Category Archives: History

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Before the Irish Famine the Irish population numbered approximately 8 million.  According to a BBC article, “Altogether, about a million people in Ireland are reliably estimated to have died of starvation and epidemic disease between 1846 and 1851, and some two million emigrated in a period of a little more than a decade (1845-55).

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
No escape
Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
National Famine Memorial Cuimhneachán Náisiúnta ar an n Gorta Mór in Murrisk, Connacht, in County Mayo

Two other songs [“Buried Deep” and “Villain Curry Shaw“] on O’Rourke’s Chronicle of the Great Irish Famine album dealt with the fatal horrors even for those who thought they’d escaped the famine by sailing to Canada or  the United States or being sent to Australia or New Zealand.

Trans-Atlantic travel in wooden sailing ships was never safe no matter the person’s accommodations, but for those who could bring so little and then have a crew pack  them into  holds with make-shift bunks, meager fare, minimal sanitary facilities, little or no ventilation,  and indifference on the part of most crew members, the vessel became a coffin ship. 

According to a Registered Devil dot com article, “Typically untrustworthy vessels, these ships were purchased literally from salvage yards (where they awaiting dismantling) by unscrupulous owners who had no intention of repairing them. Sailors who agreed to serve on board these floating wrecks typically knew nothing of the dangers until they were well out at sea, vagabonds, and those desperate for work (of which there were plenty) quickly volunteered.

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River

Ships often arrived with disease on board and the United States, purportedly trying to improve passenger conditions aboard cargo ships, but in actuality closing American ports to the Irish, enacted various acts.

It must also be pointed out that on January 31, 1848 the United State also enacted legislation that  exempted vessels employed by the American Colonization Society in transporting black emigrants from the US to the coast of Africa from the provisions of the acts of the twenty-second February and second of March, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, regulating the carriage of passengers in merchant vessels!

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Famine and disease

Some shipowners and captains evaded these legislative blockades by bringing their human cargo to Canada. 

Given the inhumane conditions aboard, it was not surprising that ships arrived with diseased passengers. At first, Canadian authorities tried to provide quarantined shelter, but overwhelmed by the number of sick, ships were forced to keep their passengers aboard which worsened conditions.

From 1847 to 1848, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 Irish died while waiting to leave their quarters. 

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Declan O'Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
Grosse Ile Memorial

In 1909 the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America set up a Celtic cross with inscriptions in Irish, English and French, in memory of those who died during  that time.

Declan O’Rourke Great Saint Lawrence River
And anchored up at Grosse Isle, Canade

Forty vessels line the Saint Lawrence

At the station there for quarantine

The sheer magnitude of suffering

Is beyond the helpless volunteers


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Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O'Rourke Connaught Orphan

After the retaliatory exhilaration of  Johnny Hold the Lantern, O’Rouke returns to the Great Famine’s horror and its young victims.

For the centennial of the Easter Rising in 2016, O’Rourke wrote Children of ’16 about the (at least) 40 children under the age of 16 who died in the Easter Week’s fighting.  Crossfire caught most victims, but British soldiers deliberately shot or bayoneted others. (Independent article)

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

It is no surprise that the Great Famine orphaned so many children. It is also no surprise that even the most insensitive laissair faire proponent would do at least something minimal to relieve their conscience if not the orphans’ suffering.

 In the Connaught Orphan, we walk beside a barefoot 7-year-old boy walking his younger sister to the poor house ten miles away. Both starving.

There is room only for one. He leaves her there and walks the 10 miles back.  

Strings attached
Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

It is still a common requirement from those who have relief to give that there be a quid pro quo. A demand that the suffering must first demonstrate their worthiness to receive aid.

In the case of the Irish peasants, assistance sometimes  depended on acknowledging the Church of England as the true church. To renounce Catholicism.

In our less religious 21st century world  (at least in terms of service attendance), such a demand might seem an easy one to comply with, but to the 19th century Catholic believer, such a change meant damnation.


Declan O'Rourke Connaught Orphan

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

Quakers were the one religious group that seemed genuinely interested in assistance without strings attached. They formed the Central Relief Committee (CRC) to help coordinate relief. 

