Coffin Ships During the Great Famine Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Heather Jenkins

Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.

During the Great Famine, many Irish people left the country on a journey to search for a better life. In this lesson, you will learn about coffin ships and their importance to Irish emigrants.

Ships of Death

Can you imagine being so hungry that you sailed across an ocean to get food? In the 1840's, the people of Ireland suffered through the Great Famine, and many did just that.

To escape the threat of starvation, people sought a new life in places like America. An estimated 1.5 million people, or about 4,110 people per day, left Ireland to come to America between 1845 and 1855.

Irish family during the famine

Along with passenger ships, cargo ships used for hauling materials like timber were also used to transport people. The ships leaving Ireland earned the name coffin ships because of the high number of deaths that occurred on them. On coffin ships, 20%-50% of the passengers, or up to five out of every ten people, died before reaching land. In total, historians think as many as 100,000 people died on coffin ships trying to escape the Great Famine!

What was life like on coffin ships? Let's find out!

Life on Coffin Ships

If you sailed from Ireland on a coffin ship, it would have taken you at least 40 days to reach the United States or Canada. Like many of your fellow passengers, you may have boarded the ship feeling weak or sick from not having the proper nutrition.

Coffin ship replica

Since the ship was crowded, your living quarters would have been a small area on the lower decks. A family of four was usually assigned just six square feet. To squeeze into such a small space, they had to sleep head to toe. Hopefully, no one's feet were stinky...but, unfortunately, they probably were!

Hygiene on coffin ships was almost non-existent. As a passenger, you would have been allowed no more than an hour a day on the deck of the ship to get clean air. You would have spent the rest of the day below deck, where there where no showers, kitchens, or bathrooms. When you had to use the bathroom, you reached for a bucket. Because you ate, slept, and relieved yourself in the same space as your fellow passengers, germs were easily spread.

Throughout the voyage, you would have eaten whatever was available on the ship - usually a hard cracker called hardtack - or nothing at all. The only fresh water was stored in barrels, which was sometimes contaminated and unsafe for drinking. Some ships ran out of both food and water before landing.

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