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.)