The idea of escaping the poverty and destitution of Ireland to seek a new life in America must have seemed almost too good to be true for many Irish families...some managed to pay for their own passage, but most people had their travel paid for by landlords only too anxious to get rid of starving tenants.
It took little time for ships captains to realise they could cut costs by cramming as many people in the holds of their ships as possible and providing only the very basic food for the journey. I don't know which would have been the worse because some people travelled on deck...the entire way to America. Many died of exposure in doing so and the practice was gradually stopped.
In December 1848 a paddle steamer left Sligo dock bound for Liverpool...when ships arrived in Liverpool there was another long wait...sometimes weeks at a time...until a ship bound for the Americas had places available. But this steamer...The Londonderry, was caught in a storm and took refuge in Derry harbour. There were 176 passengers on board...all in the hold along with some cattle.
And it was hot in the hold even though it was December because cattle give off heat...one of the reasons the family cow lived indoors during the winter months. As the steamer rocked from side to side the cattle began to panic and so did the passengers who had very little room to move about anyway.
Some of the passengers tried to keep the hatch door open to let in fresh air...the sailors were ordered by the Mate to put tarpaulin on the top of the hatch and to tie it down.
Everyone was crying and begging to be let out...their cries and noise were dismissed by the Captain and the Mate as being 'those Irish bastards fighting among themselves'...and so they paid no heed and rode out the storm in the safety of the harbour.
When the hatch to the hold was finally opened 72 men, women and children were dead from suffocation.
One child, Mary McNulty, who thought she was about 14 years old, lost her Mother and 4 little sisters.
Ships Captains and shipping companies grew rich from the misery of the Irish for a number of years until stricter guidelines were introduced as to the number of passengers allowed on board and the amount of rations they were given each day...passengers travelling in the hold were allowed on deck for fresh air and exercise and no-one was allowed to actually travel on the deck. By the time these new guidelines were implemented, the Great Famine was long over and emigrants were often paying their own passages or travelling on Government assisted passages.
1848 sounds like such a long time ago...but my Grandpa was born in 1876...just 28 years before those people suffocated to death.
I wonder what happened to Mary McNulty...she was still in Ireland...Derry is now in Northern Ireland but at the time it was part of what is now the Republic, so I suppose she could have made her way back to Co. Mayo where she and her Mother and her little sisters had hailed from. I hope she found rides on carts driven by kindly men who saw she had something to eat and looked after her as best they could...and I hope there was someone left in her Townland for her to make her home with.
There are entire deserted villages here in the West...maybe up to a dozen or so tiny cottages clustered together on a hillside or by a rivers edge...roofs caved in and trees growing inside what was once a sitting room...sometimes there'll be a pig sty or a hen house...carefully built from stone, now home to raucous Jackdaws and Swallows in the summer months.
Perhaps quite the saddest objects of the past are the stained and blistered statuettes of the Holy Mother standing on the mantel...wreathed in cobwebs and spattered with bird droppings ...she stands guard over tiny hovels waiting for the family to come home again to Ireland.
I've no idea what happened to the remains of those people who died on the 1st December 1848...but they never had the opportunity to come home again.