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The Irish Famine Ship Hannah

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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.

A memorial to the victims of the famine in Dublin.

A memorial to the victims of the famine in Dublin.

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.

A depiction of conditions aboard an Irish emigrant ship at the Cobh Heritage Museum, Cork.

A depiction of conditions aboard an Irish emigrant ship at the Cobh Heritage Museum, Cork.

Bonus Factoids

  • 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.
The National memorial to the Irish emigrants who fled the famine and endured terrible conditions aboard the coffin ships.

The National memorial to the Irish emigrants who fled the famine and endured terrible conditions aboard the coffin ships.

  • 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.

Sources

  • “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

Comments

Kate on March 23, 2020:

I’m of Irish descent and I live in America. My ancestors came from county Mayo and Roscommon Ireland. I have no direct testimonies from my ancestors about the potato famine but my mother’s grandmother Elizabeth Parham (born 1879 and died 1965) got very angry when my mom asked her if she was part English as her first and last name sounded English and the fact that she was raised Protestant. According to that story my mom’s grandmother said “This is what I think of the English!” She spat on the floor of her apartment.

maven101 from Northern Arizona on March 09, 2018:

Man's inhumanity to man consumes my rational thought...I have difficulty thinking otherwise...Though emotionally challenging to read, I found your specificity of this particular ship to be a confirmation of my innate disgust at human nature at its worst...

RTalloni on March 06, 2018:

History is proof that there is no end to the ways mankind can devise to destroy each other. The details of this infamous famine are a reminder that the heart of man is exactly what He says it is, that all done in the name of religion is not of God, and that the need of the human heart is the the Savior, Jesus the Christ.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 06, 2018:

S. Maree. That is a wonderful addition to my article. Thank you so much. I was born in England although all my grandparents were Celts- two from Wales and one each from Scotland and Ireland. I have long felt guilt for the way the English mistreated the Irish; my own parents expressed negative feelings towards the Irish. The lack of help during the famine amounted, in my mind, to a crime against humanity.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 06, 2018:

S. Maree. That is a wonderful addition to my article. Thank you so much. I was born in England although all my grandparents were Celts- two from Wales and one each from Scotland and Ireland. I have long felt guilt for the way the English mistreated the Irish; my own parents expressed negative feelings towards the Irish. The lack of help during the famine amounted, in my mind, to a crime against humanity.

S Maree on March 06, 2018:

I refuse to believe that God is inhumane. What happened to the Irish was a series of abuses from the time the English first laid claim to the land.

The Irish were forced to work for pittances, growing abundant food that was shipped abroad. They were allowed tiny scraps of marginal land to grow whatever might take root. The potato seemed a godsend to deliver starvelings from hunger. Potatoes were deemed a food fit only for livestock & Irish.

While the potato was hailed in the late 18th century as an answer to periodic European famines, no one heeded clear warnings that a blight could wipe out entire populations. Ireland's was the worst of several continental potato blights, due to the reliance on a single cultivar.

Andean peoples developed many varieties so that if one failed, others might live. That wisdom failed to impress avaricious Europeans. They were attracted to what became known as the "Irish potato" due to its shape, color, size, and yields.

A good read on this subject is "Part IV," in Tom Standage's, "An Edible History of Humanity." Published in 2009, by Bloomsbury, it gives the reader a deeper look into the mistakes that led to this monumental catastrophe.

That the Irish suffered aboard the death ships is not surprising. It was yet another abuse by the English, many of whom deemed them lower creatures for their adherence to the Roman Church. And, of course, the maritime courts would support any Englishman over a gross of Irish complaints!

Sadly, the English disdain for the Irish was echoed by many Americans and Canadians, which forced the emigres to start with menial positions & live in segregated areas (from which Irish Americans began to accrue power & influence).

While I am an Anglophile, I do not choose to ignore the repressions the English set up that led to this disaster. In my heart I believe God weeps at human cruelty. Thus humanity pays for the gift of knowledge of good & evil!

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