June 2, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Disaster Magnified: The Perilous Journey of the Brig John Begg

Elements and Elaboration

 

The horrific days of the Great Hunger (1845-1852) are documented by many historians, and we have learned so much by considering the writings by Christine Kinealy, Kerby Miller and Cecil Woodham-Smith, among others. Documentaries have been done over recent years that have put faces and names on those who suffered and died during those tragic years.

The City of Baltimore was among the important immigrant ports: America’s 2nd largest city in the mid-19th century, and second largest point of immigration prior to 1900. The city's significance brought many Irish to the Chesapeake region, and ships of all dimensions found their way to the city’s quarantine station, known as Lazaretto Point Lighthouse (see image).

We have writings available via the historical Baltimore Sun that tell the stories of famine ship arrivals during the worst days, known as Black ’47. Our Museum has featured these in our Great Hunger Remembrances over the years, and also in our Passage Room display in 918 Lemmon Street. Knowing the worst of those days is important, giving us context on our immigrant ancestor’s experiences, and building up our own understanding of their sacrifices on our behalf, historically speaking.

Disaster Magnified

A striking example of the pain and suffering experienced by many just surfaced a few days ago via our recently revamped web site (www.irishshrine.org ). We received an email from a curious descendant who wanted to learn a bit more about the final disposition of ancestor Thomas Brennan. Family lore told her that he had died while being quarantined in Baltimore once his ship had arrived. This really piqued our curiosity, as we had spent considerable time learning about Lazaretto Point Lighthouse and Quarantine Station in Baltimore’s South Canton neighborhood (see this modern image below).

Newspaper accounts have told us how some died just as their ship arrived in Baltimore, while under quarantine, despite the best efforts of civil, religious, medical and ethnic groups. Learning about a particular person who died there, and was buried in the nearby shallow graves was a sobering experience, and encouraged me towards a more careful examination.

Thomas and Bridget Brennan were among 69 passengers who sailed westward aboard the tiny Brig John Begg, destination Baltimore. Ship passenger records were provided by a descendant of the Brennans, and we learned much about their particularly harsh and traumatic journey.

The Brig John Begg, captained by William McDonough departed Galway on December 7, 1849. The ship itself had a capacity of 79 passengers(on the small side). This makes sense given that Galway harbor was a fairly shallow one in comparison to Liverpool, where ships triple the capacity of the Begg could board passengers in a deep harbor.

It is said that small ships sailing from smaller harbors were particularly apt to be in poor condition, as inspections were less likely to be as thorough as they might have been in larger departure points. Suffering Irish who might not have survived the land journey to Queenstown/Cobh, Liverpool or Derry/Londonderry, due to severely compromised health, could have survived the walk from their homes in the West of Ireland to Galway’s closer harbor.

Another remarkable realization is that this small ship departed in early December: not exactly sailing season. Ships sailed the Atlantic year-round, but a winter sail could be particularly treacherous. This seems to have been the case with the John Begg, which took eleven weeks to cross the Atlantic. People ask us at the Museum about the length of the journey the Irish took during famine times, and our general impressions, based on occasional research has led us to reply that the typical journey could have been from 4-8 weeks…but not this time.

Food on Board

Imagine how far stretched rations were when your journey took twice as long as many did! Captains were responsible to supply food on a daily basis for his passengers, but were also the decision maker when it became obvious that the ship could not make it to its destination within the time period on which the ship’s food supplies were based. Less food meant weakness among the passengers, and was especially dangerous due to the poor condition of many.

Food became even more desperate on the John Begg during its disastrous journey, as high seas and treacherous weather brought considerable damage to the brig. Bulwarks and stancheons were lost at sea, and passengers who cooked at the fires on deck would have been in considerable danger to be swept into the sea by rough waters. It is likely that the desperate would have been ordered to take their meals below deck. This would have led to them eating even less, while suffering from a lack of space, fresh air and light (see image, courtesy of Rodney Charman).

 

 Their tiny ship and its tumultuous voyage led to an inevitable consequence: deaths at sea. Six Irish passengers died during the eleven-week voyage. We do not know their physical condition when they boarded ship, but we do know that even the healthiest could become ill and die during these treacherous journeys. The Begg’s trip would have doubled the likelihood of death due to the length of the journey and the lack of medical care.

We like to think of the arrival of ships at Baltimore’s Lazaretto Point quarantine station as a hopeful moment for most. Medical care was waiting for passengers such as the Brennans, but was sometimes too late for those who barely survived the journey. Thomas Brennan was one of five passengers of the John Begg who died while under quarantine, bringing to eleven the number of passengers who did not survive the journey. Sixty-nine boarded in Galway harbor, but a mere fifty-eight finally made their way into Baltimore to begin new lives, or journey further.

A Legacy

Thomas Brennan was not without a legacy in the country where his body was laid in early 1849. He and his wife Bridget had left their daughter Mary in County Galway, who they thought would join them later.

 

Mary (pictured) did eventually come and join her mother Bridget in America, and her second husband James Tierney. She eventually married Stephen Tierney herself and they had nine children together, including 5 beautiful daughters (pictured below) who would perpetuate the family themselves.

 Summary

We remember Thomas Brennan and his fellow passengers who did not survive their flight westward across the Atlantic from the horrors of the West of Ireland. The shallow graves that held the dying arrivals have been lost to time, as the area became an industrial center in later years. That does not mean that we cannot remember our desperate ancestors who arrived in those days. We encourage you to spend a few moments at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry when you can, and look across the water where a large section of storage towers for Lehigh Cement are located. Just to the right of them is a replica of the Lazaretto Point Lighthouse, constructed just 50 feet from the original location. It was placed in remembrance of Norman J. Rukert, a historian of the port of Baltimore. We can also remember those who survived eleven winter weeks on the open sea…and those who did not.

Credits

Thanks to each who contributed to this writing, including:

American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, 1849

Baltimore Sun, 1849

Boston Courier, 1849

Boston Evening Transcript, 1849

Rodney Charman

C.C. Knobeloch

Mary Mullooly

Jim Mulvey

Harold Rienstra

Tierney Family

Cecilia Wright

 

 

 

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