The Irish Famine Ship Hannah
The Hannah was a brig hired to carry Irish immigrants to Canada in 1849 in the middle of the Great Potato Famine. She carried a crew of 12 and about 200 passengers hoping to find a better life away from the misery and starvation.
The Hannah left the port of Newry in northern Ireland in early April; most of her passengers were from around Armagh. She was under the command of Curry Shaw, a man of just 23 years of age, who had the all-important qualification of being the son of the ship’s owner.
The Irish Potato Famine
Historian Dr. Éamon Phoenix says “The Great Famine of 1845-51 has the grim distinction of being the most costly natural disaster of modern times.” Potatoes were the staple food of Ireland’s people; two-fifths of the population of 8.5 million depended totally on potatoes for sustenance. For much of the rest of the country potatoes were a major part of their diet.
Then, the blight struck. The potato crop failed year after year and a million people died. Starvation took most, with typhus, cholera, and dysentery adding to the toll.
A million Irish people emigrated, many carried in what were called “coffin ships” because of the awful conditions aboard during the voyages. One such was the Hannah.
Atlantic Crossing of Sailing Ships
The first weeks of the Hannah’s voyage were uneventful, except for some of the women aboard. By the account of the ship’s surgeon, William Graham, young Captain Shaw was in the habit of “crawling into the bunks of unmarried women passengers,” and raping them.
The journey took a turn for the worse on April 27th as they reached the Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Strong winds came up and they ran into pack ice. At four o’clock on the morning of the 29th submerged ice punctured the hull of the vessel.
The Armagh Guardian reported on June 4, 1849 that “the concussion threw the emigrants into a state of the most painful excitement. The poor creatures were below asleep, and immediately after the fearful striking of the ship they were to be seen rushing up to the deck with merely their night clothes on in the most indescribable confusion and alarm.”
On to the Ice Floes
As the ship was sinking, many of the passengers, with the help of some crew members scrambled, onto the ice floes. They stood there shivering in a gale bearing sleet and watched as the Hannah sank from view about 40 minutes after striking the ice reef.
Some slipped into the icy water and were lost, others died of exposure in the frigid weather.
Captain Shaw was not among them. He had ordered the ship’s carpenter to nail shut the aft hatch cover, trapping passengers below decks. Another crewman wrenched the hatch open, releasing the people.
Shaw and his first and second officers took to the Hannah’s only life boat and rowed off into the dark. William Graham swam after the life boat but claimed that Shaw drove him off by brandishing a cutlass.
The Armagh Guardian described Shaw’s abandonment of his passengers, without hyperbole, as “one of the most revolting acts of inhumanity possible to be conceived.”
Rescue of Irish Immigrants
For twelve hours, the survivors huddled on the ice not knowing if they were going to freeze to death or drown. At about four o’clock on the afternoon of the 30th a ship appeared; it was the barque Nicaragua under the command of William Marshall.
He saw the figures on the ice and edged his vessel close enough to start taking the survivors aboard. After two hours he had rescued about 50 people, but some others were in a position he could not reach with his ship. So, he lowered a long boat, rowed to those stranded, and rescued them as well.
Later, Capt. Marshall wrote that “No pen can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures, they were all but naked, cut and bruised, and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible. The number got on board the Nicarague [sic] were 129 passengers and seamen; the greater part of these were frost-bitten.”
Some of those rescued were transferred to other ships and all were safely landed. However, an estimated 49 people perished either aboard the ship or because of the atrocious conditions on the ice floe.
Curry Shaw and his fellow officers were rescued by another ship and brought to face justice. However, the captain was able to cast enough doubt on surgeon Graham’s testimony as to escape censure.
Sometimes, bad people do escape punishment.
- John and Bridget Murphy were aboard the Hannah with their four children (some sources say there were six children). According to testimony, John put his six-year-old twin sons, Owen and Felix, onto an ice floe and swam off to rescue his three-year-old daughter Rose. Owen and Felix were never seen again. John, Bridget, and what was left of their family settled near Ottawa and took up farming. In 2011, The Ottawa Citizen tracked down Joe Murphy, great grandson of John Murphy. The then 90-year-old retired public servant told the newspaper “It really was a miracle that they were saved.”
- In a sad echo of the Hannah tragedy, another 110 Irish emigrants lost their lives when the ship they were aboard struck an iceberg in April off the coast of Newfoundland. That ship was the RMS Titanic.
- At the time of the Potato Famine, the English looked upon the Irish as some sort of sub-human species. As people were dying at the rate of 2,000 a week from typhus, the English did little to alleviate the crisis. Irish historian Peter Gray points out that “food in great quantity was shipped out of Ireland during the famine.” Some found this abhorrent and one English governor in Ireland stood up in Parliament and called it “an act of extermination.” Was the Irish Potato Famine an Act of God or an Act of Genocide? Vote.
The Irish Potato Famine. Was it:
- “Irish Famine: How Ulster Was Devastated by Its Impact.” Dr. Éamon Phoenix, BBC, September 26, 2015.
- “Awful Wreck of an Emigrant Ship.” Armagh Guardian, June 4, 1849.
- “The Ill Luck of the Irish.” Brian McKenna, Toronto Star, March 16, 2011.
- “After Starvation and Shipwreck, Irish Families Began Their New Lives.” Ottawa Citizen, March 17, 2011.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor