Sligo is a county which witnessed the departure of so many famine ships during the Irish Famine. My interest in this part of our history started when I was developing the Westport page of this site. Being UK born and reared, I had little knowledge of the Irish Famine, other than to know it happened and a little of how.While working on the main Sligo page I came across some interesting reading material about a tiny island on the Saint Lawrence River with a sad connection back to Ireland. Grosse-Île, 30 miles east of Quebec in Canada, was to be the final resting place of over 6,000 Irish people who had fled Ireland leaving tyranny and starvation behind them. But some of them carried with them a plague that was to cause havoc and death in the New World.
This page looks at the historical connections of the Irish famine in this County in the north west corner of Ireland.
Sligo was one of the principal ports of emigration on the western seaboard and it became known as the embarkation point for the 'coffin ships', as the poorest of the poor walked here and sailed from this town. Many thousands of others walked from Sligo to Dublin, the main departure port along the Quays of the River Liffey.
How many died on that 140 mile walk will never be known. It was claimed that Sligo's own death rate was not as high as the other devastated counties of the West and the South at the time and it is reported that some of the landlords of this county were fair-minded and caring people.
I found a lovely little book while on Grosse-Île written by a decendant of a young teacher from Sligo in 1847. It was his daily account of those tragic times written as a diary and recounting the tale of the family, the teacher himself and his young wife, two of his cousins and an uncle. They had traveled from County Sligo to Dublin during the Famine to take ship for Canada. It resulted in their death on the quarantine island of Grosse-Île. The Voyage of the Naparima gives us a great insight into what it was really like and through its pages we relive one of the saddest periods in our history.
In the period 1847 - 1851 it is estimated that 24,500 people sailed from this port alone on 162 vessels. Records show that 17,943 people sailed from Sligo to Canada and a further 4,567 to the USA in the years 1847-1850.
The Forde Family Bound for Quebec
Passengers Huddled Below Deck
(Photos from "The Famine Ships - the Irish Exodus to America 1846-51"
Used with the very kind permission of author Edward Laxton. A great book giving the history of the famine years!!).
In order to understand the impact of the famine we need to understand a little of the reasons for mass emigration from Ireland at that time. Emigration to North America had begun in earnest in the early 1700s. However, during the rule of The Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland - Oliver Cromwell - in the mid 1600's - over 100,000 Irish people were deported for petty crime, trouble making and as 'enemies of the state'. This steady flow of people from Ireland has, in effect, lasted for over 350 years.
By 1850 the residents of New York were 26% Irish. It is estimated that over the last three centuries or more, 7 million have left Ireland for America and that the Irish diaspora in that country alone probably accounts for approximately 40 million.
Ireland's history is that of a proud but oppressed nation. For seven hundred years before the famine the lands of the Irish were confiscated by supporting foreign armies of warring chieftans and given to their noblemen leaders as reward.
During the time of Cromwell and his invading armies the Irish were dispossessed, the monasteries sacked and the evicted people then became tenants working the land for the 'planted' owners. Many of the landowners were absentee landlords, extracting rent from their tenants, and placing agents in positions of authority.
The enactment of the Penal Laws in 1695 forbade Irish Catholics from practicing their faith and the vast majority of wealthy Catholics were stripped of their wealth, their positions, their estates and their homes, leaving them virtually paupers.
No Irish Catholic could own land, have a vote, hold office, own a sword, keep a gun or own a horse of any worth. Education of Catholics was forbidden and, where priests had been providing the education, there then appeared the famous 'hedge schools' which secretly provided an education for those who dared attend. Catholic religious ceremonies were forbidden and the countryside is now dotted with Mass rocks where the people met secretly in fields in order to continue to attend Mass.
Produce from Ireland's rich agricultural countryside was harvested, transported east and the larger amounts shipped to Britain for the absentee landlords and the British markets. The Irish, many of them as tenant farmers on what used to be their own land, were allowed only to raise a small crop of potatoes, turnips and cabbage, their main diet. What little they had was shared with friends and neighbours.
The Penal Laws imposed a tax on every Irish person and the ability to pay was impossible as the Irish, in their own country, had nothing. Eventually this tax was passed on to the landowners for every one of their tenants.
With no rents coming in from the poverty stricken Irish and evictions taking place on a daily basis many landowners found the cheapest solution was to buy passage out of the country for their tenants. Some landlords paid as little as was necessary to get their starving tenants away from Ireland and, for most, this passage was in the foulest of the foul of conditions. Is it any wonder the ships were fever-ridden?
There were famine years before the Great Famine but this was on a scale as never before. The clamour of the people to get away from their beloved Erin in the years 1845 - 1851, rather then remain and die of starvation or live under the rule of tyranny, saw the need to increase sailings by the shipping lines.
This resulted in an increase from the normal sailings of the time in spring and summer to include the severe autumn and winter months. Ships normally equipped to carry 150 passengers or so increased their capacity almost two-fold making conditions deplorable
(Photos from "The Famine Ships - the Irish Exodus to America 1846-51")(
In the 85 year period from 1829 to 1914 a total of 661,000 Irish emigrants arrived at the port of Quebec and in the 22 years from 1829 to 1851 the Irish accounted for 60% of all immigrants via Quebec.
