The Coffin Ships

​Our young hearts are born with grief, And we have paid the penalty of truth, A season, of our stolen youth, Shall teach old hearts to break

Between the years 1845 and 1852 some 2 million Irish people left Ireland in search of a better life abroad. The chief motivation for this mass displacement of people was intolerable living conditions in Ireland caused by a famine. A disease, blight, afflicting the only form of food that circumstance afforded the majority of people to grow, the potato, caused starvation and related diseases on a massive scale. Although accurate figures on the actual death toll are hard to come by, it is estimated that anywhere up to 2 million people lost their lives as a result.

Many historians argue that to call it a famine in general terms is an offensive misnomer, simply because other food sources could still be grown in abundance, but the vast majority of this was exported, having been grown on land owned by English absentee landlords, while hundreds of thousands of Irish natives were dying of hunger and related illnesses. Due to the complex laws surrounding land rights, the amount of land that locals could dedicate to growing their own food decreased dramatically during the first half of the 19th Century, laws divided up the land into ever smaller partitions, with the vast majority of it being dedicated to pasture for cattle or food for export to England. Ireland, part of Britain at the time but effectively run by an absent British aristocracy that owned most of the land, was largely beholden to unsympathetic foreign powers, insensitive to the living conditions of the population at large. The potato was one of the few staple crops that locals could grow for their own sustenance, so when a foreign disease found its way onto Irish soil and infected the potato, the crops failed. The British government refused to prevent exports of other unaffected crops, that – combined with ever higher rents on tilled land, the indifference of absentee landlords making profit from said exports, and the establishment’s unwillingness to face up to the human cost of such laws – all have led many historians to argue that this was a genocide of the Irish people, not a famine and as it is commonly referred to.

It feels like I’ve been here before, Here, where the animals lay down to die, So we stand, alone on a distant store, Our broken spirits in rags and tatters

Many fled across the Atlantic in desperation. Entire families were wiped from history as a result of the famine. Many chose instead to send their children aboard ships in hope of a better life in cities such as Boston, New York and Toronto. The ships used to traverse the Atlantic did not meet the minimum safety requirements for the laws of the time, and departed from small, unregulated ports. So many were said to have died on the crossing that they became known as the ‘Coffin Ships’. North America was largely sympathetic to the plight of the Irish, with many offering generous sums of money in charitable aid. But when the Irish began to arrive and settle in the cities of the East coast in ever larger numbers, they were victims of a very familiar prejudice. Resented for being poor, dirty, uneducated, undercutting local wages and overpopulating cities, when the plight of the Irish became real enough to arrive on the doorstep of America, compassion shrugged. Surviving the cramped, diseases ridden conditions of the Coffin Ships meant the possibility of enduring a lifetime of resentment from those around you, one whose affects are still with us today.

With knot and muscle and heart and brain, They are lost to Ireland, they are lost in vain, So you pause, and you can, almost hear, The sounds, they echo down through the ages

The recent refugee crisis, spiking in media coverage in 2015, has seen hundreds of thousands of people attempt to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe in the hope of asylum. Human traffickers charging people for passage on boats not fit for the crossing have exploited the desperation of many who are left with little choice but to make the trip or return to war zones. As a result, thousands have drowned in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean. There have been many global and regional causes for the soaring number of displaced peoples, the most central being the Syrian civil war, igniting in the wake of the Arab Spring. This war has given rise to a humanitarian crisis not seen since World War II; it has forced the most powerful countries in the world to position themselves on different sides of a conflict so complex it seems impossible to unwind, bringing the prospect of world war ever closer. It has witnessed inhuman crimes by a government on its own people, and the actions of the ISIS deathcult and their involvement in the conflict, one of the most ruthless terrorist factions yet seen in living memory, has heightened tensions at every turn.

The creak, of the burial cart, Hear the humiliation and sorrow, Mouth fixed with indignation, So one is driven to enslave?

Despite the danger of the choppy Mediterranean crossing, many believe they have no other choice. The response of governments in Europe has been slow, inadequate, and buffeted from all sides by the changeable opinions of the general public across individual nations. Sympathy in Northern Europe has been limited. It was not until images of a drowned child face down on a Turkish shore hit headlines around the world that people were awakened to the vast human cost of such large numbers trying to cross the sea in boats not fit for the task. Pressure groups, charities, and the work of activists have taken up the burden of spearheading the response to this crisis, with various groups holding collections of clothes and provisions for the displaced, ‘Refugees Welcome’ slogans seen at protests and online, and calls for Northern European households to offer temporary homes to refugees. Public opinion has arguably moved further in the opposite direction however, with tabloid newspapers showcasing views devoid of compassion, stoking hysteria over immigration, bringing it to fever pitch, and the voting habits of the populace swinging wildly from one extreme to another, like a fickle, panicked individual harbouring delusions of their own besiegement, desperate for decisive leadership to fill the vacuum. Compassion has not shrugged, it never was, smothered under a pillow of misdirected public opinion.

Oh god that friends should be so dear, And human flesh so cheap

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