- Historic Sites
The Tragedy Of Bridget Such-a-one
A hundred and fifty years ago famine in Ireland fostered a desperate, unprecedented mass migration to America. Neither country has been the same since.
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
During a journey in steerage of anywhere from three to seven weeks, disease, seasickness, spoiled rations, hostile crews, and a lack of space and air—an experience one observer compared to “entering a crowded jail”—eroded whatever differences of region or accent or status once had divided the emigrants. By the time they landed, it was easy for nativists to lump them together as a race of feckless Paddies destined to be a permanent drain on American resources.
The reaction to the arrival of growing numbers of impoverished, famished immigrants wasn’t long in coming. Congress tightened the regulations that governed passenger ships entering American ports and raised the fines on violators. Massachusetts began to enforce a law requiring that before any pauper or sick person was landed on its shores, the ship’s master had to post a bond for every passenger. New York also required a bond and leveled a per person tax to cover the cost of those who became public charges. The net effect was that in the spring of 1847 a significant portion of the first wave of famine migrants left not for the United States but for British North America.
The demand for passage resulted in a hodgepodge of vessels being pressed into service. Poorly provisioned, devoid of medicines or sanitary facilities, crowded with hungry, fever-ridden passengers, they quickly developed a well-earned reputation as “coffin ships.” In May 1847 the first of them arrived at a quarantine station, with a small hospital that had been set up on Grosse île, in the St. Lawrence, thirty miles below Quebec. Out of a company of 240 passengers, 80 were down with typhus, and 9 already dead. By June nearly forty vessels were backed up for miles along the river, and 14,000 people awaited quarantine. The dead were buried in mass graves. By the end of the sailing season, the British government’s conservative estimate was that of the 107,000 who had left for Canada from British ports, 17,500—one out of every six—had died.
Despite the barriers raised by American ports, the overwhelming majority of famine emigrants sought passage to the United States, for few wished to remain under British dominion. Even in 1847, as many as 25,000 immigrants arrived in Boston from British ports, and at least another 5,000 managed to find their way down from Canada. New York received the greatest number. Between 1845 and 1855, a million Irish—one-eighth of the country’s population—landed on the wharves and piers around Manhattan. Many moved on. But many stayed, helping swell the city’s population from 370,000 to 630,000 in a single decade.
The voyage to the United States wasn’t characterized by the same catalogue of horrors as the emigration to Canada in 1847, but it was ordeal enough. Stephen de Vere, an AngloIrish gentleman with an interest in emigration, sailed to New York aboard the Washington , a well-built ship, in 1847. He watched the passengers in steerage being physically abused and denied the rations they were supposedly due. When he protested, the first mate knocked him to the deck. Taking his complaint to the captain, de Vere was threatened with the brig. Dysentery was rampant on the ship; a dozen children died from it. On landing, de Vere collected accounts of similar abuse aboard other ships and wrote a complaint to the emigration commissioners in London. In the end nothing was done.
One of the most compelling renderings of the emigrant trade in the famine era was by an American whose introduction to the sea was aboard a packet ship between Liverpool and New York. Herman Melville was nineteen when he made the voyage out and back in 1839. Ten years later, in 1849, he published Redburn , an account of his journey that is part fiction, part memoir, and part meditation on the changes that the mass descent of strangers was bringing to America. Though a novel, the book is alive with a real sense of the grandeur and misery of Liverpool and of the unromantic business of hauling five hundred emigrants across the Atlantic in a creaking, swaying, winddriven ship.
The emigrants aboard Melville’s fictional ship, the Highlander , were mostly Irish, and like many real emigrant ships, the Highlander wasn’t built for passengers but was converted to that purpose. Triple tiers of bunks jerrybuilt along the ship’s sides “looked more like dog-kennels than anything else” and soon smelled little different. “We had not been at sea one week,” the protagonist, Wellingborough Redburn, observed, “when to hold your head down the fore hatchway was like holding it down a suddenly opened cesspool.” Driven by hunger, some of the passengers stole a small pig, and “ him they devoured raw, not venturing to make an incognito of his carcass.” Fever struck. Emigrants began to die. Venturing down into steerage, Redburn encountered “rows of rude bunks, hundreds of meager, begrimed faces were turned upon us.… the native air of the place … was foetid in the extreme.’