Canadian remains believed to be those of Irish Famine victims

coffin ship 1

More than a million Irish died as a result of the Great Famine that struck the island in the 1840s. Another 2 million emigrated in a desperate bid for a better life, with many setting sail for North America. What’s less well known is that among those who departed amid the tragedy of the Great Hunger, an estimated 100,000 died in transit.

Bones discovered on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in 2011 have recently been identified as those of children, aged seven to 12, believed to have been Irish who died fleeing the famine.

Vertebra and jaw bones are among remains confirmed by Parks Canada following three years of research to be those of malnourished children. It seems likely they died while fleeing the Great Hunger almost 170 years ago, according to IrishCentral.

Many of those two million who left Ireland traveled to America on ‘coffin ships,’ which were themselves deadly.

Coffin ships were crowded and disease-ridden, with poor access to food and water. They usually transported the poorest of the poor, and suffered mortality rates as great as 30 percent.

Owners of coffin ships provided as little food, water, and living space as was legally possible – if they obeyed the law at all. It was said that sharks could be seen following the ships because so many bodies were thrown overboard

One of these ships, the Carricks, set sail from Ireland to Quebec City in 1847. It sank off Cap-des-Rosiers, about 500 miles northeast of its goal, and 87 people died. The 100 survivors were taken in by families in the village.

A monument was erected in 1900 to remember the victims. In 2011, skeletal remains were discovered 40 yards away from the marker. Without DNA evidence and carbon dating it’s uncertain whether the children traveled aboard the Carricks.

Researchers were able to determine that children – two of them between seven and nine years old and another as old as 12 – showed evidence of rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, and malnourished, according to the publication.

Georges Kavanagh, a resident of Gaspé, can trace his ancestors back to the victims and survivors of the shipwreck. He told the Washington Post that he plans to ensure they get a proper reburial.

He said, “I have a link to these people – I almost consider them my family. Who wouldn’t want their ancestors to get a peaceful rest?”

The Irish famine is commonly attributed to widespread potato blight that led to devastation of the staple crop of millions of Irish, resulting in starvation. This despite the fact that Ireland was still producing and exporting butter, peas, salmon, rabbit, lard, herring, honey, tongues, onions, seed and more.

These commodities were shipped out of Ireland to Britain, demonstrating what could be at best be termed a misguided policy on the part of the United Kingdom, policy that was instrumental in the disaster.

Between death and emigration, Ireland’s population fell by an estimated 20 to 25 percent, and even today is still below pre-Famine levels.

(Top: Drawing of a “coffin ship” preparing to leave Ireland for North America.)

9 thoughts on “Canadian remains believed to be those of Irish Famine victims

  1. While Peel’s government took initial action – though how they thought maize was going to be a substitute goodness only knows, after the fall of his ministry in came one which believed that market forces would supply the answer!
    The outcome of that optimism was borne by the starving Irish peasant.

    My grandmother’s family were from Ireland and her parents told her about the period – though they were not affected themselves.
    Desperate emigrants would be assured of a fast crossing on a what they thought to be a mail boat….when experience showed it to be a coffin ship the master would tap his hand on a sack of meal and say …she’s a meal boat right enough’ (meal pronounced like mail in that time and place).
    My father used to sing a song from that period…the usual girl left behind as her sweetheart departs… and I’ve never heard it since…the last two lines of the chorus being
    Why must you go and leave my heart sore
    As you sail down the seas to Americay

    Hard as i try the rest just will not come back to me.

    • Goodness knows the English have a lot to answer for over the centuries, but how they pretty much allowed let the Irish starve while forcing the island the export produce that could have kept so many alive seems to me one of the great crimes of history. Charles Trevelyan’s plan to limit aid because of his belief in laissez-faire economics seems the height of heartlessness. Of course, this is the same individual who believed “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson.”

      I’d love to know the rest of the song; I find it amazing that your father knew songs associated with the Famine. It goes to show that the past is often closer than we think.

      • Read Trevelyan and find him echoed in the policies of the current U.K. government…..

        My father was born in 1900 and lived until 1993 when he died in hospital: recovering well from a stroke following an argument with his younger sister he caught one of those hospital bugs which killed him.
        So much for modern aseptic methods and supplying underpaid contract cleaners with inadequate materials.

        He had a fund of songs from his youth…everything from bothy ballads to music hall via old fashioned jazz and Irish independence…and while some come to mind at command there are some which have faded beyond recall…as has this one unfortunately.

  2. Terrible to think of what hardships those people had already been through that taking the coffin ships into the unknown was a better alternative.
    Some of those ships went all the way to Australia too, including the ones that bought some of my ancestors.

  3. I am so glad you reminded me of the Potato Famine deaths in Ireland and the huge numbers of those who died from crossing to America. History is more interesting now that I am older, used to not really listen nor pay attention. It was a sad tragedy and loss for Ireland.

  4. Glad I stopped by today and saw this post. In (lazily) researching my family, I came across an ad in the Boston Pilot, which for nearly 100 years published ads for people looking for their friends and families from Ireland. The clergy would place the ads for immigrants. I believe the one I found was from my gg-grandfather looking for his two younger sisters. He had apparently come to America earlier and sent for them. I learned that the sisters had been sent on a ship, the Lady Milton, arriving in Quebec in 1847. Your post reminds me that I should get back to my research because discoveries are always happening.

    Thanks for posting.

    • We today have no idea how easy it was to lose touch with family and friends when travel was involved prior to the onset of the information age. And once contact was lost, it was sometimes all but impossible to re-established a connection. Good luck in your research; hopefully your gg-grandfather found his sisters, and hopefully you’ll track them down, as well.

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