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A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine The standard story of the exodus during Ireland's Great Famine is one of tired clich�s, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine The standard story of the exodus during Ireland's Great Famine is one of tired clich�s, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself. Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called "coffin ships" they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history. Based on archival research on three continents and written in clear, crisp prose, The Coffin Ship analyzes the emigrants' own letters and diaries to unpack the dynamic social networks that the Irish built while voyaging overseas. At every stage of the journey--including the treacherous weeks at sea--these migrants created new threads in the worldwide web of the Irish diaspora. Colored by the long-lost voices of the emigrants themselves, this is an original portrait of a process that left an indelible mark on Irish life at home and abroad. An indispensable read, The Coffin Ship makes an ambitious argument for placing the sailing ship alongside the tenement and the factory floor as a central, dynamic element of migration history.


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A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine The standard story of the exodus during Ireland's Great Famine is one of tired clich�s, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine The standard story of the exodus during Ireland's Great Famine is one of tired clich�s, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself. Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called "coffin ships" they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history. Based on archival research on three continents and written in clear, crisp prose, The Coffin Ship analyzes the emigrants' own letters and diaries to unpack the dynamic social networks that the Irish built while voyaging overseas. At every stage of the journey--including the treacherous weeks at sea--these migrants created new threads in the worldwide web of the Irish diaspora. Colored by the long-lost voices of the emigrants themselves, this is an original portrait of a process that left an indelible mark on Irish life at home and abroad. An indispensable read, The Coffin Ship makes an ambitious argument for placing the sailing ship alongside the tenement and the factory floor as a central, dynamic element of migration history.

