Coffin ships

Food riot in Dungarvan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Irish potato famine is notorious even today because it killed one million people and prompted two million people to emigrate from Ireland. Signs of the famine can still be found in Ireland today, whether in the form of various ruins whose occupants had all perished or in the form of graves marked solely by rocks. Moreover, Irish emigration fluctuated so much that many voyages took place on coffin ships – small ships aptly named for the increased mortality rate onboard. Many immigrants were so desperate to leave their homeland that they booked inexpensive passage on ships that were small, overcrowded, and ravaged by disease and other unfavorable conditions. Based on these facts, arguably, many Americans with Irish ancestry can connect theirs to this event.

My family is one such example. My great-great-grandfather, Patrick Hayes, was born in County Clare in 1847, known as the worst year of the famine. He lived the rest of his life in Springfield, Missouri, and according to his death certificate, from 1924, was born to a John Hayes. However, uncovering his immigration records has become one of my brick walls. While the United States Famine Passenger Index does have a record of a Patrick Hayes arriving in New York in 1849, it is difficult to determine if this is indeed my great-great-grandfather. If it was him, why wasn’t his father on board the Rappahanock with him? The informant for his death certificate was my great-grandmother, Virginia Hayes. What I gathered from this information was that she knew her grandfather personally but had never met her grandmother, hence explaining why her name was not given. Was Mrs. Hayes the one who put her son aboard the ship, and was his father already waiting for him in America?

One of the more frustrating aspects of Irish migration is that, due in large part to the overwhelming number of people who left Ireland during the famine years, records were not kept diligently.

One of the more frustrating aspects of Irish migration is that, due in large part to the overwhelming number of people who left Ireland during the famine years, records were not kept diligently. Ellis Island had not yet been built, and people were not opposed to sneaking aboard or giving their children to somebody who had a ticket (usually due to eviction). Additionally, ships landed in several different ports besides New York, including Boston and Philadelphia. Therefore, not only were immigration records not quite up to par, they tripled due to the sheer number of ports and possible ships. Based on these facts, I was led to believe that my own ancestors arrived in America on one of the notorious coffin ships, and that my great-great-great-grandmother became a statistic, one of the 30% of passengers who never survived the voyage.

Pat Hayes became a police officer in Springfield, so despite his impoverished beginnings, he made a stable life for himself. Like many of the Irish who were fortunate enough to survive the famine, he overcame the tragedy that scarred his native country so severely.

About Maureen Carey

A native of San Francisco, Maureen Carey has a B.A. in European History from Regis University and a M.A. in American History from the University of Colorado. She is passionate about genealogy and has enjoyed tracing her own ancestry to colonial America. Her many research interests include America, Ireland, and Italy. In her free time, Maureen loves to read, travel, and spend time with her family, friends, and pets.

13 thoughts on “Coffin ships

  1. Members of the Connecticut Irish American Historical Society ( researched the burials of early Irish immigrants to New Haven CT. City records for those buried in the Catholic cemetery from 1834 to 1850 gave the cause of death. The stated cause for a number of those persons who died in 1847-1848 was recorded as “ship fever.” These can be found from p. 64, in “Vital Records of New Haven, Vol. 2,” online at, as well as in the society’s 2013 publication, “Early New Haven Irish and their Final Resting Places.”

    1. I should have been more specific – the New Haven “Catholic Burying Ground” opened in 1834 but the 1847-1848 burials cited were printed on p. 848 and p. 860-863.

  2. Have you found naturalization or marriage record for Patrick? What about census? They might have more clues.

  3. Then there are the many Irish who during the Great Hunger emigrated on transatlantic vessels to Canada because of the cheap fares, many on coffin ships out of Liverpool. My 2nd great-grandparents Mary (Ann?) Shea and Jeremiah Doyle, both from Co. Kerry (she from near Kenmare, he from possibly the same area as an adult but born near Sneem), who supposedly didn’t know each other previously (though I’m not sure I believe that) left on the sailing vessel “Lord Ashburton” in the fall of 1847, apparently in Sept., finally arriving at Montreal as the last vessel up the St. Lawrence before the winter freeze closed the river to traffic, in early Dec. or very late Nov., as I recall. By that time many passengers and crew had become sick, with many dying, so that the still able-bodied males had to help man the ship. On a later coffin-ship journey the vessel apparently foundered on some rocks, eventually sinking) near the entrance to the St. Lawrence (as I only vaguely recall).

