"The Harmony" by Rodney Charman

Flight over Water

Near the middle of the 19th century, ships would sail from America to Britain, carrying raw materials like timber. But when these same vessels returned, they’d become “coffin ships,” packed with people desperate to escape an Gorta Mór: the Great Famine.

The Knights of Columbus Museum examines this moment in Fleeing Famine, a haunting new exhibit comprising six maritime paintings by Rodney Charman; a sea vessel installation; and five pieces of bronze sculpture, the latter on loan from the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden. Between the paintings, the boat, the sculptures and the placards that accompany them, visitors get a glimpse of what it was like living in—and leaving—Ireland from 1845 to 1860.

At the time, Ireland still operated like a feudal agrarian society. Much of its land was owned by rich Englishmen, while most of the native Irish were essentially tenants, often living in mud huts and scraping together a meager existence by farming their allotted plots. Potatoes were both hearty and hardy, and had become a hugely important staple of the Irish diet.

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Too important, as it turned out. Ireland’s poor were so reliant on the starchy spud that when the fungus phytophthora infestans, nicknamed “potato blight,” infected and destroyed huge portions of the country’s yield, there were few alternative crops available to make up for the loss.

Millions went hungry. Food was scarce enough to force those who could get it to eat even the stuff that had rotted. More blights continued to assail the potato crop, and during the hardest years of the famine, between 1845 and 1852, related death estimates range between 500,000 and 2 million, thanks to spotty record-keeping.

The horrible irony is that throughout the entirety of the famine, Ireland was producing more than enough food to sustain the locals. According to the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, which references research by scholar Christine Kinealy, that food included “peas, beans, onions, rabbits, salmon, oysters, herring, lard, honey” and, in the first nine months of 1847, at the height of the famine, a whopping 822,681 gallons of butter. In that same year, the research found, nearly 4,000 shiploads of food were exported under guard of British soldiers. The export was considered the “money crop” for the landowners, as opposed to the “food crop” for the Irish.

Instead of taking their chances in a blighted Ireland or a callous Britain, well over a million Irish fled to America and Canada—not just in hopes of a better life, but in hopes of any life at all.

Which brings us back to Fleeing Famine, and the coffin ships. Irish looking to emigrate to North America could often times only afford passage in the dark and damp steerage of cargo vessels, which would fill their holds with starving Irish men, women and children to make the return journey more profitable. But immoral captains would sometimes treat their passengers more like cargo than persons.

On one occasion, illustrated by a painting titled The Amelia Mary, the captain of the Mary, who’d loaded his ship beyond the legal limit allotted by the United States, dumped 17 passengers on an “unknown island” to avoid facing an $850 fine or a year in jail.

But even if you weren’t walking the plank, the going was rough. Typhoid and dysentery, among other ailments, ran rampant in the cramped storage holds. The “coffin ship” slang resulted from the death tolls incurred along the way—sometimes as high as 30 on a single boat, out of passenger lists that typically numbered between the 90s and the low hundreds.

Fleeing Famine has a wrought iron miniature of the National Famine Monument, which sits near Westport, Ireland. Called “Famine Ship,” it shows 17 skeletons—possibly the 17 souls of the Amelia Mary—flying over the deck of a coffin ship, engulfing it in a maelstrom of outstretched bones, and it’s haunting indeed.

Fleeing Famine
Knights of Columbus Museum – 1 State St, New Haven (map)
Daily 10am-5pm
(203) 865-0400

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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