Come over the sea, ye suffering ones,

To the land which with plenty teems;

Come with your daughters and stalwart sons,

Where the sunshine of hope still beams.

Come over the waves-we want you here,

Nor deem this a stranger land;

The terror of ocean ye need not fear,

With the horrors of Famine at hand.


Limerick Chronicle, 24 April 1847.

(originally: Cobourg Star, Ontario, Canada)



Thomas Carolan was born in Ireland in 1807, the son of a tenant farmer.  He married Elizabeth Smith, born in 1817, in the early 1830s.  In 1834, they had their first daughter Elizabeth, and in the early 1840s, they had three more children before emigrating to America in the summer of 1847, at the height of the Great Hunger.  Their two sons, Michael, the elder, and Thomas, born in Pennsylvania, would become the progenitors of more than 100 offspring.


Thomas was a farmer with a small plot of land in Ireland, growing potatoes and raising livestock like so many Catholic peasantry.  But times changed, and rather quickly.  The blight fungus, phytophthora infestans, attacked potatoes making them rotten and inedible. After the blight struck in 1845, more potatoes than ever were planted that spring because people did not expect the blight to strike again. There was a worse failure in 1846 and even worse in 1847, when suffering reached its climax. This year is referred to as Black '47.


Thomas Carolan, his wife, and four children were among the first of the great famine migration during which, between 1847 and 1854, more 2 million people left Ireland, never to return.  The Carolans escaped the horrors of what was to follow in their country: more than 1 million people, an eighth of the entire population, perished from disease and starvation.  In 1847, the year the Carolans sailed for America, about one quarter of a million people left Ireland, making it the year the most number of Irish left their country.


The blight this time spread to every area in so short of time that a kind of wailing lament rose throughout the country wherever neighbors gathered.  Those with tin cans of holy water flicked it into their faces, wet their fingers and made the sign of the cross, prayed and genuflected as though before an alter.  Keeners at a wake could not have sent up more varieties of anguish and despair than did these Irish families at the sight of their whole year’s food supply being destroyed.


The men, pale and gaunt, their eyes wild and hollow, and their gait feeble, tottered about as though barely able to support the threadbare garments hanging from their bodies.  The garments themselves, coarse frieze coats as decrepit as their owners, gave the appearance of having been worn without interruption in the street and at home, in bed and at work, from the day they were purchased.  Nor was there the slightest sign that any attempt had been made to replace a button or mend a frayed pocket or lapel. Where sewn-in patches should have been, bare elbows poked through the threads that scarcely held the whole together. In some cases the coasts were so worn that they looked more like a net handing from the shoulders than a tailored cloth covering the body; the edges of some lapels were so raveled that they formed a fringe, and often a man whose sleeves had fallen off appeared to be wearing a fragmented cape rather than a coat.[1]


“The extremity of raggedness,” wrote Thomas Carlyle after his Irish journey.  “The whole country figures in my mind like a ragged coat, one huge gabardine, not patched, or patchable any longer.”


During the winter of 1846-47 alone, while more than 400,000 people were dying of famine or famine-related disisease, the British government, instead of prohibiting the removal of Irish food from Ireland, allowed 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry to be shipped to England—enough food to feed, at least during these crucial winter months, twice the almost six million men, women, and children who composed the tenant-farmer and farm-laborer population.  Irishmen with starving families were expected by the British to watch and be resigned to the shipments made.  On top of it all, no relief food was allowed to be shipped to Irish ports, from whatever country, except in British ships.[2]

Escaping Ireland

The rush to escape Ireland began in the winter of 1846-1847 and thousands fled to Liverpool: between 80,000-90,000 in February, March, and April alone.  The Carolans were among more than 300,000 Irish who had landed in Liverpool in 1847.  About 50,000 of them were on business, 130,000 emigrated to America, and the rest became paupers. [3]


At least 106,000 emigrants sailed for Canada and New Brunswick that year: 6,100 died on the voyage, 4,100 died soon after arriving or in quarantine, and 5,200 died in hospitals later.[4]


The first step to America for the Carolans and hundreds of thousands of others would be an overland journey to an Irish port city, where crowded steam-driven ferries made the crossing to the Merseyside city in 24 hours or more. 