36 review for The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ekul

    This book was received as an ARC by the publisher on NetGalley. As a disclaimer, I had never before heard of the “coffin ship” before reading this book. I knew that emigration at sea was perilous in the 19th century, but I was unfamiliar with the storytelling and myth-making that surrounds it, especially among Irish-Americans. That being said, I am deeply interested in stories of immigration effectively from the mid-18th century to the present. With my desire to learn more about the process of im This book was received as an ARC by the publisher on NetGalley. As a disclaimer, I had never before heard of the “coffin ship” before reading this book. I knew that emigration at sea was perilous in the 19th century, but I was unfamiliar with the storytelling and myth-making that surrounds it, especially among Irish-Americans. That being said, I am deeply interested in stories of immigration effectively from the mid-18th century to the present. With my desire to learn more about the process of immigration in mind, I decided to take a look at this book. Cian McMahon’s The Coffin Ship is a study broken into five parts, based on specific aspects of the journey that Irish emigrants followed during the famine years. The first two chapters look at the process of emigration prior to embarking on a trans-Atlantic vessel. In chapter one, McMahon paints a picture of the planning and preparation that went into the choice and act of emigrating from Ireland. For many Irish, close contacts with people who had already voyaged to North America (or Australia), were crucial. These contacts shared information, tips, and more to aid Irish emigrants. In the second chapter, McMahon looks at the lives of emigrants immediately prior to embarkation, asking questions like “Who funded these trips?” “How did Irish individuals and families reach their ports of departure?” “How did they survive in the time between arrival and embarkation?” This was a particularly interesting chapter to me, especially in seeing the way that tickets were at times paid for by landlords, the British state, etc. However, the more taxing cost was not the actual ticket for emigration, but the costs that went into preparation—food, cooking utensils, bedding—and transit to the port. In addition to the ferry that many took to travel across the Irish Sea (ultimately with Liverpool as the destination), Wealthier Irish families were able to rely on trains, which by this point crisscrossed the British Isles, while more middling families often took taxi-carriages. However, the poorest were forced to walk a grueling distance. Moreover, a delayed departure could mean death for the poorest Irish, as they would be unable to support themselves while waiting. The next two chapters deal with the subjects of life and death at sea. Most Irish immigrants lived in a large hold in the center of the ship, typically divided into three groups. On one end were unmarried men, on the other were unmarried women, and in the center were married couples and families. Victorian mores required strict separation between the sexes, and this was enforced by the very geography of the ship. On board, one of the greatest difficulties that healthy people faced was constant boredom—there was little for them to do, although many made mutual-benefit associations or worked on ship. Moreover, food rations were a bare minimum, forcing many individuals and families to develop groups that would work together to cook and clean more regularly. While the chapter of life at sea was rather tame, the chapter on death was bleak. One of McMahon’s main purposes is to sift through the truth and legend of the “Coffin Ship,” which is remembered by many as a liminal space surrounded by death and destruction. While the number most widely thrown around is that 20% of Irish emigrants died on board, McMahon’s count places the statistic closer to 11% (which is still ludicrously high), with around 8% for adults and higher death rates for children. For context, 11% death rate is approximately the same as those who died on 19th century slave ships (although earlier centuries had a much higher death toll), as well as around the same toll of African immigrants crossing the Mediterranean by raft in the 21st century. Very few Irish immigrants died from shipwreck, which amounted to less than 0.5% of the total deaths. Instead, most lost their lives to disease, especially typhus. The cramped, humid quarters allowed disease to spread easily, killing countless people. Moreover, while 11% was the average death toll for these “coffin ships,” some exceptions had death tolls as high as 30%, 50%, or in one case nearly 60%! These numbers are absolutely ludicrous and imagining these conditions is a truly difficult task. The last chapter essentially covers life after arriving in the United States—there isn’t a whole lot that’s new here, much of this material can be found in other histories of immigration, but it is still worth reading. Although McMahon’s writing can be dense at times—it’s definitely written by an academic historian—the information is interesting enough that it is good for anyone interested in American immigration history, as well as those curious about the voyage that their ancestors took nearly two centuries ago. The beginning of the book situates it within larger historical literature and seeks to deflate numerous myths, it nevertheless takes the trials and tribulations of Irish immigrants seriously. Its largest weakness is its style of writing—great for an academic audience but it can be difficult for popular audiences. Although it was published by an academic press, I do believe that the publishers are looking for a wider audience (which is why it was on NetGalley), and the book does fall a little bit short on that front.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    McMahon does some excellent work here, bringing the journey from homeland into the story of diaspora in new ways. Much scholarship writes these journeys off as mere blips in between point A and point B, without considering their role in the transformation of both the individual and their communities. Using a variety of sources and scholarship, McMahon weaves individual accounts into a story of the creation of new ties and new people in the process of leaving one's hometown and arriving at one's McMahon does some excellent work here, bringing the journey from homeland into the story of diaspora in new ways. Much scholarship writes these journeys off as mere blips in between point A and point B, without considering their role in the transformation of both the individual and their communities. Using a variety of sources and scholarship, McMahon weaves individual accounts into a story of the creation of new ties and new people in the process of leaving one's hometown and arriving at one's final destination. This work is crucial not only to Irish Studies, but also to any kind of diaspora studies, migration, etc. In response to some of the other reviews - I will warn that The Coffin Ship is very much an academic work. For those not used to these historical works, they can become a bit repetitive and including lots of detail. They present an argument that is an interpretation of historical facts and evidence. If you're looking for first hand accounts, then this book will not be what you are looking for. McMahon had access to these first hand accounts and uses them as evidence to support his point and explain his interpretation - the work of a historian. For those new to these types of works, I recommend breaking up the reading a bit instead of going straight through. Thank you to Cian T. McMahon, NYU Press, and Netgalley for the advanced ecopy in exchange for an honest opinion.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Annette Jordan

