Irish Immigrant Ships of the 1860s

Clippers carried many Irish immigrants during the1860s.
Clippers carried many Irish immigrants during the1860s. (Image: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images)

In 1860 alone 1.63 million Irish left Ireland. The coffin ships of the 1840s (rickety, barely navigable ships in which one out of five passengers died of disease or starvation before setting foot in their destinations) gave way to the clipper ships and ultimately to steamships.

Clipper Ships

As late as 1860, sailing ships called clipper ships were still being built and continued to accommodate Irish immigrants (as passage was cheaper than going by steamship.) However, the trip to the United States took approximately forty days depending on the weather. The Irish who boarded clipper ships from Liverpool, England took about 80 days to reach Melbourne and 85 days to reach Sydney, Australia.


Steamships began crossing the Atlantic in 1850 and by 1863 about 45 percent of Irish Immigrants were arriving in North America by steamship. By 1866, 81 percent and by 1870 nearly all Irish emigrants to the U.S. and Canada came by steamship. The trip took about two to three weeks.

Loss of Ships

Many clippers as well as steamships sank because they were not seaworthy; they encountered bad weather conditions, and lack of passenger protection laws allowed ships to carry as many as twice the ship’s passenger capacity. The February 9, 1860 edition of The Roman Citizen, a New York newspaper, reported that 14 steamships had been lost between America and Europe over the previous 10 years.


Life onboard immigrant ships, although not as wretched as on the coffin ships of the 1830s and '40s, was dismal at best. Overcrowding was always an issue with ships such as the England, accommodating 1200 passengers in steerage. Although many diseases had been somewhat abated and deaths became infrequent compared to the large percentage of passengers who died on earlier voyages, cholera was still raging on many ships and in many ports. To stop the disease from entering the host country, ports of entry required all immigrants to be quarantined for eight to 16 days. Many healthy individuals caught diseases during this time and many died. A case in point was the aforementioned steamship England, which docked in New York in April 1866 with 50 deaths from the voyage and 150 from the quarantine. Those in cabin class were not affected.


Most of the Irish immigrants in the 1860s came from poor families so they booked passage with the ships that offered the lowest fare. In the early 1860s a trip from Limerick, Ireland to Limerick City, Canada was about 3 pounds ($5.00 U.S.). The fare on steam ships was around six guineas a person, which was about double the clipper ship rates. Ships carrying cotton to Liverpool returned to New Orleans with passengers as ballast so the fare was even cheaper.

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