09.04.2013 - 09.04.2013 8 °C
Our cottage is located very close to the town of New Ross which is situated on the River Suir some twenty kilometers from the ocean. The town is home to the Dunbrody Famine Ship, one of the many ships to transport Irish Immigrants to Canada and the US during the great potato famine. The boat is a replica of the 1845 original and is the focal point of a Museum about the Irish emigrant experience. The boat and the story have many Canadian connections. The original ship was manufactured in Quebec City as Ireland did not have the sufficient quality and quantity of timber to build such ships. It was built as a cargo ship to transport goods from Canada, the US and even Peru back to Ireland. It was not anticipated that its main export cargo from Ireland would be humans. Unfortunately, the launch year of the Dunbrody was the same year as the start of the potato famine.
This 54 meter long boat was jammed with as many as 300 emigrants during a seven week voyage. It had only 40 large temporary bunks to accommodate these people. Only 8 of these people would have travelled in a cabin and been allowed free range of the ship and have meals cooked for them. The remainder had to remain below decks 23 1/2 hours a day. Groups of about thirty at a time were allowed on deck for 30 minutes to cook their own gruel, to take advantage of one of three buckets to relieve themselves and wash clothes or themselves in one bucket of seawater allotted to each family each week. If the weather was foul, there would be no deck time at all and everyone would remain below decks in almost complete darkness. Sea sickness and disease were rampant and all that accompanies such illness often ended up spilling from top bunk to lower bunk and onto the floor making the miserable airless space into a living hell. It is not wonder these vessels earned the moniker coffin ships since on some voyages nearly 40 percent of passengers never lived to see North America.
When we visited the ship, we were each given a boarding pass with the name of an actual passenger who travelled on the ship in the 1840s. We could check out the exact bunk location where they would have spent several weeks jammed in with as many as six others. We then heard the accounts of the voyage and conditions on board through the two actors who portrayed actual people who had taken the journey to New York on the boat. It made you keenly aware of the desperate circumstances these people were trying to escape.
One older Irish woman who was part of our tour group threw out some chilling statistics. The population of Ireland before the famine was nearly 8 million and after the famine the population had declined less than four million with two million dead from starvation and another two million fleeing the North America. In fact it has only been recently that modern Ireland had surpassed the four million mark.
As a Canadian, I have learned all my life about immigration to Canada. I am a son of immigrant parents. I have visited Pier 21 in Halifax, I have taught about immigration in Social Studies and Library classes. I have learned and taught about the sacrifices made my immigrants and how much they have contributed to the development of Canada and the United States. What I have heard little to nothing about is how the countries from which these people emigrated, deal with the topic. From this museum I can say all in all they are as truthful and emphatic about the trials and hardships as we are in Canada. They don't flinch about telling about the brutality of the life they were escaping and the hardships and mistreatment they faced in their adopted lands. What was interesting was also the pride they express in the accomplishments of their countrymen in their new land. There was no hint of regret or judgment that they chose to leave. They obviously had no choice. The emphasis in this museum was about what people of Irish ancestry have contributed to the United States. People like Henry Ford and John F Kennedy are cited. There are over 35 million people of Irish ancestry now living in the United States and Ireland feels a strong affinity, ownership and pride in the accomplishments not only of Irish emigrant but also in the activities of the children and grandchildren of these emigrants.
The weather is on the coolish side today and the skies are overcast. We chose to do some grocery shopping after our museum visit and then head home to catch up on our blogs, laundry and to cook. Hannah is making an authentic Irish stew made with lamb. Our cottage host is passionate about all things Irish and Irish cooking (even though she is born and raised in England). She has lent us a few Irish cookbooks, a cast iron stew pot and the secret ingredient of all Irish stews, homemade lamb stock. An authentic Irish stew does not include such foreign ingredients and turnips, carrots or celery. It all hinges on good old fashioned Irish potatoes, onions and lamb. It is currently baking in the oven and if the taste is anywhere near as good as the smell we are in for a great feast later this evening.
Before I close this post I would like to share a few more observations about our living situation and environment. We are in a two bedroom cottage that is on the same large property as the cottage owners. The cottage itself is a cute if not oddly laid out affair, obviously added to over the years. The original structure must go back at least 80 years by the looks of the old farm doors and ceiling in the upper level. The owners who originally lived in Dublin had first bought the cottage and land as a summer house. It looks like a lot of land out this way has been bought up by city folk during the era of the Celtic Tiger when Ireland's economy was the envy of all of Europe. There are many very large houses built on big acreages in this region. The large houses themselves are fairly simple in design and have the clean lines of an Irish manor house with stucco and exposed brick on the corners and little to no landscaping on their properties, including trees. The house of our cottage owner is a bit of an exception in regards to architecture. It is a 4500 square foot oval house with a very large rotunda on the third floor. The size is a bit surprising as they only have two kids and the mother is all about everything sustainable and organic. It is not clear why they need all the room, granted the husband, who is a litigation lawyer (we are told it's a booming industry in these recessional times) does work from home whenever he can. The rooms we saw are excessively large and tall. We are not sure how it is possible but the house is a supposed model of energy efficiency just falling slightly short of an entirely passive energy consumption rating.
Our first glimpses of Ireland are that of urban influence over a rural landscape, a traditional rural lifestyle still being embraced but with the inclusion of all modern conveniences. The talk of hard economic times is not far from the surface but we have not yet seen much hard evidence of it yet.