    The Coffin Ship by Cian T McMahon is a well researched book written with rather an academic style which might some readers might find off putting, but which is entirely appropriate given the subject matter and its seriousness. Every school child in Ireland learns at an early age of the dreaded " Coffin Ships", overcrowded, often barely seaworthy vessels that carried millions of Irish emigrants to the USA, Canada and Australia during the years of the Great Hunger ( the potato famine) and the deca The Coffin Ship by Cian T McMahon is a well researched book written with rather an academic style which might some readers might find off putting, but which is entirely appropriate given the subject matter and its seriousness. Every school child in Ireland learns at an early age of the dreaded " Coffin Ships", overcrowded, often barely seaworthy vessels that carried millions of Irish emigrants to the USA, Canada and Australia during the years of the Great Hunger ( the potato famine) and the decade after. What the author has done here is looked beyond the sensationalism and dug deep into sources including official reports from the time, newspaper articles and personal accounts and letters to give a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of what the emigration experience was really like. He has divided his book into several sections looking at the different stages of the journey , from preparation to emigrate and finding the funds to do so, to life and death on board the ship and the immediate experiences of the emigrants when they first arrived at their destination. It was interesting to compare the experiences of emigrants who travelled to different continents, I was much less familiar with the idea of ships travelling to Australia or Canada, so I appreciated their inclusion here. The information provided felt quite detailed which meant there was a lot to take in while reading the book but it is clear that the author did a lot of research and knows his subject well, so the writing is clear and informative. I read and reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Casey Wheeler

    The book is based on the actual letters exchanged between those who immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the great famine from 1845 – 1855. The author does a good job of presentation of the various stories and each of the five chapters focuses on a particular subject. The downside is that the writing style reads as more of textbook than a look into what actually happened leading up to, during and after the voyage across the Atlantic. That said, this book will be of interest to tho The book is based on the actual letters exchanged between those who immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the great famine from 1845 – 1855. The author does a good job of presentation of the various stories and each of the five chapters focuses on a particular subject. The downside is that the writing style reads as more of textbook than a look into what actually happened leading up to, during and after the voyage across the Atlantic. That said, this book will be of interest to those who are interested in Irish history. I received a free Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would post a review on Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon and my nonfiction book review blog. I also posted it to my Facebook page.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lesley

    The Irish potato famine, which lasted for ten years, is generally familiar to many people, especially Irish Americans, but the specifics often get lost. There are several, if not many, excellent books on the subject that are based on careful scholarly research. A part of the emigration story that is not as well-represented in historical literature is the passage from Ireland to America by those who were fleeing annihilation. Cian McMahon's excellent book helps fill this gap with a historical wor The Irish potato famine, which lasted for ten years, is generally familiar to many people, especially Irish Americans, but the specifics often get lost. There are several, if not many, excellent books on the subject that are based on careful scholarly research. A part of the emigration story that is not as well-represented in historical literature is the passage from Ireland to America by those who were fleeing annihilation. Cian McMahon's excellent book helps fill this gap with a historical work that relies on primary sources. The segments of the saga are broken into chapters, beginning with raising the money necessary for the voyage by already impoverished, desperate people. Following chapters clearly describe the terrible trip itself with the attendant contagious diseases, frightening storms, abuse by crews and captains, deaths, and, finally, the arrival in America. That, too, is a story that McMahon tells vividly, following the fates of specific immigrants. It's unlikely that prospective readers would mistake this book for a breezy beach read; but those who are serious about the experiences of Irish immigrants in the last half of the nineteenth century will find this product of long, hard work by the author to be wonderfully rewarding.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aoine Ni

