Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Famine Fact: Not every famine ship was a coffin ship: An Gorta Mór 1845-52

Did you know?

Not every Famine ship was a Coffin Ship
The Jeanie Johnston, Custom House Quay, Dublin, Ireland.
The Dunbrody, New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland.
A little tiny bit of good news here.

The term 'coffin ships' is a very useful one because it expresses the real suffering and the significant number of deaths which occurred onboard most of the immigrant ships travelling to North America during the period of An Gorta Mór, The Great Famine of 1845-52. However, not every ship was a coffin ship. A few had a very low rate of mortality, and at least one had no loss of life onboard at all.

Each one of the replica ships pictured above — The Jeanie Johnston and The Dunbrody — is docked as a tourist attraction in Ireland, and each ship has a history of success during the Great Famine.

The Jeanie Johnston has the most successful history of all, since not a single passenger or crew member was ever lost onboard the ship. In fact, on her maiden voyage of April 1848, a baby boy was born. Between April 1848 and 1855, the ship completed 16 voyages to North America, landing at the Port of Quebec, as well as at Baltimore and New York. It took an average of 47 days for the Jeanie Johnston to make the voyage, and yet not a single person died onboard.

Although the record of the Dunbrody is not spotless, over the history of her travel during the Great Famine, only eight lives were lost. Between 1845 and 1851 the Dunbrody carried thousands of immigrants to North America, carrying anywhere from 160 passengers per journey to over 300. In 1847 she is recorded as carrying 313 passengers to Quebec.

When you consider that thousands of people perished at sea during the Great Famine, this stands as good news, although most certainly not for the families of those eight lost.

In the case of both the Jeanie Johnston and the Dunbrody, the excellent survival rate of their passengers is attributed to their captains. The Jeanie Johnston also carried a doctor, Dr. Richard Blennerhassett, as a member of the crew who cared for the passengers on their journey.

As noted above, both of the currently docked ships are replicas of ships which were once used to carry immigrants to North America. Neither one of these replicas has ever carried an actual famine victim onboard. The Jeanie Johnston replica was christened in May of 2000, and the Dunbrody replica was christened in February of 2001.  These ships were purpose built in order to give an idea of what it may have been like to travel onboard such a ship during the Famine period, and serve to illustrate the close quarters in which large numbers of immigrants travelled. The Dunbrody is docked in New Ross, County Wexford, and the Jeanie Johnston is docked at the Custom House Quay in Dublin City.

If you believe one of your ancestors may have travelled on a real famine ship then you may want to search The Irish Emigration database on the Dunbrody website. The database is compiled directly from original Ships' Passenger Manifests, and includes the records of Irish, English, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants arriving at the main US ports. For the port of New York, the database covers the years between 1846 and 1890. For Boston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, the database covers only the famine years between 1846 and 1851. Access to the database is free through this website, and printouts of the information are available for a fee.

If you believe one of your family members may have perished onboard a famine ship bound for the Port of Quebec, then visit the searchable Immigrants at Grosse-Île Database, which includes information about the 4,936 people who died on ships at sea, on the St. Lawrence River or on quarantined ships at Grosse Île from 1832 to 1922.

If you are searching for famine immigrants who landed in the United States, see the NARA (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) website search page Irish Famine Passenger Records . On this site the records of immigrants to the Americas during the Famine period is not exclusively limited to the Irish born. In the Irish Famine Passenger Records approximately 30 percent of the passengers list their native country as other than Ireland.

In addition, on the Ships' List website, there are a number of well detailed passenger lists for those who emigrated from Ireland during the period of the Great Famine, as well as many passenger lists for other periods of emigration.


Crowley, John, and William J Smyth, Mike Murphy, editors. Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, New York University Press, New York, 2012.
O'Gallagher, Marianna. Grosse-Île: Gateway to Canada, Carraig Books, 1984.

Click on images to view larger versions.


  1. Jennifer, thanks so much for posting those links. Obviously, our family wouldn't be here if our ancestors hadn't made it on that long journey, but I have yet to find the records concerning which ship they actually used. I have Canadian census records to confirm the general time of their arrival, and confirmation letters of their baptism from their parish in Ireland...but no ship. I'm looking forward to checking out these resources in hopes of finding the connecting records!

    1. Hi Jacqi,

      Thank you for your comments. You may find the Ships' List link to be of particular benefit. Best of luck to you in finding the ship on which they travelled.


  2. Really interesting. I saw the exact same ships called coffin ships on another blog. It's nice to know there was some good stuff going on. Do you happen to know anything about the baby born on the Jeanie Johnston? My people arrived much more recently than famine times (well not as recently as yours jenn) but I’m going to look anyway.

    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for your comments. The baby boy born on the Jeanie Johnston was the son of Daniel and Margaret Reilly, who named him Nicholas Johnston Reilly, namesake for one of the owners of the ship, Nicholas Donovan and for the ship itself.

      Also, there were about 135 babies born on other ships during the Atlantic crossings between the years 1837 and 1913, and their information can be found in the Grosse-Île database too. Also Grosse-Île was a quarantine station and main point of entry into Canada until 1937. Did any of your people cross during that time period?


    2. Thanks for the extra info Jenn. I didn't know Gross Ile was open until the 30's. Where did people enter after that?

  3. You probably know this already, but there is a new book out about the Jeanie Johnston. It looks like a good read.
    Ashling Butler

    1. Hi Ashling,

      Thanks for your comment. I recently came across the book when the author Dr. Kathryn Miles did a radio interview about it on NPR. My understanding is that it was well researched and based on solid documentary evidence, so my hope is that it is a 'good read' from that perspective.



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