The Carolans likely loaded their belongings, if they took any, onto a cart and walked to the port city.  Many of the inland population would remain in the Port cities, including Cork, Limerick, and Dublin, either by design, or because of limited resources, or simply because disease took its toll too quickly.

The nine-year-gap between the births of the Carolans’ daughters, Elizabeth (1834) and Catherine (1843), likely means that between two and four other children were born in the interval, and died of disease before the family was able to board the Patrick Henry.

Text Box: Liverpool, Merseyside, 1840

The Carolans were perhaps financially a little better off than many because they were able to sail to America from Liverpool.  Many of their countrymen had begun sailing from Irish ports, where passage costs could be cut in half, and where "coffin ships" were poorly manned, unseaworthy, and either sunk on their voyage to the United States and Canada, or delivered passengers who were either sick, dying, or already dead of disease.


It became well-known that in Liverpool, one could find a safer passage on a wider range of packet ships that departed on schedule (many in the Irish ports did not).  Well over half of the Irish emigrants brave enough to attempt to leave Ireland made it to Liverpool to secure passage to the New World

On the journey to Liverpool, there were no ship regulations.  Ferry operators cared little for health and sanitation as they crammed as many deck passengers they could onto vessels built to carry livestock and grain.  The migrants arrived seasick, exhausted, and ripe for plucking at the hands of an assortment of unscrupulous runners, lodging house keepers, ticket brokers, and crooks. 

From Ireland to Liverpool

All the ports in the British Isles, including places like Aberystwyth and Maryport, which rarely engaged in this kind of traffic, were thronging with Irish emigrants desperate for a passage. Though the trade was in fact concentrated in the biggest British ports, Glasgow, London, and Liverpool. So if thousands of Irish emigrants sailed to North America directly from Irish ports, many more left from English ports and mostly from Liverpool, the main port of departure for Irish migrants (and also for the British, for many Germans and Norwegians). But why was Liverpool the main port of departure for Famine emigrants ?

By the mid-nineteenth century, Liverpool was the second largest city in England with 367,000 inhabitants according to the 1851 census. The port of Liverpool had become rich with the slave trade and then with the American trades of cotton and emigrants. By the end of the eighteenth century five sixths of the slave trade belonged to Liverpool.

In 1806, the last year before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, 185 ships carried 49,213 slaves. In the nineteenth century the port received the timber from the American northern states and cotton from southern states. So instead of ‘slaves to America and sugar back to Liverpool’, from 1815 onward, after the Napoleonic wars, it became ‘emigrants to America and timber or cotton back to Liverpool’. The slavers’ port of the eighteenth century soon became the biggest emigrant port and remained so.

In 1999 Liverpool is the grandest British city second to London. The streets are wider and buildings more massive than in other towns. Many of these buildings had been built just before the Famine with the profits made from slaves, timber, cotton and emigrants. The Albert Dock was opened in 1845, it was only one of many docks but it was huge and had immense warehouses. Herman Melville who had worked as a sailor in the Liverpool trade talked about Liverpool in his novel Redburn : His first Voyage. This was a novel but he often gave his own views through his main character Redburn. He wrote that Liverpool was opulent, and that the docks were a wonder. In Liverpool there were walls of Chinese masonry, vast piers of stone, and a succession of granite-rimmed docks. Melville added that in magnitude, cost and durability the docks of Liverpool surpassed all others in the world. To give an idea of how big and busy the port could be, in 1845, 20,521 ships traded in and out of the port. Moreover, there were thirty-six miles of quays and ship tonnage registered in Liverpool was three times the overall tonnage owned in America.

