The Famine Ships

By Edward Laxton

Sligo was the embarkation point for many of the coffin ships and for the poorest passengers, usually the victims of landlord emigration. Three broad inlets reach into the Atlantic coastline, doubling the size of Sligo Bay, with the town's quays magnificently sited in the narrows of the Garavogue River beyond the bay. The port had a long tradition of sending her ships to all corners of the world, and Peter O'Connor, a leading Sligo merchant, ordered the 276-ton barque Industry to be built in 1839 with a light draught to carry a cargo of Canadian timber through the shallow channel in the bay, and up the river to his saw mills, at all levels of the tide.

At the start of the Famine, Industry had valuable two-way cargoes and we can only imagine the effects of the shallow draft of the ship and her cargo carried westbound out of Sligo across the heaving ocean. The voyage home was always faster with the favourable westerly winds, but in June 1845 Industry's owners proudly proclaimed that she had journeyed from Sligo to Quebec, under Captain Thomas Barrett, her regular master, in 29 days. It is not known whether she was carrying passengers on that trip, but 18 months later she conveyed 184 Famine emigrants from Sligo to New York, embarking on December 26, 1846, under the command of Captain Michael Kelly. Though the late crossing was unusual at this time, winter voyages would become common during the Famine years.

During the crossing Industry ran into a succession of storms which allowed little progress. Over three long winter months the ship floundered at sea; food and water ran low; and, even with the introduction of strict rationing, two seamen and 15 passengers died from malnutrition. Industry arrived in America on April 11, 1847, after 106 days at sea.

The round trip took almost six months, with the Industry returning to Sligo on June 16, 1847. The following year Industry narrowly escaped disaster as she tried to enter port in a fierce December gale, on passage from Liverpool with a mixed cargo of Indian meal, flour and coal. She was driven onto the beach at Bowmore where she stuck fast and, during the following weeks, took a fearful battering. The cargo was recovered but the ship could not be re-floated and Peter O'Connor decided to sell the wrecked vessel. The auction of Industry as she lay was announced in Sligo but withdrawn when O'Connor discovered she was not as badly damaged as had first been thought.

The Sligo Champion announced on February 19, 1848, more than seven weeks after the Industry went aground:

Strong hopes are entertained that the barque Industry, which lies upon Bowmore Strand, will be got off in the course of time. She appears to have suffered no material damage during the storm.

She won back her listing as a first-class vessel in Lloyd's Registrar of Shipping after large-scale repairs to her hull and the total renovation of her deck.

Industry ran aground on a beautiful stretch of Irish coastland: there are many, many miles of wonderful scenery the length and breadth of Ireland, none more so than in the west where the abundance of water, the sea mists and Loughs, the rivers, streams and the ultra-reliable rainfall endows the surrounding countryside with the green cloak for which it is justly famous. Sligo is no exception and the majestic sweep of its broad bay is dominated by Benbulben, by the dramatic rise of this angular, flat -topped mountain. This is Yeats Country, where William Butler Yeats, born in 1865, found the inspiration for most of his poetry and where he chose to be buried, in the shadow of Benbulben, in the churchyard at Drumcliffe. All around, from the wide strands of sand to the valleys and mountains and glens, the landscape evokes some of his best known lines:

Go gather by the humming sea
Some twisted echo-harbouring shell,
And to its lips, they story tell.

Out in the bay lie many islands, including Coney Island, which is so close to the shore that it can be reached on foot at low tide. Legend has it that Coney Island in New York was named after the Irish Isle by a Sligo sea captain who was reminded of the mud flats outside his homeport.

On the same mud flats and the gently sloping beaches, Industry ran aground. But after her successful renovation in February 1848, she once again embarked on emigrant voyages to America, returning with cargoes of timber. Under a new skipper, Edward Fawcett, she made an emigrant voyage in May, from Cork, and then again in September from Dublin, bound for New York in both cases. Despite news of her earlier grounding, she continued to attract passengers and for some years made an average of two round-trips from Sligo to Quebec once a year, as well as emigrant crossings from Sligo direct to New York. A newspaper advertisement for Industry and a sister-ship, the Linden, announced on March 7, 1851:

The above fortunate passenger ships are well known in the passenger trade; they will be fitted up in the most comfortable manner and the passengers will be supplied with good provisions, water, fuel etc., agreeable to the Passengers' Act.

Though such vessels could accommodate as many as 140 to 150 in steerage, they were not, strictly speaking, passenger ships, and spent more than half their sea-going lives carrying all kinds of cargoes on journeys both long and short. The term 'fitted up in the most comfortable manner' usually referred to the speedy erection of wooden bunks which were fixed in the cargo holds by the ship's carpenter as fast as he could hammer home his nails, and as soon as the ship discharged her inward cargo. Fresh bunks were raised on each passenger trip. But the ship owner, O'Connor, was probably no worse, and possibly a lot better than many of his competitors, for he remained in the passenger trade for many years.

After her earlier disasters in 1847 and 1848, Industry could certainly be described as fortunate, surviving some narrow escapes as in 1854, when, 500 miles out in the Atlantic, she sprang a leak with nearly 200 passengers aboard but put about and reached home safely after three weeks at sea.

The last advertised sailing of Industry with emigrants to Canada came the following year, in 1856, after which she was sold and cut down to a brig, with her third and stern-most mast removed. On a cargo trip, carrying coal to Kronstadt in Russia, she went down in a gale in 1876 in extremely cold waters in the Gulf of Finland. Luckily, her eight-man crew survived.