In Ireland in the mid nineteenth century we had what is sometimes referred to as the Hidden Holocaust. The deaths of the famine years when a million people died of starvation and a million more were displaced to Canada and America in what came to be known as ‘coffin ships.’
In 1847 Gerald Keegan and his new bride Aileen travelled on one of these ships, The Naparima, out of the Port of Dublin en route for Canada. Gerald had studied at the seminary at Maynooth, but having decided that the priesthood was not for him, he became a hedge-school master. He saw daily among those he taught, the effects of the famine. Some of his cousins were also on board availing of the offer of their landlord to emigrate in exchange for a waiver of rent arrears, ten shillings from the landlord’s agent on landing in Quebec and the promise from the Canadian government of 100 acres of land.
The Naparima, left the Port of Dublin laden with passengers way beyond capacity, providing extra profit for her owner. Gerald and his bride had a cabin, a cubbyhole on deck that cost him £5, while his cousins were in appallingly overcrowded conditions in steerage. They soon became used to the sound of the sea against the hull, the creaking of the timbers and the wind in the rigging. A day or two out Gerald went below deck to visit his cousins. He was overcome with the stench of hungry passengers suffering from seasickness and dysentery, with many of the old and sick unable to leave their berths; a hoard of destitute and diseased humanity, and above all the silence of death.
On the fourth day out a boy of five and a young woman died. Both were dropped overboard at sunset. Every day for the rest of the five-week voyage as fever spread, passengers died. Three, four, five and more bodies every day were dropped into the ocean. The number increased daily and the passengers, preoccupied with their own survival, became immune to the frequency of death.
Gerald and Aileen did what they could to help other passengers. Gerald went to the captain to appeal on their behalf, but without success.‘Leave the poop,’ the captain shouted at him, ‘or I’ll pitch you overboard. I’ll have no mutiny on my ship.’Aileen tended the women and made dresses of sacking for young girls who otherwise couldn’t go on deck for fresh air.
Despite death, the stench and the atrocious conditions the indomitable human spirit provided some moments of light relief. Three old women sitting near the hatch to the galley smoking their doodeens stole a large pot of freshly made tea. They gave it round to the passengers, filled the pot with water and returned it. Then, casting him in a mock-heroic role, they tormented the Mate when he tried to find out who had stolen the tea. Finally Mrs Doolan agreed to point out to him the culprit below deck, but the Mate would not follow her for fear of the fever, and stormed off defeated.
Some days later the same Mate ordered a young boy passenger up the foremast to fix tackle. The lad’s mother had died the previous day. After several attempts the boy could not do it. The Mate pulled him down violently by the feet and on the deck beat him mercilessly with a rope end. Gerald lost his temper, took him on and beat him to pulp.
The Mate however had his revenge. When the ship arrived at Grosse Isle, Canada’s quarantine island, Gerald, though bound for Quebec, went ashore to bury some dead and when he returned to the wharf the ship had sailed and Aileen stood there with their belongings.The Mate had told her that Gerald had left a message for her to land. Within days Aileen died of fever. One of Gerald’s cousins made it to an Uncle’s farm in Quebec. When her uncle heard of Gerald’s fate, he travelled to Gross Isle and found him on the point of death. He brought him out of the bunkhouse for fresh air and just before he died Gerald told him where to find his diary, in which he had recorded the events of the voyage.