    How they got to Liverpool from Co. Kerry is a good question. There are apparently no (extant) emigration/passenger records at the Liverpool end of the journey and none pertaining to arrival in Canada. And it’s too early for border-crossing records from when, perhaps in spring/summer of 1849, they crossed from Canada into the US (Vermont), perhaps their ultimate destination from the start. The family story was that Mary (supposedly only 12, but I question that) fell and broke a leg while disembarking (or doing something else related to arrival in Montreal), with Jeremiah (supposedly much older, maybe as old as about 30) came to her rescue and stuck by her, helping her find proper care. The Grey Nuns of Montreal apparently took her under their wing and were involved in nursing her and getting her medical care.

    A kind soul with access to the records (now online) of Montreal’s Basilica of Notre Dame some years ago kindly checked them for a record of the marriage of Jeremiah and Mary—and found it, in early 1848, apparently after her leg healed)! Indeed, several of the sisters were the witnesses (one or two of which subsequently died of the illness that was sweeping through the immigrant population, as did the Jesuit priest who married them). Fortunately, the marriage record gives the names of Mary’s parents (one of which was unusual, Mary White, perhaps a “branch” surname of a more common name in lower Kerry, like Sullivan), both apparently still living. Jeremiah’s parents’ names were given as well (with one or both indicated as deceased, can’t recall).

    Probably setting out for the US as soon in 1848 as possible, it is unknown how they got down into Vermont, but perhaps by a combination of methods—walking, hitching rides on farm wagons, and/or by waterways, esp. on Lake Champlain (the last of which presumably would have required fare payment, perhaps by exchange of labor instead of cash fares). They apparently stayed in Vermont about a year or a little more, with their first child, my great-grandmother, Nellie, born there in 1849. Jeremiah evidently was a farm laborer while there but found Vermont winter weather too cold and the farming too difficult in general (rocky soil? trees having to be removed?). They next went to the area of Bergen, NY, south of Rochester, where the second child was born in 1850, with Jeremiah working as a farm laborer for some years, with more children born, before moving to Kalamazoo Co., Michigan, where the last child was born and where they came to own a farm, living on it until moving into Kalamazoo City in their old age. Mary contributed to the family income by being a skilled needle-worker (skills learned in Ireland?)—becoming a dressmaker and milliner especially. (When my mother was in her late 90s, with some memories faded, I asked her if she knew how they got from Vermont to NY, she drew herself up and proclaimed with certainty, “Why, by the Erie Canal, of course!” (though that would have been for only part of the distance, of course).

  4. When the first ship of Famine emigrants reached New York City, almost all were very sick and had to be put into NYC institutions. NYC immediately enacted laws requiring certain conditions be maintained onboard in order for ships to discharge passengers in the US and making shipowners liable for the cost of caring for those too ill to walk off without assistance. Many ship owners weren’t willing to comply with these rules, so thereafter many coffin ships dropped their human cargo in Montreal. No records of emigrants’ names were kept and the bodies of those who died during the crossing were tossed overboard shortly before docking. The failure to record names was intentional. Those who made it were often deathly ill from “ship’s fever” and other sicknesses. They were quarantined in horrific condtions. Some Quebecois risked their lives caring for them, in much the same way medical personnel have during Covid. Those who died while in quarantine were buried in a mass grave. “The Coffin Ship” by Cian T. McMahon, describes these events and is the source of what I’ve posted above.

    Many years later, construction workers, many of Irish ancestry, discovered this mass grave and erected a simple monument to the approximately 6,000 people who died while in quarantine who were buried in it. See to learn more.

