If you research the history of Ireland you will read much about the Great Famine of 1845-1852. The potato blight resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million people on the island itself. Another one million people left their homeland to relocate to America, Canada, Australia and other places of refuge around the globe. Many of those fleeing an existence of starvation sailed on what would become known forever in Ireland as Coffin Ships. They were accurately named by history. The mortality rate on these ships was often 30% or more. Tens of thousands of Irish rest on the bottom of the world’s oceans, their lives extinguished by ruthless shipowners and unscrupulous shipmasters.
‘Coffin Ships’ as a nautical term is not used strictly in association with the Irish Famine. In the lore of the sea it describes any vessel that has been overinsured, basically making it worth more to its owners at the bottom of the sea than afloat. But coffin ships became a routine hell for the Irish leaving their island during what the Irish call “The Great Hunger”. Lack of food and water, disease, and unsafe vessels led to countless journeys of misery and death. Many accounts routinely mention sharks following the ships, because so many bodies were thrown overboard during these voyages.
The Irish Government commissioned a monument to the lost souls of these voyages to mark the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine. The haunting sculpture, by artist John Behan, depicts a coffin ship with rigging of human skeletons and bones. It is Ireland’s largest bronze sculpture and was unveiled in 1997 by Mary Robinson, the then President of Ireland. Mr. Behan’s piece, especially when viewed up close, is a work of incredible power and complexity. It is unforgettable.
I’m including two interesting links to help you appreciate the sculpture and the story of the Coffin Ships. The first link will take you to a FLICKR photo stream by Dave Bushe. Scroll through his dozen or so beautifully detailed photos of the sculpture. The other link is to a fascinating YouTube video detailing the memorial and excerpts from a diary of a voyage to Canada during the famine years.