November 2, 2020
Written by 
Luke McCusker

Remembrance Room: Life aboard a Famine Ship

Greetings and salutations from the Irish Railroad Workers Museum. We’re continuing our ongoing series as we do "The Big Pivot"...bringing the Museum to you, rather than you coming to us during these difficult days.

We hope you enjoy our selections from two compelling displays. Our featured article on Francis J Kelly and Friends came into being when a Museum friend walked right in the front door, wondering if we might have an interest in an old group photo his ancestor was in. AND HOW! Francis even had an "X" over his head, and a little research found a story to go along with this photo. We do see a fair amount of group shots of the various divisions of employees of the B & O Railroad's Mount Clare Shops workers, but a name is a treasure. Hope you enjoy this offering. Frank is one of our “High Kings of Baltimore”.

Today's presentation from our "Remembrance Room” remembers the tumult and trauma aboard a Famine ship, written from the perspective of one who actually took the harrowing journey. We hope you find our presentation of the story by Robert Whyte compelling, and appreciate the companion image:

“On Board an Emigrant Ship at the Time of the Irish Famine, A.D. 1846,” image courtesy of William Heysham Overend.

Our Remembrance Room: Elements and Elaboration

Life Aboard a Coffin Ship

Luke F. McCusker III

Robert Whyte departed from Dublin on May 20, 1847, traveling to Grosse Isle, Canada aboard the Barque “Ajax”. This was the destination for the most desperate Irish who were escaping the horrors of the Great Hunger. Being the closest port in North America, and a British territory, tickets were less expensive than they were for more distant ports such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. His ship diary illustrates many facets of the trip, including:

  • Oatmeal and biscuit were transported in sacks.
  • Tea and salt beef was part of the daily ration. Some fished to add protein to their diet.
  • Ships were required by law to supply a modest daily ration of food. This included 1 lb. of meal or bread per day. Distribution was done weekly at first, but people ate more than the designated daily amount. Rations were then distributed daily.
  • Cooking was done over a wooden case lined with bricks, with a metal grate above to hold pots. Passengers had assigned cooking times which were strictly observed.
  • Water was rationed, and stored in barrels of various condition. Some had residuals from the original use, such as storing wine or other off- smelling items.
  • Ships had a constant problem with stowaways, who hadn’t paid for passage or a share of food.
  • The ship had a modest medicine chest, containing castor oil, laudanum and other items. This was put to use as passengers developed dysentery and ship’s fever (typhus) on board.
  • Evening light source was candles. Untended, they could lead to fire on board.
  • The ship had a “mistress” who gave assistance and medical care to those who became ill.

Sundays and Christian holidays were times of a bit of reverence, and celebrations when appropriate. Dancing and music gave a respite from the drudgery of a typical day on ship. Religious practice was common for many; and saying the Rosary, Bible reading and prayer gave some hope to those who wondered if they would survive at all.

  • The sight of land was a time of celebration. That being said, travel along the coast could take several days, and many died before arriving.
  • Arrival at the destination’s quarantine station was a time of anxiety for both passengers and crew. The Captain was responsible for his ship’s condition, and that of the passengers to a certain extent, so the ship was cleaned and made as presentable as possible. Both passengers and crew dressed their best, in order to give a good appearance to inspectors that included civil and medical authorities.
  • Ships that were determined to contain passengers with “ship’s fever” (typhus) were delayed in disembarking, and waited their turn until they were inspected.

Some 200 ships carried approximately 60,000 Irish passengers to Canada in 1847.

5,293 died at sea.
15,072 died on land as they arrived in Canada.
Of the passengers who departed Ireland, 1/3 perished before they could attempt to build a new life in North America.

Whyte, Robert. Famine Ship Diary: The Journey of a Famine Coffin Ship. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1994.

High Kings of Baltimore: ​Francis J. Kelly and Friends

  • Francis was born in 1838. He emigrated from Ireland in 1852, with his sister Catherine, during the Great Hunger. He was one of seven children.
  • Frank was a worker in the Mount Clare rail yards and shops, and became a machinist and iron moulder....he is marked with an “x” in the group photograph.
  • He was active in local Catholic churches and a local leader in labor unions.
  • Frank and his wife, Margaret raised their children in a simple, two story brick home at 29 N. Stockton Street, just north of Hollins Market.
  • Their tin-roofed home was insured for $800 in 1884. Premium was $2.00. It became 1330 N. Stockton Street in later years.

(Thanks to Don and Anne Torres for this photograph of Don’s ancestor)

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