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18 September 1997 Edition

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Remembering the Past: An Droch Shaol - The Irish Holocaust

Escaping to the New World

Millions fled famine and fever or were forced to emigrate by landlords clearing their estates. Between 1845 and 1855 almost two million people of all ages emigrated to North America, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. The majority were unskilled and Catholic, with over 25% being native Irish-speakers.

By 1847 the exodus from Ireland had taken on an aura of panic. One commentator wrote that the ``racism surrounding the emigrants' treatment suggests that it should be seen as a special category of migration, a movement in coffin ships that bears more resemblance to the slave trade or the box cars of the Holocaust than to the routine crossings of later years''.

Nothing stopped desperate people determined to go. They would have to face seasickness, insanitary accommodation, violent fellow passengers and often the hostility of the crew, as well as rotten food and foul water, and they would have to fight off the crooks and touts who tried to rob and cheat them both before and after the journey.

The decision to flee the famine was heart-rending. Emigrants left all that was familiar - community, relatives, culture, scenery - to face a new world; a world they knew very little about and which they could scarcely imagine.

The trek to Cork or one of the other ports from which the `passenger' ships sailed was the last most of the emigrants were ever to see of Ireland. For many the first leg of the journey was to English ports where a good number of the hulks were undergoing alterations prior to sailing on a five to six week journey to the New World.

The majority of the ships were no more than hastily-converted cargo ships, unsuited for the transportation of humans.

The timber vessels were little more than shells; no compartments except the captain's quarters aft and the crew's quarters forward, so that on an eastward voyage from the US the hull could be loaded with timber from keel to deck. To prepare for the cargo of emigrants, the shipowner laid a temporary deck on the lower beams about five feet below the upper deck. On a 400 ton vessel this gave a lower deck of perhaps 95 by 25 feet. On it two tiers of rough wooden berths, each six by six feet, were constructed along each side, and sometimes a row down the middle. Under the terms of the Passenger Act of 1803 this space was adequate for 200 people, under the Act of 1835 for 240. Unscrupulous ship owners or captains would cram in an extra hundred or more.

There were no port-holes nor any means of ventilation beyond the three hatchways. When these were open an eerie half-light and a certain amount of fresh air filtered down. If the vessel met bad weather, the hatches were battened down and the emigrants were left often in pitch darkness to breathe the stifling air.

By law passengers were to be provided with seven pounds of bread, biscuit, flour, rice, oatmeal or potatoes by the ships' owners. This nicety of law was often overlooked and the emigrants were left to rely on whatever, if any, provisions they brought with them and the water rations on board.

The scene was thus set for an appalling journey which thousands never completed and many who did died soon after.

The main destination of these hulks was the quarantine stations in Canada, or to New York, while others went to Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Savannah and Charlestown.

Some of the ships arriving in Canada were those refused entry in the United States where the laws governing conditions on passenger ships were enforced and where the influx of starving, impoverished, ill and weak emigrants were not welcome by the authorities. Of the hundreds of ships setting sail 59 sank, many going down with all hands.

The Canadian immigration authorities were overwhelmed because they had not foreseen that a huge proportion of those arriving would be starving, sick or dying. Whereas in 1846 43,000 set out for Canada, the following year saw 100,000 attempt the journey. At least one fifth died at sea or in the quarantine stations, over 5,000 were buried in Grosse Ile during 1847.

In 1847 the St Lawrence river, the entrance route to Canada, stayed frozen until May, much later than usual. By 31 May 40 ships waited at Grosse Ile to be cleared with up to 13,000 emigrants on board. Despite the best efforts of the staff and clerics on the island conditions became intolerable as a priest's report reprinted in Eyewitness Grosse Ile 1847 shows:

``Two to three to four hundred sick might be found in one ship, attacked by typhoid fever and dysentery, most lying on the refuse that had accumulated under them during the voyage; beside the sick and the dying were spread out the corpses that had not yet been buried at sea. On the decks a layer of muck had formed so thick that foot prints were noticeable in it.

``To all this add the bad quality of the water, the scarcity of food and you will conceive but feebly of the sufferings that people endured during the long and hard trip. Sickness and death made terrible inroads on them. On some ships almost a third of the passengers died. The crew members themselves were often in such bad shape that they could hardly man the ship...

``It was about this time that I visited Grosse-Isle and with my own eyes could see the hideous spectacle within the tents and other shelters. About 200 tents had been pitched for the reception of the sick who could not be placed in the hospitals; the lot of these ill-fated people was little better than if they had been abandoned by the river side. Beside each tent lies fermenting waste which nobody has had time to carry away, and inside, in two and sometimes three rows, lie living skeletons; with hardly enough straw on which to stretch out their limbs, men, women and children, pell-mell; and so close together that one could hardly take a step without treading on some part of the breathing mass.

``Nearly all are suffering from dysentery as well as from fever, and are too weak to drag themselves outdoors, and hence must wallow in their own filth. Add to this the general uncleanliness of the sick, the stench of the rags that cover them, and you will have slight idea of the contamination within these hovels. The poisoned air then rises to the top of the tent and since there is no escape, it condenses and then could infect even the strongest of constitutions. Near noon time under the hot July sun the heat is suffocating; while at night a North wind engulfs the tents and chills the sick within.''

For those who survived, the future was not necessarily rosy. With few skills, in broken health, poor, often finding it difficult to communicate, the Irish emigrant drifted to the slums of the large cities, supporting themselves by unskilled labour. Only about ten per cent moved to rural areas and most congregated in `Irish quarters'. Though there are success stories many lived in despair and in loneliness with their spirits broken.

Among those who survived were those who never forgot. They and their ofsprings dreamed of returning to Ireland and avenging the genocide of England by freeing Ireland - the Fenians and later Clan na Gael.

By Aengus O Snodaigh

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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