Thursday, September 25, 2014

Irish Famine "Coffin Ships"

          Alongside the River Liffey in the heart of Dublin’s modern financial district, Rita and I recently came upon a cluster of bronze statues—gaunt, despairing, their meager belongings clutched to their chests--walking  to the docks. They are among a host of memorials commemorating the 150th anniversary of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, as the Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852 was known at the time. Docked along the quays nearby is the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of a tall ship that made sixteen crossings to Canada and America carrying a cargo of Irish emigrants. The ship is a famine museum and testament to the millions who escaped An Gorta Mor.     
         As a means of clearing the land for the more profitable raising of livestock, it was often cheaper for landlords in Ireland during the famine to pay for steerage passage aboard a cargo ship to America, Canada, or Australia, rather than evict their tenants. Unlike those in steerage class aboard most other famine ships of the time, however, no emigrant aboard the Jeanie Johnston died during the dangerous sea crossing of nearly two months, thanks largely to an enlightened captain and his ship’s doctor. Most of those ships did not even have a ship’s doctor on board. Called “coffin ships” for their deplorable overcrowding, scant provisions, and inadequate ventilation, 30% of their steerage passengers were said to have succumbed to cholera, typhus, and other diseases in the cramped quarters and to be buried at sea.  

            On a road beside Clew Bay in County Mayo, in the village of Murrisk near the town of Westport, sits The Coffin Ship, the Irish National Famine Monument at the foot of the sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick. A stylized bronze sculpture dedicated in 1997, it is a stunning sight.
             The ship is an abstract rendering of a three-masted cargo ship, sails unfurled, the main deck and hull diminutive in scale. A green patina mottles the sides of the ship as the bronze oxidizes, suggesting perhaps the ravages of the sea during the arduous crossing. With their abbreviated double yardarms, the three masts resemble crosses, symbolizing the torment of the ship’s human cargo. But most poignant of all are the skeletal figures that seem to leap and arc, as if caught in ferocious sea gales as they escape the ship. This image of departing spirits is stark and haunting.
             What strike me most about the memorial are the dreams of those who did not live to see the other shore and the legacy of those who did. How many of those who perished on the infamous coffin ships left on board sons, daughters, spouses, extended family who lived to see the crossing completed, the dreams pursued and one day fulfilled, in their lifetimes or in those of their children or grandchildren? Who might have been among them in the long lists of our own ancestors? Whose immigrant dreams may we, ourselves, be living, one hundred and fifty years later?


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