Perspectives · Society

The Irish Were Refugees Too: The Famine, The Refugee Crisis, and the Modern Coffin Ship


The Great Irish Famine began in 1845. For seven years, starvation and disease gripped the country. Over one million people left Ireland seeking refuge elsewhere.

The plight of the Irish during the famine is a brutal part of history that nobody wants to remember. But it’s one we should never forget, especially in light of the ongoing refugee crisis.

Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, 4.8 million people have fled Syria. When the crisis came into sharp focus two years ago, the Irish public responded with kindness and generosity. Yet the total sum of people we have given sanctuary to since 2015 numbers only in the hundreds. The government recently announced that we will be taking in 200 unaccompanied children from disbanded refugee camp Calais, but this is still only a drop in the ocean. Furthermore, the issue has completely fallen off people’s radar since the media storm surrounding the crisis calmed down.

Ireland’s diaspora stretches far and wide and today there are more Irish people born abroad than in Ireland itself. Our culture is one built on emigration, especially emigration borne from struggle and hard times. More than anyone, we should be able to identify with refugees. Yet instead, we offer a multitude of excuses to justify not accepting more.


Prejudices against refugees are endemic. Following the famine, Irish emigrants in the US gained a terrible name for themselves. They were thought of as rowdy, disruptive drunks, and were despised by the upper and lower classes alike, the latter of whom were competing for the same unskilled jobs. Accounts of history note that Irish people arriving in American cities were mocked for their clothes and voice. Signs stating ‘No Irish Need Apply’ were commonplace in shop windows. Against the backdrop of American slavery and racial subjugation, the Irish became known as ‘white negroes’.


Considered uncivilised by well-to-do folk, people felt justified discriminating against them. Today, people use the same logic to rationalise their prejudices towards refugees.

Whatever the behaviour of the Irish was to earn themselves such a reputation, what we know is that these emigrants were poor, powerless, and facing extreme culture shock. Treating them as outcasts wasn’t an effective way to integrate them, and instead it drove them to crime and violence. Their perceived inferiority was a product of circumstances completely beyond their control.

The same goes for refugees today, yet our treatment of them isn’t any better. The number of hate crimes in Ireland has doubled in recent years. In Germany, there were 16 times as many crimes reported against asylum shelters in 2015 as there were in 2013. Just as the nineteenth-century Irish faced housing and job discrimination abroad, so too do today’s refugees.

No Country Is An Island

Metaphorically speaking, no country is an island. Issues like famine and conflict rarely arise in total isolation from other countries. The Irish famine is argued by some historians to be a case of genocide, or at the very least, an artificial famine comparable to the Stalin-imposed Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930’s. Britain didn’t send the potato blight, but it fostered the conditions for the famine to flourish.

At that time, rich British landlords owned the majority of land in Ireland.  Even during the famine, Ireland’s most valuable agricultural produce was being exported en masse to Britain, leaving penniless Irish people wholly dependent on the failing potato crop.

For Britain to then turn away Irish emigrants seeking help on their shores was unacceptable. Their exploitation of the country drove the inequality that existed there to begin with.

Similarly, rich Western countries will exploit countries for resources, cheap labour, or power, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to immigrants fleeing from the difficult conditions that consequently ensue. The US and Europe played a big role in the Arab spring, and they’re still heavily involved in the Syrian conflict. The comfortable way of life that most of us in Ireland experience is, in the first place, made possible by this imbalanced global order. How can we then simply wrap ourselves up in our country’s borders and claim that the refugee crisis has nothing to do with us?

Today’s Coffin Ships

Some of the parallels between nineteenth century Irish emigration and today’s refugee crisis are alarmingly striking. During famine times, Irish passengers boarded boats that became known as coffin ships. One in five people died aboard these ships due to inhumane conditions. The ships were overcrowded, disease was rampant, and food and water were in short supply. Dead bodies were commonly thrown overboard.

On-board an overcrowded coffin ship
On-board an overcrowded coffin ship

Many exploited the desperation of these emigrants. Landlords trying to cheaply rid themselves of tenants falsely promised them that once they arrived in Canada or the US, an agent would meet them and dole out money. Other unscrupulous ticket sellers misled passengers into thinking food would be supplied on board when it often was not. Many boats were poorly built and shipwrecks were not uncommon, the tragic sinking of the Hannah in 1849 being a famous case.

Today, hundreds of thousands of refugees are crossing the Mediterranean aboard precarious lifeboats. Last year, over 3,600 people making the journey died or went missing. Many of these refugees are lied to about the seaworthiness of the boats or sold fake lifejackets. Boats are overcrowded, capsize often, and we hear similar horrific tales of bodies being lost to the ocean. The phenomenon of the ‘coffin ship’ is unfortunately not one of the past.

History Repeated

History is always repeating itself in one way or another. Even though circumstances are never identical and details will differ, if we can’t learn from the past – the actual, lived mistakes of the people before us – how can we ever move forward? History shapes the morality of today, and we need to acknowledge what we could have done better in order to prevent the same atrocities from happening again and again.

During the famine, Irish people were made refugees. They were forced to leave their homes because of circumstances they could do absolutely nothing about. They suffered, died, and were taken advantage of along the way. Looking back, we criticise countries like Britain and America for their negligence and discrimination towards us. Let’s not do the same thing to the refugees of today.

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