Cian T. McMahon is an associate professor of history at University of Nevada-Las Vegas. His research focuses on the history and identity of the Irish Diaspora. In this interview, he discusses his new book The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine (NYU Press, 2021), a social history of migration during the Great Irish Famine (1845-55).
Drawing primarily on migrants’ diaries and letters, The Coffin Ship reconstructs the experience of leaving Ireland by sea during the cataclysm of the Famine of the late 1840s and early 1850s, when approximately 2.2 million people left Ireland.
With chapters examining “Preparation”, “Embarkation”, “Life”, “Death”, and “Arrival”, McMahon not only provides an intimate account of migrant experiences but also places this migration into its British imperial and Atlantic contexts, tracing maritime routes from Ireland to Liverpool and from there to Quebec, the United States and Australia. McMahon’s book also investigates popular memories of the Famine, not least the assumption that the “coffin ships” that passed back and forth between Ireland and Eastern Canada were sites of mass death.
The Coffin Ship is published by NYU Press as part of their new Glucksman Irish Diaspora Series.
Aidan Beatty is a historian at the Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh