Remembering the Irish Potato Famine

Star of the sea: farewell to old Ireland by O'CONNOR ...


Star of the Sea: Farewell to Old Ireland

By Joseph O’Connor

Published by Secker and Warburg (2002)

Book Review

Although fiction, this novel is based on more than a dozen books and website documenting the Irish famine, as well five eye-witness accounts published between 1847 and 1850, and passenger manifests from the Irish and Canadian national archives.

The plot concerns a trip aboard the fictional Star of the Sea in December 1847. Passengers included 402 in steerage, fifteen in First Class staterooms and 37 crew. Among the steerage passengers were 239 Irish victims of the potato famine who could pay the £8 fare to emigrate from Liverpool to New York.

Although the failure of the potato crop (from blight) starting in 1845 is blamed for the famine leading a million Irish to die and more than 1 million to emigrate, the causes of the famine were complex. The grain crops Irish tenant farmers produced for export to England were probably sufficient to feed the entire starving peasantry. However as frequently happens, the preeminence of the export market, dramatically inflated the cost of food in local markets.

There was the added issue of landlords setting fire to the homes of farmers unable to pay rent (to replace them with sheep). In these instances, it was clearly the sudden loss of their land, not the potato blight, that caused their families to starve to death.

Only the First Class passengers received regular meals. Steerage passengers were provided with biscuits and water unless they brought their own food. With only two water closets for 402 of them, living conditions were extremely unhygienic and smelly.

During the Atlantic crossing, which took 26 days, an average of three to four steerage passengers died daily of starvation and starvation-related infectious disease.

When the Star of the Sea arrived in New York, it, like other ships with large numbers of Irish immigrants, was refused permission to dock, leading to additional deaths from starvation. First Class passengers were rowed to shore after eight days. Those in steerage remained on board for almost seven weeks, awaiting interview by police and health officials from the Office of Aliens.