    About 10-15% of those who emigrated had their way paid by their landlords. This was often not out of generosity but for practical reasons. First, due to a recent change in the poor union laws, the burden of paying for the inmates of the local workhouses fell on the local landlords. Paying passage to North America was usually cheaper than paying for a workhouse inmate who lived several years after eviction. So, the landlords were most willing to pay for the youngest and healthiest to emigrate. Second, the landlords were afraid of more uprisings, so getting evicted young men, who might be tempted to join in “lawless” uprisings against evictions, out of the country seemed wise. These assisted emigrants almost invariably came on the coffin ships to Canada, not the US, because it was cheaper. Thanks to Professor Patrick J. Duffy’s article “Assisted Emigration from the Shirley Estate, 1843-1854,” available through JSTOR, I was able to learn where my own Markey ancestors lived in Ireland. Professor Duffy’s article has an appendix of about 1500 people whose passage to Montreal was paid by the landlord of the Shirley Estate during the Famine and its immediate aftermath. My great-grandfather and his family are listed.

    A lot of those aboard the Coffin Ships who survived later made their way to the US and often, as in my own family, the knowledge that the immigrants had come through Canada was lost.

    It is a long-shot, but I suggest Ms. Carey check the records of border crossings from Canada to the US. Some Famine Irish can be found there. Others stayed long enough in Canada to be recorded in the Canadian census. Usually, such a search doesn’t help, but a small number of Famine Irish can be found in these records. May Ms. Carey be one of the lucky ones!

  5. LIke your ancestor, my great-grandfather was born in Ireland in 1847. He left as a young man, probably arriving in New York City in 1865. I never found his passenger record either. I’m wondering if he was on one of these ships, though I suspect he had a ticket. Is it true that Ellis Island records went to Albany (NY) and were destroyed by fire? I am wondering if that is why I haven’t found him. Thanks to anyone who can provide an answer. I enjoyed learning more information here.

    1. Janice,
      Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892…you need to search Castle Garden for pre 1892 records. I can’t find my gg grandmother Helen “Ellen” Carey…as she was born on a ship coming from Ireland to New York according to what is on her oldest 2 census records. She won’t show up on a passenger list..and I haven’t been able to find any other Carey name linked to my gg grandparents, Amos Marshall and Helen Carey. They traveled between Chardon and Cleveland, OH, Buffalo. NY and Eaton County. Michigan…and one of Amos’ half brother’s moved to Ontario, Canada. Helen arrived in NY between 1829 and 1834…and I have found a Mary Carey who came in 1834 with 5 children…but then she disappears from census records..and the name is common.
      Good luck with your research!

      1. Thanks. I should have said Castle Garden – my error. Thanks for the info and good luck with your research.

  6. My husband’s 2nd great grandparents met in NY but they and their siblings immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1847 and 1848. Both families traveled first to Canada and then took a boat across the St. Lawrence River to NY. In order to try and settle Canada, the British Government offered the Irish a bargain fare of 15 shillings to sail to a Canadian port. It cost 100 shillings to sail to the US. His 2nd GGrandmother’s family sailed with about 150 friends and neighbors on the bark, Annie. It was a small ship with three masts and could operate with a smaller (and cheaper) crew. It carried a cargo of salt used for the fishing industry. 318 passengers traveled in steerage, no one traveled in the cabins. The ship was very fortunate in that during the month’s long voyage only one passenger died at sea and no one arrived sick. Many of the passengers passed on the story of the this experience to their families and the ship Annie was mentioned in several of their obituaries.

  7. Thank you Maureen Carey, you gave me a few ideas of areas to continue my research of Irish ancestors.

  8. Many Irish immigrants also migrated to New Orleans especially those settling in the Midwest. Mine came to Wisconsin with a stop in St. Louis in the winter emigrating from County Monaghan and County Donegal. There were many Irish and German immigrants who filled ships that had been delivered full of cotton to Europe and returned with emigrants. Thomas Boyle, from County Donegal, traveled from Londonderry to Liverpool and then to New Orleans in November 1848. There are passenger lists now on Ancestry. I found him on microfilm at Sutro Library in San Francisco in the 1990s.

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