Fleeing Famine: Irish Immigration to North America, 1845-1860

From 1845 to 1860, more than 1.5 million Irish immigrants sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Canada. In the cramped quarters below the decks of the “coffin ships,” the journey was fraught with the hardship of inclement weather and the peril of disease, but in spite of their uncertain future, the travelers faced these adversities in hopes of finding a better way of life in North America.

Potato Famine

Ireland in the 19th century was primarily an agrarian society, governed by Great Britain. Most Irish citizens were tenants on estates of British landowners. They grew potatoes, a crop easy to maintain with a good source of nutrients. However, when the first potato blight struck in 1845, they had limited sources of food to make up for the crop loss.

As the food supply dwindled, millions faced starvation. The blight continued until 1849, but its effects extended well into the 1850s. By 1851, more than 1 million people died as a result of the Irish Potato Famine.

Immigration to America

Before the potato famine, from 1820 to 1840 approximately 250,000 Irish immigrated to America, mostly unskilled laborers with little education seeking new opportunities. A new wave of immigration began in 1845. Some left of their own volition, but many were enticed to leave by their landlords, who paid for their transport. Some settled in Canada, but the majority sought to settle in the United States, due to its independence from Britain and reports from those who had already settled there.

“Coffin Ships”

Many ships used to ferry Irish immigrants across the Atlantic were cargo vessels, which raw materials, such as timber, from Canada and the United States to Great Britain. Instead of sailing back to America with empty ships, captains offered transport to immigrants at a low rate. Passenger comfort was not a concern, however, and meager food rations were allotted. During this period, the trans-Atlantic journey took one to two months, depending on weather and quarantine circumstances.

Few ships had any medical personnel, yet overcrowded conditions contributed to rampant disease. These ships became known as “coffin ships” due to the loss of life that occurred aboard. In some cases, the mortality rate aboard the ships could be as high as 30 percent.

Continued hardships

Irish immigration continued long after the crisis subsided in Ireland. Most stayed within the large urban centers of the Northeast, finding work in factories and living in crowded neighborhoods. Many immigrants encountered more hardship in America with the emergence of the Know-Nothing Party — an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic party — in the 1850s, based on fear immigrants would influence the country’s economic and political structures adversely.

The Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882 by Father Michael J. McGivney, a parish priest in New Haven, Connecticut, and the son of Irish immigrants, united Catholic men in support of one another and the families of deceased members.

At the center of the Fleeing Famine exhibition are six paintings by British artist Rodney Charman that depict the arduous journey of these Irish men, women, and children. All ships represented in the artwork were real, and many focus on a specific voyage. Also included in the exhibition are several bronze sculptures on loan courtesy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

In the News