Friday, December 31, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? (Part IV)

(As promised, I’m back again to pick up the story from Derry.  I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath.)

Okay, I got a little sidetracked as I was starting to write this.  The next steps in my travels after Derry had much to do with family history; I was thinking about it and was online anyway, so I started googling (yes, it’s a verb) to see if I could track down anything about my great-great-grandfather Dominic O’Neill (born in Ireland, emigrated to Canada during the Famine).

Lo and behold, there are a multitude of free, searchable databases out there (the National Archives of Canada has a wealth of information) and he popped up in a few places. I think I found his parents’ names (on his death record in 1909) —Henry O’Neill and Ellen Needham —so I can go back another generation for one line of the family.  Then I started looking at the information my mother has gathered and trying to put all the pieces together and puzzle out how I was related to all of these names.  (My father has information somewhere for his side of the family, too, so I’m sure I’ll get distracted again once he locates it.)

It’s addictive.  I think this is going to be my project for next year, when I’m back to working for a living, and when I can’t afford to go anywhere because I’m paying off credit card bills from this year off.  (I don’t have any yet, but ...)

Anyway, I digress.  Why I started down this tangent in the first place was prompted by starting to write about going from Derry to Cork and Dublin; in both places learned a lot about what it would have been like for my Irish ancestors fleeing from the Famine.   The Dominic O’Neill of my Google search was the last generation who left Ireland — he was a child at the time, so presumably went to Canada in the company of his parents and siblings (but I haven’t figured that out yet).

Cobh, about 15 kilometres outside Cork and an easy train ride, was one of the main departure points for the so-called “famine ships” (or, more graphically, “coffin ships” – so called for the horrendous death toll during the Atlantic crossing) in the 1840’s and 1850’s.  More recently, it was the last port of call for the Titanic before it headed out to sea for its fateful date with an iceberg.  The excellent Cobh Heritage Centre has a wealth of information about both; the Titanic stuff was interesting enough, but I found the discussion of the famine ships much more riveting.  Some of my people were on those ships!

I can barely imagine what it must have been like for the people who left – my family, way back when, and a million other folk who went on to found thriving Irish communities all over the world.  Another million or so never got the chance to leave, as they died of starvation in Ireland.  The country’s population went from 8 million in 1840 to just over 4 million by the end of the century, and it’s never bounced back to its peak; I think current-day Ireland is about 6 million people.

The more I learn about the Famine, actually, the more astounded I am than the country and any of its people actually survived.  With a vast segment of the population dependent on the potato crop, its utter failure in the mid-1840’s wrought devastation on the country.  Small tenant farmers could not pay their rents, triggering mass evictions as landlords sought to rid themselves of the problem.  The more unscrupulous landowners rented the most notorious of the “coffin ships”, with the cheapest ships and crew (read: oldest and least sea-worthy for the ships, dregs of society for the crew).

Whether or not they really thought that all of their former tenants had a fighting chance of surviving the voyage to the New World I don`t know; what does seem apparent is that many of them didn`t really care much one way or another.  Out of sight, out of mind – get the problem (the poor Irish tenants) off the land, put the land to better use, and if the tenants didn`t last the trip, well ... what’s a few Irish Catholics more or less?  (They weren’t all Catholic, of course, but Catholics were disproportionately represented – they weren’t allowed to own land at the time and made up the majority of the tenant population.)

Passenger quarters on a 'famine ship'
These weren't healthy people to start with – some had been reduced to eating grass by the time they boarded ships out of Ireland.  The voyage would have taken two months, more or less, through the wild weather of the North Atlantic.  The ships were crowded and the passengers were not always allowed up on deck for fresh air.  Provisions were basic at best and insufficient at worst; disease and death ran rampant on many ships in the crowded and poorly-ventilated quarters.    There’s a replica of one of the famine ships (the Jeannie Johnston) now berthed in the River Liffey in Dublin (touring it was a fascinating afternoon) – it was one of few good ones, with a perfect record and every passenger arriving safely, alive, at the other side of the Atlantic.

Even getting to North America was no guarantee; ships could be held up at the quarantine island of Grosse-Ile in Quebec for another few weeks before passengers were allowed to continue on their way.  Some died while the ship was still waiting, and they are buried at Grosse-Ile (now a Canadian National Historic Site).

But some made it, despite the odds stacked against them.  My family, and millions of other part-Irish North Americans, are here as living proof.

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