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Folk, fables and foibles the guidebook forgot to mention
  • Fergus Manor

16. Leaving it all behind ...

Much has been penned about the famine that ravaged Ireland the late 1840s and early 1850s and many aspects of the tragedy—its duration, causes, consequences, significance, death toll and responsibility—continue to be discussed, debated, reassessed and refined.

For those unfamiliar with what happened, these are but the bare bones:

• The Irish peasant class relied heavily (for many, exclusively) on the humble potato for sustenance and for survival.

• Over several consecutive years in the mid-19th century, the potato crop was blighted with disease.

• Famine was the inevitable outcome and many people died while roughly the same number emigrated.

(Definitive figures for both vary but, based on analysis of two censuses, 1841 and 1851—themselves open to questions of accuracy—a conservative analysis would suggest that, by 1851, Ireland had lost over 2 million people, close to a quarter of its expected population at that time.)

• The ‘comfortable’ classes did not suffer and Irish corn continued to be exported to Britain despite the greater need at home.

As it happens, one of the leading authorities on this grim period, Ciarán Ó Murchadha, is a native of county Clare. His major work on the Famine, The Great Famine: Ireland’s Agony 1845–1852, is not only recognised as an important contribution to an understanding of what happened, but also is a unique perspective of what it was like to live in, die in or leave famine-ridden Ireland. One of his earlier books, Sable Wings over the Land, looks specifically at how the Famine affected Ennis and its rural hinterland.

Generally people from Clare who chose to abandon Ireland with their families did so through the county Cork port of Cobh, then known as Queenstown (Dun Laoghaire on the east coast was called Kingstown).

Ships out of Cobh and other major ports could accommodate upwards of 400 passengers and the degrading and insanitary conditions were such that as many as a quarter of an already weak and impoverished ‘cargo’ never saw the new world they so desperately sought. Little wonder that some, of such vessels came to be known as ‘coffin’ ships, an emotive appendage that inaccurately came to embrace the many rather than the few.

One such example is the fate of those aboard the Virginius which sailed to Quebec from Dublin via Liverpool in 1847 with 496 would-be emigrants. On arrival it was reported that 158 had died en route, 186 had been sick and the remaining 152 who landed were ‘feeble and tottering’; even the captain and his crew had all been ill and seven had died.

But there were other, less congested, routes through which to escape and one of those was the Port of Clare, at Clarecastle Quay, via Limerick. Clarecastle’s location on the river Fergus and its proximity to Limerick allowed for a much smaller-scale operation which was embraced by the owners of the two-masted brig, the Ellen Forrestal.

Like the Alfred (see Blog 12), the Ellen Forrestal generally imported goods (most often timber) from north America (mainly Mirimichi, Quebec and New York) and frequently crossed the Atlantic from Clarecastle ‘in ballast’, in other words without any cargo. As the situation in Ireland became so dire in the late 1840s, the Ellen Forrestal started to offer passage to a human cargo on the outward leg of its voyages westwards from Clarecastle and Limerick.

The intention of the owners—the MacNamara family, timber merchants of Gaol Street, Ennis—to carry passengers in an adapted Ellen Forrestal first appeared in the Limerick Chronicle on 21 April 1847. The brig could accommodate up to 100 passengers and, between June 1847 and April 1851, crossed the Atlantic at least four times with her cargo of emigrants.

In no sense was the Ellen Forrestal a ‘coffin’ ship indeed, according to an account in the Clare Journal in 1848:

“... the friends of those emigrants who sailed from Limerick on the “Ellen Forrester”, belonging to the Messrs. MacNamaras of this town, will be delighted to learn that she made her passage to New York in thirty six days, without a case of sickness on board.”

A breakdown of the passenger list for the Ellen Forrestal’s voyage to New York in 1850 indicates that only a small number of the 94 passengers were from the very lowest strata of society

There is no way of knowing to what extent those who availed themselves of the Ennis/Clarecastle/Limerick route to north America were destitute families at the end of their tether in famine-ridden Ireland or people who might have emigrated anyway, saw the writing on the wall and opted for the more convenient option. Whatever their story and motivation, they took advantage of a local and less daunting route to what they hoped would be a better life, albeit one prefaced by being crammed into the hold of an 83ft x 20ft brig for five weeks.

That, on at least one crossing aboard the Ellen Forrestal, everyone on board arrived weary but alive was, in terms of the frenetic, mass emigration that was endemic to those dark years, one small, positive and hopeful moment.

There is one other type of emigration that flourished during the Famine period, what we might call ‘involuntary emigration’, better known as transportation or the practice of sending convicted felons to Australia or Van Diemen’s Land (today’s Tasmania). In Clare terms this rose from eight in 1845 to a peak of 341 in 1849 and had fallen to 80 by 1851. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that crime increased throughout the Famine period, nor to make the link between hunger and destitution and succumbing to becoming involved in a criminal act in order not to perish.

I read somewhere that, if there was a cross in the sea to mark every death en route to the Americas, it would have been possible to cross the Atlantic on foot. It seems that the Ellen Forrestal was not a contributor to that grim scenario which in itself was almost certainly an imaginative exaggeration.

Once again I am indebted to the detailed research of Clarecastle historian Eric Shaw; his knowledge about all things Clarecastle and its river is second to none.

I am also indebted to the research and attention to detail of Ciarán Ó Murchadha as evidenced in his acclaimed books, The Great Famine and Sable Wings over the Land.

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