumped overboard,
without any religious rites.
Belowdecks, hundreds of men, women and children
huddled together in the dark on bare wooden floors with no ventilation,
breathing a stench of vomit and the effects of diarrhea amid
no sanitary facilities. On ships that actually had sleeping berths, there
were no mattresses and the berths were never cleaned. Many sick persons
remained in bare wooden bunks lying in their own filth for the entire voyage,
too ill to get up.
Another big problem was the lack of good drinking
water. Sometimes the water was stored in leaky old wooden casks, or in
casks that previously stored wine, vinegar or chemicals which contaminated
the water and caused dysentery. Many ships ran out of water long before
reaching North America, making life especially miserable for fevered passengers
suffering from burning thirsts. Some unscrupulous captains profited by
selling large amounts of alcohol to the passengers, resulting in "totally
depraved and corrupted" behavior among them.
Refuge in Britain
The poorest of the poor never made it to North
America. They fled Irish estates out of fear of imprisonment then begged
all the way to Dublin or other seaports on the East Coast of Ireland. Once
there, they boarded steamers and crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool, Glasgow,
and South Wales. It was a short trip, just two or three hours and cost
only a few shillings. Pauper families sometimes traveled for free as human
ballast on empty coal ships. Others were given fare money by landlords
hoping to get rid of them cheaply. Relief funds intended for the purchase
of food were sometimes diverted to pay for the fares.
For many Irishmen, crossing the sea to England
was a familiar journey since they regularly worked in the harvest fields
of England as seasonal laborers. But for their wives and children, it was
a jarring experience. Crewmen scorned and herded them like animals onto
crammed decks until the boat was dangerously overloaded. In one case, a
crowded steamer heading for Liverpool arrived with 72 dead aboard. The
captain had ordered the hatches battened down during a storm at sea and
they had all suffocated.
Despite the dangers, the Irish knew that once
they landed on Britain's shores they would not starve to death. Unlike
Ireland, food handouts were freely available throughout the country. The
quality of the food was also superior to the meager rations handed out
in Ireland's soup kitchens and workhouses.
The Irish first headed for Liverpool, a city with
a pre-famine population of about 250,000, many of whom were unskilled laborers.
During the first wave of famine emigration, from January to June of 1847,
an estimated 300,000 destitute Irish arrived in Liverpool, overwhelming
the city. The financial burden of feeding the Irish every day soon brought
the city to the brink of ruin. Sections of the city featuring cheap lodging
houses became jammed. Overflow crowds moved into musty cellars, condemned
and abandoned buildings, or anywhere they could just lie down. Amid these
densely packed, unsanitary conditions, typhus once again reared its ugly
head and an epidemic followed, accompanied by an outbreak of dysentery.
The cheap lodging houses were also used by scores
of Irish waiting to embark on ships heading for North America. Three out
of four Irish sailing for North America departed from the seaport at Liverpool.
Normally they had to sleep over for a night or two until their ship was
ready to sail. Many of these emigrants contracted typhus in the rundown,
lice-infested lodging houses, then boarded ships, only to spend weeks suffering
from burning fever out at sea.
On June 21, 1847, the British government, intending
to aid besieged Liverpool, passed a tough new law allowing local authorities
to deport homeless Irish back to Ireland. Within days, the first boatloads
of paupers were being returned to Dublin and Cork, then abandoned on the
docks. Orders for removal were issued by the hundreds. About 15,000 Irish
were dragged out of filthy cellars and lodging houses and sent home even
if they were ill with fever.
By the fall of 1847, the numbers of Irish entering
Liverpool had slowed considerably and the housing crisis abated. Glasgow,
the second major port of entry, also resorted to deporting the Irish due
to similar overcrowding and fever outbreaks. The Irish then headed into
the Lowlands and Edinburgh where yet another fever outbreak occurred. Everyone
feared fever and thus shunned the Irish no matter how much they pleaded
for help. Working men also viewed them as rivals for unskilled jobs.
To avoid deportation, the Irish moved further
into the interior of England, Scotland and Wales. But wherever they went
they were unwelcome. For the unfortunate Irish deported back home, the
worst was yet to come.
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