Upon boarding the ferry set for Grosse Ile, I chose a seat in the corner that was positioned in a way as not to entice others to sit beside me. I usually like striking up conversations with strangers while travelling alone but today I didn’t want any small talk to get in the way of my experience on that ferry. I was content to be alone with my thoughts. As we set off for the island I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds made by the ferry’s engine as it spluttered its way out onto the St Lawrence river. I drifted back in time and onto another boat.
This one was much bigger and less comfortable as it was built to carry timber from Canada back to Europe. The ship’s name was The Superior but we referred to it as a coffin ship. It was June 1847 and my family and I were about to set sail from Derry to escape the Great Famine. We had now placed all of our hopes and dreams in Canada. We were told it was a country rich with food and labour. After two years of famine, Ireland had become nothing more than a land of misery and death. The only choice left for our family was to leave.
The conditions on board the Superior were much worse than we had anticipated. The food rations were much less than we were told and many on board the ship were sick with Typhus, a bacterial disease that caused frequent headaches, fever and a rash. We tried staying above deck to keep away from those who were sick but harsh storms at sea often forced us back below deck. There we stood huddled together like rats in a cage without light or clean air. There were 366 passengers on board our ship and because they were built for carrying timber and not passengers, it also meant there was hardly anywhere to sit. We had to piss and shit in pots. We tried to keep them away from us in the corner but the harsh seas frequently caused them to topple and spill everywhere.
It usually took around 30 days to cross the Atlantic and reach North American shores but our ship took three weeks longer. Food was now running dangerously low and more and more people were becoming sick and weak. It was August before we landed at Grosse Ile for quarantine and by then 18 people had died on route and 150 were now ill. My younger brother John was one of the sick.