Escaping the Hunger
The 2015 Annual Famine Commemoration will take place on Saturday, 26th September, in Newry. This is the eighth year in which the Great Famine has been marked with a formal Commemoration and the first time that the Commemoration will take place in Northern Ireland. In recognition of the fact that the Great Famine affected all parts of the island, the location of the annual Commemoration has rotated in sequence between the four provinces since the first Commemoration took place in Dublin in 2008 and falls to Ulster in 2015.
This amalgamation of articles, diaries and reports attempts to depict the dilemmas, decisions and despair an emigrant from this area would have encountered in trying to find passage to North America during the 1840s.
To guide us we have the diary of a Robert Whyte, who, on the 30th May 1847 boarded the ‘Ajax’ in Dublin, bound for Quebec, Canada. Whyte was an educated man and an author, travelling as a cabin passenger. His script of some 27,000 words appeared in print in 1847 and was only recently re-published in 1994. This flight from famine and poverty is a truly harrowing tale and Whyte’s account illuminates in fine detail what an Atlantic crossing entailed in the mid-19th century.
Whyte’s diary extracts tell us of strange sights on board: ‘the northern portion of the firmament … vividly illuminated with a clear though subdued light’, possibly on viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The majority of his observations are more macabre; burials at sea and parched passengers ill from drinking sea water. The final backdrop for this human tragedy is Grosse Île, for a century the quarantine station for Quebec, and the scene of a devastating outbreak of Typhus in 1847.
The harsh winter of 1846/47 led to a sharp rise in the numbers entering Newry Union Workhouse. The local situation was oppressive, with relief works making little impact on unemployment rates as illustrated by a report from the Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser dated 4 December 1846:
‘In the Barony of Upper Orior, the condition of the people is absolutely appalling. Though works were presented for long since, which, if put into operation, would at once mitigate the sufferings of the poor… there is no employment whatever for those willing to toil.’’
Preparing for the Atlantic crossing
Passage for the Atlantic crossing could be purchased in advance from the shipping agents in Sugar Island, Newry, but many would have purchased a ticket second hand closer to the ports. At this time vessels commonly left from Warrenpoint as the Newry ship canal was not completed until 1850.
Passage to Canada averaged at 55 shillings and 70 shillings to America. The prices were manipulated to encourage people away from America and England. Some tickets were landlord sponsored: while others sold off possessions to raise money for their fare. It is recorded that between 1845 and 1847, £6,500 of clothes were pawned in Kilkeel, a sum that in today’s money would exceed £400,000. Passage could also be won through time served and good behaviour in the workhouse, with Australia commonly the destination for girls sent to work in service. The Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser of 15th July 1848 reported that:
‘Yesterday sixteen young females selected from the inmates of the Newry Workhouse passed through this town… for Australia... They were all neatly clad, interesting looking girls, and appeared in the best of health and spirits.’
Passengers were inspected by doctors before boarding which may partly explain Francis Carvill’s excellent safety record, along with high standards of cleanliness insisted upon. However, it is questionable whether many agents insisted on stringent inspections as vessels that were less crowded often suffered terrible sickness and deaths, suggesting that disease was already present in the passengers before departure.
Most vessels leaving Warrenpoint were relatively small, meaning cabin and steerage passengers would have mixed on the upper decks and would have known the crew well. One pound of Indian meal was provided per day, per passenger on Whyte’s vessel, with the Mate reverting to a daily distribution of rations after passengers ran through their week’s provisions early. Meal was provided raw so a cooking vessel was a vital piece of equipment for an emigrant. Food was prepared in wooden, brick lined fireplaces on the foredeck. Whyte remarks some passengers were able to bring along cured bacon and herrings which would have been very welcome both in sustenance and variety.
The ‘Ajax’ being a temperance vessel avoided some of the pitfalls of a crew fond of ‘grog’, a watered down version of rum. With a daily portion of one-two pounds of beef or pork the sailor’s rations must however have been a source of envy for the passengers. For crew coffee and ‘biscuit’ was plentiful, with lime juice in lieu of spirits.
The Ajax took 59 days from Howth to Grosse Île, slowed by strong winds in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Whyte records a bounty of fish in the bay which even the passengers with crude implements were able to catch. Shortage of water became a severe problem due to the voyage length and Whyte gives his own rations to passengers forced to drink filthy river water.
Upon arrival in Quebec, the vessel had to be passed by Doctor Douglas, Chief Medical Officer for Grosse Île in 1847.
Newry vessels had comparatively good safety records: only one vessel the ‘Ayrshire’ had double figure deaths (11 from 431 steerage passengers).
The 1840’s were a time of mass emigration from Europe, which also saw large numbers of German vessels arriving at Grosse Île. Robert Whyte makes a melancholy comparison between the states of the vessels: ‘Yet simultaneously, as if in reproof of those on whom the blame of all this wretchedness must fall foreigners Germans from Hamburg and Bremen - are daily arriving, healthy, robust and cheerful’.
Unfortunately many vessels never reached their final destinations. In 1830, one of the earlier emigration vessels, the ‘Newry’ was wrecked off the Welsh coast in a vicious storm. The Newry Telegraph had earlier reported the happy tale of the passengers:
‘Messrs. Lyle's large and commodious ship, the Newry, is just on the eve of leaving this port, with a full complement of passengers, for Quebec … Some emigrants, from the neighbourhood, we believe, of Banbridge, passed through this town, accompanied by a respectable body of Free-Masons, with music, vestments, and all other paraphernalia of this ancient order. Having accompanied their friends to the water's side, at Warren Point, this band of brothers' was then escorted out of town by the brethren of Warren Point.’
Some passengers wrote to local newspapers to publicly thank the Captains of their vessels. The passengers of the ‘Orlando’, which left from Warrenpoint, sent a note of thanks to their Captain Cockerill to the Quebec Morning Chronicle in 1847. A George Walker writes home to the Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser to thank Captain Sullivan of the ‘Brothers’ which arrived safely in New York in 1849. Francis Carvill used this letter as a testimonial to advertise his next sailing and to calm the fears of prospective passengers, anxious about the risks of Atlantic emigration.
Today Grosse Île stands as a silent witness to the horrors of famine. September 2015 will mark 170 years since the commencement of the Great Famine in Ireland. It has formed an indelible link between this island nation and the final resting places of all who left, in flight from a famine, many of whom died trying to find a better life.
Over the coming weeks Newry and Mourne Museum will produce a number of articles looking in more detail at the effects of the famine on the Newry and Mourne area.
Newry and Mourne Museum will host a wide range of events for schools and for all those who are interested in learning more about this period in Irish history: one that altered Irish life completely: everything from economics, politics and culture was changed. These events form part of an extensive programme of activities organised by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council for the 2015 Annual Famine Commemoration taking place 26th September in Newry.