It seemed logical for most Irish emigrants to aim for Liverpool to embark for the New World. Dublin, with its 4,000 registered ships seemed comparatively little and unable to compete. Liverpool was the nearest port of convenience with many large and fast ships sailing on regular schedules. It was close to the Irish sea, only three miles up the River Mersey and many Irish were used to going there for summer work. As has already been mentioned, for a long time many temporary Irish migrants had been seeking work on England’s farms at the back end of the summer.

c) Passage to Liverpool :

Another reason why Liverpool became the first port of departure for Irish emigrants was the improvement in communications and the establishment of a fully developed shipping trade between Ireland and Liverpool. The first quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed technological developments in the application of steam power to shipping which led to the strengthening of the connection with Ireland. From the 1820s onward, Liverpool was connected with all the main Irish ports by a fleet of relatively fast, cheap steam vessels, mainly paddle-driven but some screw-driven.

Therefore, emigrants could reach Liverpool from many different Irish ports as has already been mentioned. Small steamboats such as the Londonderry regularly sailed from Sligo to Liverpool even though Sligo is sited on the east coast of Ireland. Passage to Liverpool could be obtained from smaller ports like the port of Drogheda. Thanks to its geographical position the crossing was short, this made Drogheda a favourite port for those seeking the larger and more frequent vessels in Liverpool. However, quite naturally, the main ports of departure for Liverpool were the largest ports, mostly Cork and Dublin. They provided a greater regularity of channel crossings. From Cork it took from twenty-two to thirty-six hours, according to the weather, and usually cost only 10 shillings. From Dublin passage was much shorter, twelve to fourteen hours. The leading company of the Dublin-Liverpool trade was probably the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Packet Company. According to the company’s estimate, they carried more than 100,000 passengers from June 1853 to June 1854, and probably half of them emigrated to North America.

The majority of those who fled to Great Britain were the poorest Irish. They could not get enough food to survive in their home region and did not have enough money to go to North America. So they crossed the sea in cattle boats and coal barges. Some re-emigrated to America when they had collected enough money, weeks or months after their arrival. Others found work in British factories and construction sites but many died of fever in the slums of Liverpool, Glasgow and also London.

In Liverpool, Edward Rushton, the stipendiary magistrate, ordered the police to meet the steamers on their arrival at the Clarence Dock (where they all landed) and count the numbers coming ashore, trying to distinguish between emigrants. This was done in order to decipher between those transhipping at Liverpool, those looking for work and those who were destitute. In fact it was quite easy to make the difference between the various categories. Emigrants possessed luggage and personal belongings, paupers had almost nothing but the rags on their backs. Businessmen and civil servants were crossing in the few cabins available. The police counting operation was carried out from 1847 to 1853 but unfortunately the information was not released in a systematic way. According to Rushton’s letter to Home Secretary of 21 April 1849, between the thirteenth of January and the thirteenth of December 1847, 296,231 people landed from Ireland.

50,000 of them were on business, 130,000 emigrated to the United States, and the rest consisted of paupers. For 1848 the official total of arrivals is not known. However, during 1848 an estimate was made from weekly reports in the Manchester Guardian. According to this estimate more than 250,000 Irish landed in Liverpool that year, about 94,000 of them were paupers. It is easier for the years 1848 to 1853 since there are official police statistics which were given to the 1854 Select Committee on Poor Removal.

The crossing was a traumatic experience for passengers. There was little cabin

accommodation. Moreover most ships were carrying animals below deck and they were usually taken better care of. Indeed, William Watson, managing director of the Dublin and Liverpool Steam Packet Company gave evidence when he was questioned by a Parliamentary Committee:


-     If you have both cattle and passengers you give the cattle preference?

-          We can not have them both in the same places.

-          But the cattle would be sheltered, and deck passengers would not be sheltered?

-          Yes.


Few ships had steerage accommodation so most passengers had no shelter. They were exposed to the weather and often arrived exhausted, scarcely able to walk. Some of them even died on the way. But the fact that they stayed on deck throughout the voyage was not the only reason why they usually arrived in such a poor physical state.  Most of the time steamers were overcrowded.


