Off the Shelf: The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine
By Cian T. McMahon New York University Press ISBN 9781479808762 2021 315 pp. Review by Terrence J. Kenneally
Between 1845 and 1855, over 2 million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” that they embarked on have since become the infamous icon of nineteenth-century migration.
The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s “an Gorta Mor” (the great hunger) is one of tired cliches, half-truths, and dry statistics. Cian McMahon’s book uses the letters and diaries of the emigrants themselves to paint a vivid, new portrait of Ireland’s Great Hunger exodus.
From John Behan’s impressive National Famine Monument at the foot of Croagh Patrick to Joseph O’Connor’s wildly successful novel, Star of the Sea, the ‘coffin ship’ has long been the emblematic of the Great Famine. It’s ubiquity as a symbol makes it difficult to develop “a true understanding of the voyage.”
The Coffin Ship not only examines regular emigrant vessels sailing for North America and Australia, but also includes convict ships. Citing the work of historians, Cormac O’Grada and Joel Mokyr, McMahon shows that more then ninety-seven per cent of passengers survived the voyage. With the tragic exception of the crossings to Quebec in 1847 that have come to define the memory of the Famine-era, migration, mortality rates rarely deviated from European averages.
The entire arc of the voyages is covered in five chapters: Preparation, Embarkation, Life, Death, and Survival. McMahon adroitly weaves together a wide range of sources, including letters, diaries, journals, shipping notices, guidebooks, tickets, and official reports and, correspondence, all primary source materials to tell her story.
In her chapter on Death, she demonstrates that the Famine-era emigrant voyage was a relatively dangerous and frightening experience in ways that mere statistics fail to capture. At the same time, there was more to these vessels than one-dimensional “coffin ships.”
The popularity of that phrase undoubtedly rests, to some degree, on the fact that those two simple words (“coffin” and “ship”) neatly encapsulate excess mortality and mass migration, those twin pillars of popular memory surrounding the Famine.
My great, great grandparents likely traveled from Liverpool, England to America on one such ship in 1852, which added to my enjoyment of this fascinating, original and beautifully written study of the process by which more than a million Irish famine refugees made their ‘ way to North America and Australia’ and made this book a TOP SHELF read.
*Terrence J Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Master’s Degree in Irish Studies from John Carroll University. He can be contacted at te***@tj*********.com.