Here we have the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross, County Wexford — one of the finest memorials of the Great Hunger in all Ireland. I’ve posted about visiting the EPIC emigration museum, the exhibition at St. Stephen’s Green, and the Jeannie Johnston. Since then the biggest surprise has been the Famine Exhibition in the agricultural museum at Johnstown Castle: who could have guessed that it would be so detailed and, indeed, superb? Even against all that, this replica of the Dunbrody is an exceptional site. The original ship was built in Quebec in 1845, the first year of the Irish famine. It was one of eight vessels owned by W.S. Graves that plied between New Ross and both Quebec City and Manhattan. Relatively large — 176 feet long and 28 feet wide — the three-masted barque carried an average of 200 people per voyage across the Atlantic, and on one occasion, during 1847, a total of 313. The ship had two cabins for first-class passengers, but the vast majority were confined below decks for most of the six or seven week voyage. There they slept in 40 bunk beds roughly six feet square, with four to eight people per bunk. Brutal. The dozen crew who manned the ship enjoyed better food and conditions — after all, they constituted the ship’s engine. But they would not be paid until they arrived back in Ireland, because otherwise, whoosh, they might disappear on landing. An excellent tour guide named Mark laid all this out as we set sail in 1849. He introduced two women actors — one sailing first-class, the other travelling with us in steerage (see photo below) — who told their own stories, incidentally
highlighting the class structure of the era. During the famine years (1845-1852), 1.5 million Irish emigrated on ships like the Dunbrody, while another 1.5 million died at home. During the following decade, another 2 million left Ireland. As a result, Canadians who claim Irish heritage today total just under 5 million . . . while in the U.S., the total is a staggering 35 million.