John Besnard, the general weigh-master of Cork, had gone to Liverpool especially to watch the arrival of the Irish steamers. He had seen as many as 1,100 passengers on board a ship.  There were no provisions and it was too crowded to get a mere drink of warm water anyway.  Besnard told: “the manner in which these passengers are carried from Irish to English ports is disgraceful, dangerous and inhuman.”


John Duross, a constable of the Cork Constabulary, also said that he had known as many as 800 statute adults travel on a steamer, the average tonnage which was between 500 and 700. According to the Passenger Acts, two children counted as one statute adult so he said that there might have been as many as 1,200 people on board a steamer of 800 tons.   


The public became more aware of the frightful conditions on board the cross-channel vessels when papers like the Times and the Liverpool Mercury reported on a series of tragedies. The ship Londonderry sailed from Sligo to Liverpool on the first of December 1848 with 206 deck passengers. During the crossing 72 of the ‘human cattle’ died. On 26 April 1849, the House of Commons reacted and questioned the President of the Board of Trade, then named and they had to give bonds to the amount of £200 and two sureties for ‘the due fulfilment of the requirements of the Act of Parliament relating to the comfort and security of emigrants’.


In order to

try to stop the business of runners, before the renewal of their licenses, the government agent for

emigration at Liverpool made it imperative that the passenger brokers should sign a declaration to

the effect that they would not give any fee, commission, or reward whatever, directly or indirectly, to

any person or persons for procuring passengers in Liverpool for ships sailing to America. As early

as July 1850, the Morning Chronicle commented on the fact that this attempt would not stop the

system of paying runners to get passengers:

"Such, nevertheless, is the competition among the passenger-brokers, even of the highest

respectability, that it is in vain to expect that the system of paying commission for procuring

passengers can be entirely stopped. If commission be not paid as percentage to the old race of mancatchers,

it will be paid in salaries, or by some other means, to the accredited ‘runners’ of each

establishment, so that the system, somewhat modified and improved, will still continue…"

However brokers must not be seen as victims as the majority of them were dishonest and

took advantage of the emigrants. When they were in a rush to fill the steerages, brokers were known

to book emigrants for New York on vessels bound for Baltimore or Boston, or even New Orleans,

assuring them that these places were only hours apart.

Some runners did even more than take emigrants to brokers. They appointed themselves

sub-brokers, sold passages for up to £5, bought real tickets to brokers at the usual £3 10s and kept

the difference. Illiterate emigrants were also sold half-fare children’s tickets or worthless out-ofdate

tickets. A few shipmates also acted as runners or connived with them.

It was in the interest of the emigrants and of the brokers that the system of plunder by

runners should be stopped. There were suggestions that runners should be licensed, made to wear

badges, and give money guarantees for good conduct. The system was tried but never worked.


The lucky had a place to sleep and prepaid passages in hand.  However long they stayed, and many stayed for a week or more when the ships’ Text Box: George’s Dock, Liverpool, 1850

departure was delayed in order to sell more passages or secure more cargo, they found themselves in a world of crowded housing, unsanitary streets, and ethnic tension. 

At the same time, the Carolans likely marveled at Liverpool’s magnificent docks.  Herman Mellville’s fictional Wellingborough Redburn “never tired of admiring” the “long China walls of masonry; vast piers of stone; and…the succession of granite-rimmed docks.” To Redburn the docks were like “the old Pyramids of Egypt,” in sharp contrast to New York’s “miserable wooden wharves.”

The Philadelphia newspaper, the Public Ledger, sent a reporter who filed “Stranger in Liverpool” reports:

I have seen more beggars in one week in Liverpool than I have ever seen in all my life. The streets are full of them; at every step you are arrested and often followed by the pitiful cries of distress and want. Poor, ragged and haggard wretches, with four and five barefooted and poorly clad children.  The most of these distressed beings are Irish, and have been driven over the channel by the approach of starvation. Some of these poor creatures may be undeserving of charity, but most of them, I doubt not, are proper objects of Christian benevolence and kindness.

