Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
Emigration from Ireland began long before the nineteenth century and continued after its conclusion, but during the potato blight that caused the Great Famine, there was a mass exodus of people from the country. They sailed on vessels that became known as “coffin ships,” because one in three emigrants died during the journey. This label presents a history of only one dimension and fails to provide a true understanding of the emigration process that these Irish men, women, and children endured. McMahon employs this term for the book’s title to challenge the established concepts of this diaspora and open up new venues of discussion and research that enlighten and expand on our understanding. He does so by sharing what the emigrants thought of and experienced during their journeys using their letters and diaries, as well as newspapers, government documents, and guidebooks of the period.
To best comprehend the context of the Great Famine, McMahon sets the stage with a brief look at what Ireland was like before the blight. This was a time when the majority of landowners were Protestant who leased their lands to tenant farmers. Many were poor, but their lives were enriched by the social community in which they lived. The blight struck first in 1845 and the mass exodus of Irish because of the resultant famine ended a decade later. This is the timeframe that McMahon focuses on here. At the beginning, Ireland had a population of 8,500,000, one million of which would die during the Great Famine. Two million chose to escape the dire conditions, but there weren’t enough ships to carry; this led to delays, additional expenses, and problems that the emigrants had to confront. So how did they cope?
He divides his analysis of this question into five segments: Preparation, Embarkation, Life, Death, and Arrival. Chapter one focuses on how the Irish gathered the necessary resources to leave Ireland. This was but the first step as chapter two shows by examining how the emigrants traveled to their embarkation points. Both of these illustrate that an intricate network of relationships existed to help them to acquire the tickets and items they needed for the journey and get to the port – most often Liverpool, England – where they could board a ship that would take them to their new homelands.
Chapter three concerns the ocean voyage itself, while chapter four deals with death at sea. What life was like and how the emigrants adapted are key components here, as is how their shared experiences dissolved old bonds of the past to form new bonds to cope with life and death at sea. The final chapter discusses what happened once the ships docked at their destinations, the challenges the immigrants faced, and the revamping of relationships tying them to their new homes in addition to the one of their birth.
Part of the Glucksman Irish Diaspora Series, The Coffin Ship includes an essay that discusses the sources McMahon consulted and his methodology. Graphs and illustrations are interspersed throughout the narrative. Endnotes, a bibliography, and an index round out this study.
Most histories concern the emigrants who traveled to America, but McMahon includes those who sailed to other parts of the world – Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand – and includes the convict experience as well. Through the use of poetry and quotations from primary documents, he breathes life anew into these individuals so that readers experience their emotions, joys, and sufferings. He also shows how the migratory process worked and consisted of reciprocal means that extended far beyond the national boundaries of Ireland to reconnect Irish immigrants with those left behind. We often think that emigrating is a solitary experience, and to some degree it is, yet McMahon also shows how helping hands existed all along the way, allowing social bonds to dissolve, reform, and reconstitute themselves. Even though his study focuses on the Irish diaspora, he connects it to current issues concerning refugees. This is an invaluable addition for any collection dealing with the Great Famine, the Irish diaspora, and the refugee experience.
Review Copyrighted ©2021 Cindy Vallar
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