William E. Forster, a CRC member, traveled throughout Ireland and send letters describing what he saw. In one letter he wrote, “Poor wretches in the last stage of famine, imploring to be received into the (work) house; women who had six or seven children begging that even two or three might be taken in …. some of these children were worn to skeleton, their features sharpened with hunger, their limbs wasted almost to the bone” (more at Irish Famine site)

Unfortunately, even the most kindhearted actions can result in unforeseen consequences.

In this song, the Quaker wants to provide a bath and clean clothing, but the boy realizes that when his neighbors see him that way they will assume that he has renounced his faith or that he has lied about his neediness.

I’ll surely died of hunger now

If they see me with your nie new clothes

They’ll think I’m telling lies, and that

I have a mammy feeds me so

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan

What kind of world had the British government allowed? One that forced a starving child in rags to refuse food and clothing?

Declan O’Rourke Connaught Orphan
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Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

It is easier to mistreat others as long as we paint “them” as inferior, non-human. The British did just that with the Irish. Even their Punch cartoons dehumanized the Irish.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

As the number of Irish fleeing their homeland increased, the conditions on board ships worsened when some unscrupulous ship owners realized an golden opportunity. The refugees  simply became ballast. Disease and death spread easily and even the long-hoped for arrival at an American port often meant weeks of quarantine.

In 1847 the US Congress passed the Passenger Act. The Act’s purported intent was to regulate the carriage of passengers in these vessels. In actuality, rather than abide by the new Act, unscrupulous shipping companies  simply changed their destination to Canada and continued using the same ill-equipped ships. The Irish could stay there (as many did) or find their way to the United States.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

On April 5, 1849, under the command of Captain Curry Shaw, The Hannah set sail for Quebec. Its last cargo had been coal. This time the ship’s cargo was 176 passengers, the great majority of whom were from the Parish of Forkill, South Armagh.

While records are not completely available, there are numerous allegations that Shaw confined the passengers below deck for long periods, cut the rations of food and water and threw the three latrines overboard after a few days at sea.

William Graham, the ship’s English surgeon , witnessed Shaw “crawling into the bunks of unmarried women passengers,” raping them.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw
Cabot Strait

Declan O'Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

The Cabot Strait lies between New Foundland and Cape Breton and leads into the Gulf of St Lawrence and thence to the St Lawrence River. At 4 a.m. on April 29, 1849, in gale-force wind, the Hannah rammed a reef of ice in the Cabot Strait.  

Shaw ordered the hatch covers nailed shut and despite the efforts of Dr Graham to stop them,  Shaw, the first and second mates and a few crewmen abandoned the sinking ship in the ship’s only lifeboat.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw

As the ship sank, the passengers, able to get out after a crewman opened the hatches, sought the “safety” of the ice floes. There they waited until 6:30 pm when Captain William Marshall of the ‘Nicaragua’ discovered the survivors on the ice. He and his crew were able to rescue of 129 passengers and nine seamen.

The people suffered so from hypothermia that most of them had to be lassoed by the Nicaragus’ crew and hauled aboard.  Marshall said ‘no pen can describe the pitiable situation and destitution of these passengers’.

He transferred some of the passengers to four other ships and arrived in Quebec fourteen days later; one day after Captain Shaw who had reported the total loss of all on board the ‘Hannah’.

Declan O’Rourke Villain Curry Shaw


Captain Marshall received an inscribed silver goblet from the Irish in Quebec. Most of the surviving passengers continued to North Crosby, Westport, Ontario, which their descendants still call ‘little South Armagh’.

Surgeon Graham testified against Curry Shaw, Shaw received no punishment. Graham had broken his ankle jumping from the ship and trying to stop Shaw. Shaw had repulsed Graham’s attempt by hitting him with a cutlass.

Graham died from his various injuries and frostbite a month later.

Two passenger stories

John Murphy

John Murphy had put his 6-year-old twin boys, Owen and Felix, aboard an ice floe, thinking it safe. He swam off to rescue 3-year-old Rose. Murphy then turned to his boys as they drifted away. He lost them in the darkness, forever. He lost all of his teeth from frostbite. 

Ann McGinn husband had emigrated in 1848. She traveled with their six children to join him in Ontario.

She arrived in Quebec alone.

The Villain Curry Shaw

O’Rourke sings:

You villain Curry Shaw!

Your name forever dwell

As captain of the cowards

On the lifeboat down to hell

Links to two articles about the event: The Star and the Ring of Gullian


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