The Coffin Ship: A beautifully executed, highly readable, vital book

Book review: Cian T McMahon’s humane book provides insight into emigrants’ experiences

Irish emigrants on board a ship bound for America at the time of the Famine. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Irish emigrants on board a ship bound for America at the time of the Famine. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From John Behan’s impressive National Famine Monument at the foot of Croagh Patrick to Joseph O’Connor’s wildly successful novel Star of the Sea, the infamous “coffin ship” has long been emblematic of the Great Famine. Yet its ubiquity as a symbol makes it difficult to develop “a true understanding of the voyage”, as Cian T McMahon argues in this richly detailed and deeply humane book, the first full-length scholarly study of the Atlantic and Pacific crossings between 1845 and 1855.

The Coffin Ship not only examines regular emigrant vessels sailing for North America and Australia, but also includes convict ships. Citing the work of historians Cormac Ó Gráda and Joel Mokyr, McMahon shows that more than 97 per cent of passengers survived the voyage. With the tragic exception of the crossings to Quebec in 1847 that have come to define the memory of Famine-era migration, mortality rates rarely deviated from European averages. The emotive moniker “coffin ship” only became widely used decades later, when Irish nationalists weaponised it as shorthand for the horrors of the Famine.

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