Luck again was with the Carolan family as many who made it to Liverpool-Buying passageLiverpool were to die there of cholera, typhus, or starvation before they could embark to America. Destitute, thousands more remained in port, unable to continue, where their descendents live today. 

The trials the Carolans faced in Liverpool were only precursors for the voyage across the Atlantic and the chaos of landing in New York City.  Packet ships sailing out of Liverpool varied tremendously in size and condition, falling far short of advertised specifications.  Many were older ships, used in the early 19th century in the slave trade from Africa.

A slowly evolving set of laws regulated the amount of sleeping space, food and water allocated to each passenger and the circumstances when a surgeon was required on board.  Most of the most important regulation came, of course, after the heaviest migration.

On arrival at Liverpool, the Carolans once more had to find lodgings while arranging for passage to America.  This meant another opportunity for the runners, brokers, and lodging house keepers to squeeze from the family, and the thousands like them, every penny that they could while once more enticing them into crowded, filthy quarters, where many who were not already sick would contract the deadly typhus fever before sailing.


Like most, the Carolans had no way of knowing how to chose a suitable vessel.  Many had no knowledge of the sea, nor had the ever been upon it. Most just wanted cheap passage, and to leave as soon as possible.  But there were few good ships and many bad ships, masters were more likely to treat the Irish emigrant as human cargo, callously and oftentimes inhumanely, rather than in any kind manner, though by all accounts, the Carolans’s master, Joseph C. Delano was remembered as one of the best captains of the era.


Many of the vessels coming into the passenger trade for the first time and offering cheap passages were more unsuitable for carrying passengers than the timber or cotton ships. They were commanded by men who were said to be "ignorant of the trade, and of the means to be adopted to preserve the health of their passengers. When fever once broke out they became alarmed for their own safety, and would not go down into the hold, which from neglect of cleanliness soon became one vast reeking pest-house; the vitiated and contaminated air of which soon enfeebled those who were of necessity obliged to breathe it, even when not struck down with fever, and rendered them indifferent to all exertion, even to the preservation of life itself, that first law of nature.,,26


Not all masters were like this. Capt. Christian of the Sisters, for example, was able to remove the dead from belowdecks only by carrying them up himself since none of the crew or the passengers would help him.  He caught the fever and died.[5]  Also dead of typhus: Capt. Sampson of the John Bolton and Capt. Fittock of the Ninian.[6]


Dr. Douglas and most other medical men of the era claimed that three measures vital for the prevention of the spread of the fever were “separation, ventilation and cleanliness,” the first two were impractical in a crowded emigrant ship, the third very difficult to achieve because of seasickness and depression among the passengers.[7]


Moses Perley claimed that many of the timber ships frequenting New Brunswick ports had been involved in the passenger trade for some time and were well known to emigrants. He recommended that the names of kind and attentive masters be published in Ireland and England to aid emigrants in selecting a vessel.30   This was not acceptable to officials in Britain, who felt that they should not interfere in what was a business arrangement by giving preference to any ship or master. They did, however, agree to publish the names of masters convicted for any violations of the Passenger Act.  Regulations regarding stores and cleanliness on board vessels were rarely strongly enforced, and some could not be enforced at all.[8],[9]


The commissioners responsible for emigration circulated in March 1847 a list of regulations that were to be followed on all emigrant ships. They were to be posted in at least three conspicuous places between decks and were to be enforced by the master assisted by “four or five of the most steady and respectable of the male passengers (married men to be preferred) to be called “overseers.”  The fact that these regulations could not be enforced shows how ignorant the commissioners were of actual conditions on board a crowded emigrant ship.   


It is very likely that they were posted on the Patrick Henry by Master Delano, as by all accounts, he was an upstanding and legitimate captain.