Patrick Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy dynasty, left Wexford in 1849 and sailed on The Washington Irving. Another founder of a famous dynasty was Henry Ford's father who left Cork for Quebec in 1847, eventually arriving in Detroit.
Our story on the famine finishes for now with a Canadian link which I find of interest - that of Grosse-Île. (More on that page in the links below) This little spot is an island about 3 miles long and a mile wide and lies 30 miles to the east and downriver of Quebec. It was first used as a quarantine centre in 1832 when a cholera epidemic struck European immigrants. It was re-opened for the expected influx of Irish immigrants in 1847 and initially it housed 50 beds and enough straw to sleep a further 150.
Prior to the expected arrival of the ships during the famine years there was a medical staff of 3 headed by Dr. George Douglas. In 1847 alone 4 doctors sacrificed their lives as a result of caring for the fever-ridden immigrants, one of whom came from Dublin - a Dr. Benson.
The first ship to arrive, ten days after preparations were completed, was The Syria, discharging 231 passengers of which 84 needed admission with typhus fever. The first victim to die at Grosse-Ile in 1847 was four year old Ellen Keane.
Week by terrible week more arrived needing the help of Grosse-Île and a report by Dr. Douglas, only two weeks after opening, stated that he had 850 patients in his hospital and a further 500 on board ships awaiting admission. Over 100,000 immigrants arrived between Quebec and Grosse-Île in 1847 alone. 398 ships were inspected at Grosse-Île and 26 of these came from Sligo, each ship having an average of 300-400 passengers.
The Irish Cemetery at Grosse-Ile
It is estimated there were over 3226 Irish emigrants who died at Grosse-Île and a further 2198 who died on board ship.
Statistics show a total of 5424 Irish people are buried in this place and it is known that over 5,000 died at sea.
The Irish cemetery accounts for over 80% of the total buried on Grosse-Île and there is evidence of the mass graves required in 1847.
A stone celtic cross stands as a memorial to those who died and it is a stark reminder to us all of what famine is about. Famine continues today in this world of plenty - will we ever see it end?
The Celtic Cross, standing at a height of almost 50 feet, was erected by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to honour the memory of all those Irish buried at Grosse-Île.
In 1997 a new irish Memorial was errected for the 150th. anniversary of the famine and you can read more about it on the Grosse-Île page.
We as a nation have much to be grateful for, particularly to the people of Canada, America and indeed Australia who opened their arms to our starving poor and who continue to welcome those who leave these shores.
Celtic Cross at
In September 1998 I got to visit Canada again and on this trip went to Grosse-Île. You can learn more there about this tiny island, how it weaves through this period in our history and how our transatlantic links were forged. As for me - well if my father's people hadn't stayed behind and survived I wouldn't be here and you wouldn't be reading this page.
And so, this part of our journey concludes, links to the rest of the journey are just below our newsletter subscription.
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the Rest of the Journey
For those who have just joined me on this page why not go to the beginning of our travels and see some of the places in The Start of Our Journey through the West of Ireland.
My Place Amongst the Stones gives the history of my company name, Moytura - a celtic heritage going back thousands of years.
We journey to my own parish of Lackagh - a small village just 12 miles from Galway with a mighty big history. Learn all about the Battle of Knockdoe - one of Ireland's bloodiest of conflicts in the 16th century.
We move on to take a quick jaunt around Galway City; and then to the heart of Connemara - with its wild and wonderful beauty.
From there we journey south into County Clare to see The Burren - a place that has lain undisturbed since the Ice-age and of immense botanical, ecological and archaeological importance.
Visit Ireland's finest early monastic heritage centre in Clonmacnoise, County Offaly; and to my favourite of all the early Christian Church locations - Clonfert, South County Galway, with its beautiful tiny 12th century Cathedral of Saint Brendan. Come with me around the grounds and see the 1000 year old Yew Walk and the Bishop's Palace.
While on the Clonfert pages, you can learn a potted history of Saint Brendan the Navigator, possibly the first European to set foot in North America in the 6th. century. And join me in the celebrations when this tiny cathedral was listed in the World Monuments Watch 2000 most endangered monuments.
Join me on my 'Famine Journey' which starts in Westport, and moves to Sligo, my Dad's County and the departure port for many of the 'Coffin Ships'. This part of my famine journey ends in Grosse-Île on a tiny island east of Quebec City.
On this page you will learn some of the history of our Famine Refugees from 1845 - 1849 and find the final resting place of over 6,000 of my country folk who died within sight of their first freedom in over 300 years. This is where many of the Irish roots in North America started.
Our Journey moves on to other places on that visit to Canada where we see Quebec City and some of Ontario's lovely places and then to two of Canada's famous Catholic Shrines - Saint Anne de Beaupré and to Cap-de-la-Madeleine.
Finally, join me on my pilgrimage to a peaceful haven in a war-torn country in Medugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovinia. The other areas of my Web site can be found in the drop-down box below.
If you are interested in Irish history or anything to do with Ireland why not visit our new additions where you will find a large selection of genuine Irish goods as well as Irish reading, music & viewing material!:
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