Fleeing the Great Irish Potato Famine

Things to Do — By paul on April 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

You may have heard about the Great Famine or Irish Potato Famine that Ireland suffered between 1845 and 1852, you may even know that over 1 million people starved to death, or died from related diseases, but to put a human perspective on this blackest period in Ireland’s history,  visit the Jeanie Johnston.

The Jeanie Johnston at Custom House Quay (credit: informatique)

Docked at Custom House Quay,  this is an accurate replica of the original Jeanie Johnstone emigrant ship which sailed between Tralee in Co. Kerry and North America between 1847 and 1855. In all it made 16 voyages and succeeded in carrying over 2,500 emigrants to a new life. The enlightened humanitarian attitude of its owner and captain, and the heroic efforts of the ship’s doctor, Richard Blennerbassett – just one of the many characters that you will “meet” and hear about during a guided tour of the boat – meant that not a single passenger was lost during the ship’s history.

As you will see, accommodation below deck was terribly crowded, with whole families, or even total strangers (of both sexes) sharing a single six-foot square berth. And the pain of separation was  enormous as many families could only afford to send a member or two away at a time – young Margaret Conway for example (another passenger you will meet on board) was just 15 when she sailed with her 12-year old brother, John. Margaret and John, incidentally are real people, like the other 5 (representative) individuals and families on board. Traced from original passenger lists the present ship owners have done a marvellous job in tracing the history of many of the ship’s passengers..

A footnote on the the Great Potato Famine. During the early to mid 19th century the potato was the staple diet of most Irish people who lived in dreadfully impoverished conditions – many in no more than “mud cabins having one room”. In 1843 a new strain of fungus was brought accidentally to Ireland from the USA which wiped out around half the total crop. At this time Ireland was under the control of Britain, then one of the world’s richest nations. Its laws on tenancy and land ownership were draconian in the extreme and not only contributed to the disaster by forcing a monoculture on the Irish, but then exacerbated the situation with its own self-centred policies.

Tenants, no longer able to pay their way by potato cropping were evicted from their lands and homes, often by absentee English landlords, and, unbelievably,  Ireland continued to export food to Britain even during the worst years of the Famine. In 1844 John Mitchel, one of the leading political writers of the day wrote the famous lines The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine. The British authorities tried him under the newly created Treason Felony Act and sentenced him to 14 years transportation to the Colonies.

In 1845 the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. By 1851 it had fallen to 6.57 million. It is estimated that of this1.9 million reduction, around half emigrated and half died. Over the next four years another million or so emigrated, representing almost one in four of the populace – the greatest mass exodus in international migration history

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland, permanently changing the island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. It entered the national psyche and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as “pre-Famine”.

The striking Famine Memorial nearby features emaciated figures walking towards where the ships once sailed from, in the hope of a new life.

The haunting Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay (credit: informatique)


Tags: emigrant ship, Famine Memorial, Great Famine, Irish Potato Famine, Jeanie Johnston, tall ship