Emigrants were to be out of bed by 7 A.M., and all children were to be washed and dressed. Breakfast was to be at 8 A.M., dinner at 1 P.M., and tea at 6 P.M. Everyone was to be in bed by 10 P.M. Fires were to be lit on deck by 7 A.M. and out by 7 P.M. After dressing, all beds were to be rolled up and, weather permitting, taken on deck. They were to be well shaken and aired twice a week. The bottom boards of the berths were to be removed if possible and dry-scrubbed and taken on deck once or twice a week. The decks were to be swept before breakfast and after each meal. In the morning sweep, the area under the berths was also to be swept. The deck was to be "honey stoned" or scraped each morning, and washing days were to be set up, weather permitting. These were among the many regulations that were impractical or impossible to enforce, especially on vessels where there were overcrowding, sickness, and depression.[10]


As the number of Irish wanting to emigrate increased, conditions on the vessels tended to deteriorate, and this led to demands from colonial officials for changes to the Passenger Act. The increased demand to emigrate usually came at times when large numbers of emigrants were suffering from disease, which only added to the problems of overcrowding and insufficient food and water in many vessels. This was true in 1826, 1839, and again in 1846 and 1847. The British government, however, was reluctant to act, fearing that any regulations that would restrict the free flow of emigrants would have disastrous consequences for England and Ireland.[11]


The fact remained that the Carolans had a far better chance on the vessel they chose, for every death on board an American ship, there were three on board a British; for every diseased person arriving in America aboard an American ship, there were five aboard a British.  Even if every passenger was scoured in public bath and their mattresses and bedding fumigated before boarding, disease would have been inevitable with the living conditions in Ireland, then on board, the cooking arrangements and the food deficiencies.  Diarrhea, gastric disorders, scurvy, dysentery, and most of the intestinal diseases would have been generated long before the voyage ended.[12]



Before the emigrant has been at sea he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of people, men, women and children, of all ages from the drivelling idiot of 90 to the babe just born; huddled together, without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as to almost deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position. [T]he natural restlessness of the disease; . . . living without food or medicine except as administered by the hand of casual charity; dying without the voice of spiritual consolation, and buried in the deep without the rites of the church.[13]



Gallagher, Thomas. Paddy's Lament: Ireland 1846-1847.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 345 pp. American author.


Philadelphia Public Ledger, May 3, 1847.


Gallman, F. Matthew. Receiving Erin's Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

[1] Gallagher, Thomas Michael. Paddy's Lament : Ireland 1846-1847 : Prelude to Hatred New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. (p16)

[2] Gallager, 41.

[3] Rushton’s letter to Home Secretary of 21 April 1849, between the

thirteenth of January and the thirteenth of December 1847, 296,231 people landed from Ireland.

50,000 of them were on business, 130,000 emigrated to the United States, and the rest

consisted of paupers.


[4] Cowan, Helen I. British Emigration to British North America: the First Hundred Years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961.

[5] Report of Dr. Douglas. 27 December 1847.  British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 17, p. 538,

[6] Saint John, New Brunswick, Morning News, July 2, 1847.


[7] Ibid. 539.

[8] Perley to Saunders. 24 June 1846. Colonial Records Office, Public Records Office, London, England. Vol. 188, 96.

[9] Grey to Colbrooke. 17 October 1846. Colonial Records Office, Public Records Office, London, England. Vol. 188, 86, 28.

[10]  Colonial Records Office, Public Records Office, London, England. Vol. 188, 100, 180-90.

[11] Spray, William A. “Irish Famine Emigrants and the Passage Trade to North America.” From Mulrooney, Margaret M., ed. Fleeing the Famine: North America and Irish Refugees, 1845–1851. Westport, Conn.: Praeger. 2003.

[12] Gallagher, 212.

[13] Stephen E. De Vere to F. Elliott. British Parliamentary Papers, vol. 17, p. 393-4, 30 November 1847.