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Lost Passages: Shipwreck in Ulster Emigration

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 26, 2010


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by Paul Richmond

"Whilst the shipwreck of emigrant vessels was, unquestionably, a relatively rare occurrence during the nineteenth century, the loss of life incurred as a result of those disasters could never be described as insignificant. In many scholarly histories of Irish emigration shipwreck is often only briefly alluded to, forming nothing more than a macabre footnote, with death by disease regularly receiving much more attention.

However, whilst the loss of emigrant vessels – through fire, ice, storm or human error – was indeed a relatively unusual occurrence (in terms of the total flow of emigrants) the frequent repetition of this statement serves only to suggest that these calamitous events were nothing more than mere anomalies in the overall story of Irish emigration. In truth, such a statement hugely belies both the alarming frequency with which major, gruesome, headline stories of emigrant wrecks repeatedly appeared in newspapers as well as the massive cumulative death toll.

This article aims to document the alarming frequency with which emigrant shipwrecks occurred and illustrate the impact which they undoubtedly had (using newspaper reports) in a bid to challenge the misconceptions attached to the, strictly accurate, statement that ‘emigrant shipwrecks happened relatively rarely'."