Tracking the Great Famine’s ‘Coffin Ships’ Across the Digital Deep

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In Ireland's rogue gallery of oppressive technologies the Famineera "coffin ship" enjoys pride of place. Scholars and casual observers generally agree: the mortality rate on sailing ships was so high during the Great Famine that a wide range of contemporaries referred to emigrant vessels as "coffin ships." This truism is often cited to illustrate Irish people's desperation to leave or their anger toward "exterminating landlords" and heartless bureaucrats. In The Famine Ships, for example, Edward Laxton claims that "the stories of the coffin ships soon reached home [in 1847], but the Irish were not deterred."1 Christine Kinealy agrees: "Even the soubriquet 'coffin-ships' and the greeting 'Irish need not apply,'" she writes, "did not deflect wouldbe emigrants from leaving Ireland [in 1847 and 1848]."2 Many others have repeated the axiom.3 One historian even claims to have [End Page 81] pinpointed the genesis of the phrase. In his 2008 biography of Young Ireland firebrand Thomas D'Arcy McGee, David A. Wilson cites an 1848 speech in which McGee complained that the packet ships "have become sailing coffins, and carried [emigrants] to a new world indeed; not to America, but to eternity!" Wilson asserts, without citing any primary-source evidence, that McGee's reference to "sailing coffins" had an instant effect, and "before long the boats that carried famine migrants across the Atlantic became known as 'coffin ships.'"4 Such unsubstantiated claims are important, especially when published in otherwise excellent works of scholarship such as Wilson's, because they run the risk of fossilizing historical inaccuracies. When Jason King edited a collection of Famine-era migration narratives in 2019, after all, he confidently cited Wilson's work on McGee when he wrote that the "ramshackle vessels on which [Irish emigrants] crossed the Atlantic [during the summer of 1847] became known as 'sailing coffins' or 'coffin ships.'"5 Yet the very popularity [End Page 82] of this truism is also its weakness: if so many people were referring to emigrant vessels as "coffin ships" during the Famine, why has no historian produced primary source evidence to prove it?


Great Irish Famine; newspapers; "coffin ships"


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine

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