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Star of the Sea : A Postcolonial/Postmodern Voyage into the Irish Famine

How the Coffin Ships Sailed

During the famine, a multitude of ships were used to transport emigrants to their new home. However, due to their despicable health conditions and high death tolls, they were usually referred to as "coffin ships". Most of the ships came from British or American ship lines, but “American ships were much preferred to British because they were generally less crowded and had the advantage in design, accommodation, and speed” (Donnelly 186). These ships could carry up to 400 passengers, and could therefore fit more emigrants than the smaller British ships. Fares on the coffin ships would usually be between £2-5, while cabin passengers would pay £12-15. These cabins were “few and far between, even on the biggest vessels [and] were usually available only on packet ships” (Laxton 28-29). Cabin passengers were usually middle or upper class passengers who wanted to get away from the diseases and famine in Ireland.

As the famine progressed, the quality of the ship industry also changed. According to Helen Litton, iron-hulled screw steamers arrived in 1850, which cut down the normal travel time to one month, and the likelihood of shipwrecks became minimal (104). However, these coffin ship steamers were still overloaded and disease-ridden. When Irish emigrants were boarding the overcrowded ships they were not treated with respect by the ship-owners and crew who “believed that the passengers were merely human freight and treated them accordingly” (Gray, The Irish Famine 105). Rumors about the horrible treatment on the coffin ships spread across Ireland, but the emigrants were still forced to squeeze together in the tight spaces of the ship.

During the first year of the coffin ship sailings, they were supposed to provide a weekly supply of 7 lbs. of bread, rice, flour, biscuit, oatmeal, or potatoes per passenger. However, very few ships actually stuck to these regulations. Edward Laxton explains in The Famine Ships how “one pound of food a day was nothing more than an insurance against starvation: the passengers themselves were supposed to be responsible for anything else they required” (30). If the Irish would have had extra money that would not have been a problem, but since most of them spent their entire savings on the ship fare, they would have no way of buying anything extra. The situation would get worse if the ship would fail to give out the supplies; therefore, leaving their human freight with no nutrition during the long journey.

Lack of food was not the main issue with the coffin ships; the main problem was exactly what their nickname suggested. The death toll on these ships increased as conditions worsened amongst steerage passengers and sometimes even crew. In Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea, readers experience the increasing death toll through the ship logs of the Captain. Frequently, O'Connor describes the unsanitary conditions as well as decomposing bodies and funerals that haunt the ship on its journey. According to William Henry, “The remains of those who died during the voyage were consigned to the bottom of the sea. There are horror stories of sharks following ships because of the plentiful supply of bodies they were guaranteed” (54). As soon as someone died, they would be thrown overboard and thereby attract the sharks. Conditions on the ship could make everyone infected, and in some cases there would be barely any left on the ship by the time it reached its destination.

Works Cited 
Donnelly, James S. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 2001. Print.

Gray, Peter. The Irish Famine. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1995. Print.

Henry, William. Coffin Ship: The Wreck of the Brig St. John. Dublin: Mercier Press, 2009. Print.

Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996. Print.

Litton, Helen. The Irish Famine: An Illustrated History. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1994. Print. 
Researcher/Writer: Ellen-Marie Pedersen
Technical Designers: Derek Rachel and Amanda Lundeen

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