• Loretto Leary

Thousands Are Sailing

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

I've immersed myself in shipping history today. Specifically ships that sailed from the port of Galway after April in 1848. I need to find a ship, any ship really, that I can put my imaginary exiled tenants on, bound for Quebec or New York.

I spoke with historian Christy Keating at the Cobh Heritage Center on Friday who was a fountain of knowledge. He confirmed my own findings, that the emigrants onboard coffin ships were treated worse than convicts and slaves, because they had no value, they were sick and they were impoverished. Rarely permitted to go above deck due to their illnesses, Irish immigrants remained below which caused spread of disease and increased death rates during crossings. There are eye witness accounts of bodies being dragged off deck with boat hooks and dumped in the Saint Lawrence River. Prior to docking in Quebec, newly arrived boats would pass bodies floating in the river. Christy Keating kindly directed me to numerous websites that led me down a rabbit hole, from which I emerged, somewhat dazzled, midday Sunday.

Shipslist.com was the first website. On it I learned of twenty ships that sailed from Galway in the middle of 1848 through the middle of 1849. The Messenger was the only ship in that period that had a passenger list. Out of the 412 passengers onboard, two women died. Not a bad record, thus making The Messenger a safe vessel.

From a second website, Celticcousins.net, I gleaned two other ships sailed from Galway. The Helena sailed on June 13 in 1848 and the James Andrews sailed July 28, 1848.

Now the Seabird was a slightly elusive vessel. No passenger list, and apparently it led a double life.

The first life had it as a ghost ship off the coast of Newport R.I in 1750:

“Upon being boarded by some fishermen who had watched her approach, they found the breakfast table set, the kettle boiling on the fire, a dog and cat in the cabin, and everything undisturbed, except that the long boat was missing, as if the crew had just left her. Not a soul was on board, nor was anything ever heard of from any of the crew, nor any trace of them or of their boat ever discovered.”

Interesting, intriguing even, but not related to the Sea Bird that sailed from Galway in 1848. I’ll leave it to author Dan Simmons to write the novel about The Seabird Ghost Ship.

In its second life the Seabird was a coffin ship that sailed from Galway a number of times during the years of the Great Hunger. I have it as leaving Galway on June 15, 1848. Then another date, arriving in New York on April 28, 1849.

Thanks to the Galway Advertiser we even have an advertisement from July 7, 1849 or maybe that’s when it was sailing the ocean blue once more.

The search brought me to a wonderful article by author Paul Lynch in The Irish Times. Lynch, the author of the novel Grace, says in response to the ITV drama Victoria and its portrayal of the young queen as a sympathetic figure as well as the show’s depiction of what was happening in Ireland,

“To seek to understand the silence in the aftermath of the Famine is to enter a deep level of trauma. It is a place where the history books struggle to enter. Such is a place where the novelist steps in.”

Of course Lynch is correct. There is silence. The more people I talk to, the more historians and lectures I attend, the more books I read, the more I realize that this period of Irish history was recorded initially by the English authorities. The perspective is not from those who endured the Great Hunger.

My issue with that particular episode in Victoria, is that the charitable protestant minister is the one who sees the Great Hunger. The perspective is his, not the victims. And of course it was. It would have to be. History is recorded by the victor, after all. I’m not being sarcastic. Literally, the Protestant ministers were in a better financial position to record, help and start soup kitchens and sometimes to be eligible to get the soup, you had to convert! Being a Catholic wasn’t encouraged. Being a Protestant was. So why wouldn't it be a Protestant perspective.

And here is where I overthink as a writer. I am afraid to write the Catholic versus Protestant narrative because that scar is still fresh and ready to tear open. What if I render old wounds new and contribute to a hatred that caused so much pain in recent Irish history? I'll answer that question myself: Then, I am no different than the generation of people who survived the famine and lived to talk about it, though they rarely if ever did. Lynch is correct again, when he says that the novelist must step in where history books struggle.

All I can say is, I am trying. Trying to be as honest and as factual as I can as I continue to write and research the years of The Great Hunger for my novel Stained Glass and show the perspective rarely depicted, of the poor unfortunates who endured it.

Then we have the other side of the coin. People like Irish Independent Journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards, who says, "What caused the Famine was the potato blight, not the English government. Get over it."

I strongly disagree with writer Ruth Dudley Edwards' so called "simple truth", as stated in the Irish Independent:

"The British government handled the catastrophe incompetently, and for doctrinaire but not ill-intentioned reasons changed policy to non-interference after two years, but there was no deliberate cruelty and no intention to kill anyone."

The Great Hunger was most certainly a genocide, and I for one refuse to "get over it." Trevelyan and others like him in the English government knew of the dire circumstances in Ireland, letting Lassiaz-faire finish off people who were already weak and hungry due to the potato blight. If it was not "ill-intentioned" as Edwards states, then the cart loads of food exported from Irish ports would have been given to the starving people in Ireland.

The following links were helpful in searching for ships and passenger lists:

Government Archives US

The Ships List


Irish American Journey

And finally, here is The Pogues, a great Irish band, singing Thousands are Sailing, a great Irish emigrant song.