The Coffin Ship
Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine
The Glucksman Irish Diaspora Series
Published by: NYU Press
336 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm, 11 b/w illustrations
- ISBN: 9781479808762
- Published: June 2021
Honorable Mention, Theodore Saloutos Book Award, given by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society
A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine
The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.
Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history. Based on archival research on three continents and written in clear, crisp prose, The Coffin Ship analyzes the emigrants’ own letters and diaries to unpack the dynamic social networks that the Irish built while voyaging overseas. At every stage of the journey—including the treacherous weeks at sea—these migrants created new threads in the worldwide web of the Irish diaspora.
Colored by the long-lost voices of the emigrants themselves, this is an original portrait of a process that left a lasting mark on Irish life at home and abroad. An indispensable read, The Coffin Ship makes an ambitious argument for placing the sailing ship alongside the tenement and the factory floor as a central, dynamic element of migration history.
A 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 is a beautifully executed and highly readable work of social history that critically redraws a central icon of the Famine. McMahon not only sensitively describes tragedies and terrors, but grants his characters individuality, voice and a sense of agency. He also reminds us that the experiences of these Famine refugees should make us more sympathetic towards the plight of today’s refugees. ~The Irish Times
In this highly readable book, Cian T. McMahon shows how the ‘flash flood’ of emigration helped survivors at home and abroad to rebuild their lives after the Famine. The Coffin Ship, of course, has things to say about coffin ships; but its true originality lies in its steady focus on the resilience of those who braved the ocean, on how they experienced the voyage, and on how they coped with the alien world that awaited them. ~Cormac Ó Gráda, author of Eating People Is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future and Famine: A Short History
Years ago the great writer Toni Morrison asked me if there were any books about immigrant ships that told their story of the ‘middle passage.’ I wish I could have given her a copy of Cian T. McMahon’s brilliant study, The Coffin Ship. ~Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History
The Coffin Ship is a meticulously researched, groundbreaking work of history that replaces myth and legend with the voices of those who endured the mass flight set in motion by the Great Famine. McMahon’s in-depth account makes clear that rather than being an incidental part of the trans-oceanic passage, the migrants’ shipboard experience played a central role in the formation of the Irish diaspora. The Coffin Ship enriches and enlightens our understanding of the suffering and resilience of the dispossessed down to the present day. It is an enduring achievement. ~Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York
A fascinating, original, and beautifully written study of the process by which more than a million Irish famine refugees made their way to North America and Australia in the 1840s and ’50s. Few authors have done a better job than Cian T. McMahon in recapturing these emigrants’ unimaginable traumas and triumphs. ~Tyler Anbinder, author of Five Points and City of Dreams
The fount of primary material used here, including emigrant correspondence, ship-company administrative and medical records, and Parliamentary papers lends this book a luminous quality, while the emigrant voices populating its pages enhance The Coffin Ship's scholarly solidity with compelling readability. This welcome contribution to Famine history deserves a wide readership. ~Irish Literary Supplement
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 ... 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. ~Pirates and Privateers