One of the most tragic events of the Great Famine occurs on December 1, 1848 when 72 people suffocate in the small aft cabin of the paddle steamer Londonderry, which often sails between Sligo and Liverpool.
One hundred seventy-two men, women, and children, mostly impoverished farmers from County Mayo and County Sligo, and their families, fleeing the ravages of the Great Famine, board the Londonderry in Sligo in late November. As the steamer is approaching Derry on the first leg of its journey to England, a sudden storm prompts Captain Alexander Johnstone to order his crew to force all the passengers into a small aft cabin, measuring about eighteen feet in length and, at most, twelve feet wide. The situation is exacerbated when the only ventilation available is covered with a tarpaulin to ensure that water does not get into the cabin. As a result, many of the passengers begin to suffocate.
The captain seeks refuge from the storm in the harbour at Derry on December 1. When the hatches of the Londonderry are opened it reveals a horrific scene. The corpses of 31 women, 23 men and 18 children are found in the grossly overcrowded hold. Soldiers are called to the docks as public rage intensifies. The public outcry that follows belatedly forces the British government to publish guidelines for the safe transport of Irish Immigrants, too late unfortunately for the victims of the coffin ship Londonderry.
After the tragic voyage, the master and two mates are arrested. During an inquest, survivors accuse the Scottish crew of being cruel and savage. The captain says that he had given orders for the decks to be cleared for the passengers’ safety while the storm raged.
In 1996 six coffins are found by workmen on a building site in the Waterside area of Derry, in grounds close to the former workhouse. They are believed to be the remains of some of the poverty-stricken travelers from the ill-fated paddle steamer.
(Pictured: The Great Hunger Plaque, Derry, near Derry County Borough, Derry, Clooney Park, Creggan and Boom Hall)