    Thank you to NetGally and NYU Press to the opportunity to read this book. This book looks at Irish immigration through letters and diary entry's of the people who left Ireland during the famine. It looks at the journey its self and through doing so will work to clear up the cliche , half truths and give more accurate statistics. Between the years of 1845-1855 about two million people left Ireland and the so called Coffin Ships.. It looks at the crew and what the were like how the weather could af Thank you to NetGally and NYU Press to the opportunity to read this book. This book looks at Irish immigration through letters and diary entry's of the people who left Ireland during the famine. It looks at the journey its self and through doing so will work to clear up the cliche , half truths and give more accurate statistics. Between the years of 1845-1855 about two million people left Ireland and the so called Coffin Ships.. It looks at the crew and what the were like how the weather could affect the journey and just the over all exuberance of some one immigrating to the colony's, America or England. I noticed that the blurb of the book was misleading as the letters and diary entry's are actually just re worded extracts.. Also the author gives the costs of things like tickets, clothes and previsions in pounds shilling and pence but no way to work out the costs in today's money so the reader can see and understand why it cost so and took so long for family members to send it home, for example how much was the average Irish immigrant earning at the time. I did find the information in this book very interesting and did enjoy learning the experiences of these people, but at times I found that the author seemed to be repeating themselves and this made the book feel slow and chunky. I would recomend this book to someone who was studing the time peroid and to go along withit a visit to the Dunbrody Famine Ship in New Ross County Wexford.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jen Pye

    C. McMahon did exactly what he set out to do - show what the journey was like for people fleeing Ireland in the great famine. He does a good job of painting a scene - the circumstances, environment, and players - and how they influenced those involved. The book takes you from preparing for the journey through to either destination or death. Each chapter reads like a mini essay, with an intro and conclusion at the end. This style and layout of writing reminded me of reading a textbook. It also mad C. McMahon did exactly what he set out to do - show what the journey was like for people fleeing Ireland in the great famine. He does a good job of painting a scene - the circumstances, environment, and players - and how they influenced those involved. The book takes you from preparing for the journey through to either destination or death. Each chapter reads like a mini essay, with an intro and conclusion at the end. This style and layout of writing reminded me of reading a textbook. It also made it seem more repetitive at times - like re-reading a thesis statement. However, the body of each chapter was filled with people's stories. The hardships, fears, hopes, and losses of those going through the migration. It brings to light the differences in social class, the reliance people have on others, and how varying each person's experience could be. These stories, and being able to picture the environment, kept me engaged and interested. This would have been a 4, but the textbook vibe just wasn't for me.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Burke

    Horror and desperation drove millions of Irish to flee their homeland, many on the infamous coffin ships sailing to North America and Australia. In his book "The Coffin Ship - Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine," Cian T. McMahon shines a light on these journeys. He shows the social forces at work when arranging for the voyage, the community life inside the ships, and what awaited the passengers once they arrived. Landlords often paid for the emigrants' trips-- a convenient way t Horror and desperation drove millions of Irish to flee their homeland, many on the infamous coffin ships sailing to North America and Australia. In his book "The Coffin Ship - Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine," Cian T. McMahon shines a light on these journeys. He shows the social forces at work when arranging for the voyage, the community life inside the ships, and what awaited the passengers once they arrived. Landlords often paid for the emigrants' trips-- a convenient way to ship off evictees once their homes were torn down. It was also an economical way to eliminate the costs of supporting convicts and the wretched poor house workers, too. Sometimes relatives in the new world were able to send enough to cover the trip and expenses, along with valuable advice on how to survive. McMahon shows evidence disputing the sometimes quoted 20 per cent mortality rate. Some ships did go down at sea, sometimes disease ravaged passengers, but passengers who embarked in compromised health conditions occasionally found themselves in better shape on arrival. We see written documentation on how the passengers would band together as a community while on board. Additionally, there was some pressure on captains and crews to deliver their passengers in acceptable condition or be reported in the Irish press outlets on both sides of the Atlantic. McMahon brings the voyage alive, not just a miserable gap to survive between Ireland and the new world. This is not easy reading and it can get repetitive and long at times. I have to confess I was extremely interested in the subject before reading, my ancestors having been part of this migration. I rate it a 4 of 5 because of the insight it delivered to me. I would sincerely like to thank NYU Press, NetGalley, and Cian T. McMahon for the ARC in exchange for my honest opinion. Thousands are sailing across the Western Ocean Where the hand of opportunity draws tickets in a lottery Where e'er we go, we celebrate the land that makes us refugees -- Philip Chevron, Pogues

