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Ireland’s Potato Famine and Famine Ships


Touring the Dunbrody, a replica of a "famine ship" that brought Irish emigrants to America during the famine of the 1840s, gives an intimate feeling for the suffering and upheaval that ensued when the potato crop failed.

Complete Video Script

Ireland, often called the terrible beauty, comes with a sad story. The original English colony, in some ways, it’s the last English colony. And its feisty spirit pitted against the power of its mighty overlord meant centuries of suffering — compounded by a potato famine.

Moored in the town of New Ross is a reminder of those hard times — the Dunbrody Famine Ship…a memorial to the countless starving Irish who sailed to America on ships like this.

Guide: Welcome aboard the Dunbrody. You’re standing, of course, on the decks. And this is a replica of the original Dunbrody built in Quebec, Canada back in 1845. The famine started in the 1800s, about 1840. It was a very black period in Ireland and this was where the potato crop, the only crop the Irish had as food, was caught by a blight, and that took over the potato crop and destroyed it for all the Irish. A lot of people got starvation and as they were farm laborers back then, they had no other way of living, no other professions. So these ships came along and they took all these Irish immigrants over to America as they had better lives over there.

Now this ship was a good ship. She was not termed a ‘coffin ship’. Now, coffin ships were sailing back in the famine times. They were horrible ships where up to fifty percent of your passengers died on the voyage. Terrible conditions on board, much too overcrowded, lack of fresh air and food.

Down below, in what would have been steerage quarters, actors dramatize the hardships famine emigrants faced.

Actor: This is what we have to eat …for the week…for the six of us. I already know the children will be hungry. And David, my poor husband, sick with the fever. I’m very worried, he may not last the voyage. Fifty days we’ll be on this ship, I heard the captain say…fifty days.

The Dunbrody is a memorial to the victims of the famine. Before the 1840s Ireland had eight million people. About a quarter of them starved or emigrated. The economy and population didn’t recover for over a century. Today Ireland’s population is still only five million.