The Irish famine, it hardly needs emphasising, had an enormous impact on the course of Irish history. Its ramifications impinged greatly not only on the demography of the country but also on its socioeconomic and cultural development.
The West of Ireland in particular witnessed a haemorrhaging of its population by the ravages of starvation, disease and emigration.
The suffering and loss of life on the ‘coffin’ ships which departed western shores for North America, many of them unregulated by official maritime guidelines, hardly bears contemplation, such were the horrors. By comparison the North East of the country escaped relatively lightly from the more catastrophic effects of the famine. However it would be wrong to downplay the scale of local suffering in misguided deference to the undoubtedly greater privations and sufferings experienced elsewhere in the country.
Research has shown that this region by no means escaped completely from the hardships of famine and disease. The famine gave rise to a significant increase in emigration from our region. Newry Port (in practice, until the opening of the Newry Ship Canal, the boats departed from the deeper waters of Warrenpoint harbour) provided the conduit for many thousands who sought a new life abroad, often in England or North America. Statistics published in recent years have shown that Newry was the port of embarkation of some 5000 emigrants who sailed directly to New York in the years 1846-51. Of a combined total of over 60,000 Irish arriving in New York in those years, this might seem a relatively small number. However given that almost 500,000 emigrants were registered as having sailed from Liverpool to New York, the likelihood is that many more people travelled through Newry in the first place before securing Atlantic passages at Liverpool.
Yet the available lists from Newry to New York afford some interesting conclusions. An analysis of surnames (problematic as this can be) suggests that many of those who departed through Newry ‘port’ did not originate from its immediate hinterland. The prominence of a Tyrone name such as Devlin indicates that people emanated from a much wider field. Though emigration from Newry peaked in 1849, it continued apace thereafter, with over 1000 people making the passage in 1850.
There is poignancy too, in the aptly named local ship Brothers which plied the route ten times of the thirty-five total passages during 1846-51. According to contemporary literature she was ‘a 1000 ton vessel, which recently got a complete overhaul in her Hull, Rigging etc. at a cost of