  9. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    After visiting Ireland in 2019 and going through their emigration museum and touring a rebuilt 'coffin ship' this was a topic I was interested in reading about. Although this is definitely written by an academic, (so there are many endnotes and sources detailed), it is very readable. The author has spent a long time researching how the Irish emigrated during the famine years, basically 1845-1855 and tried to pin down the truth as to how they were able to emigrate and how many lost their lives d After visiting Ireland in 2019 and going through their emigration museum and touring a rebuilt 'coffin ship' this was a topic I was interested in reading about. Although this is definitely written by an academic, (so there are many endnotes and sources detailed), it is very readable. The author has spent a long time researching how the Irish emigrated during the famine years, basically 1845-1855 and tried to pin down the truth as to how they were able to emigrate and how many lost their lives doing so. Altho most of the emigrants went to North America, either the U.S. or Canada, a sizeable number also went to Australia. Many of those of course were 'invited' to leave as they went as convicts but this actually offered them a chance for a new life and other people including some of the convict's family members emigrated as well. Much of the author's research points out that except for 1847, most of the mortality rate during these years was nowhere near the often quoted 20% death rate of the so-called coffin ships. Still, most of the Irish who emigrated were very poor and altho the ships they went on were supposed to provide food, it was very difficult to survive on only that and bringing additional provisions was a must. The author detailed how early Irish emigrants helped their family also emigrate as well as a number of landlords who were eager to clear their overcrowded land (or other government authorities who found it more cost effective to assist people to emigrate rather than put them up in the poor house). This was a very interesting history.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Dan

    My thanks to both NetGalley and NYU Press for an advanced copy of this new historical study. People leave home for all reasons. Love, loss, hopes and dreams, but sadly most seem to leave for survival, from war, famine or just to have a chance to exist. Cian T. McMahon in The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine, writes of the Irish famine and those who left looking for a better life overseas in both Australia and the Americas. The book dispels many myths about the cro My thanks to both NetGalley and NYU Press for an advanced copy of this new historical study. People leave home for all reasons. Love, loss, hopes and dreams, but sadly most seem to leave for survival, from war, famine or just to have a chance to exist. Cian T. McMahon in The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine, writes of the Irish famine and those who left looking for a better life overseas in both Australia and the Americas. The book dispels many myths about the crossings, and makes clearer some of the choices made and forced on those making the trek, and not taking away the courage that it took to attempt leaving all that they knew. What I found most surprising was not the crossing itself, but the time and expenditure both in currency and mental and physical ways that preparation for leaving took on them. Selling and buying what was needed, walking to the coasts to find passage, waiting for passage, paying for passage. The book is broken into chapters that covers all the different stages of the migration, with a summary at the end. The book might be a little repetitive in facts and figures, and a little more academic than popular history but the tale is absorbing and the research is both fascinating and depressing. History always seems to repeat itself, one days happy citizens could easily be the next days refugees. A very interesting history about a subject I did not know much about.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  12. 5 out of 5

    Robert O'neal

  13. 5 out of 5

    Richard Derus

  14. 4 out of 5

    MBP

  15. 4 out of 5

    Em__Jay

  16. 5 out of 5

    Koco

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie McGarrah

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nat

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alex Helm

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tiffany

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Mabrouk (سارة ، مبروك)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lesley Kay

  24. 4 out of 5

    destiny ♡⚔♡ [howling libraries]

  25. 5 out of 5

    Leo

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ty

  27. 4 out of 5

    Eileen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kala

  29. 4 out of 5

    Molly

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alise

  31. 5 out of 5

    Bjc624

  32. 4 out of 5

    Ilene Harris

  33. 5 out of 5

    James

  34. 5 out of 5

    Donna Davis

  35. 4 out of 5

    Bene

  36. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Frohn

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