The story of The Hannah, an Irish famine ship that hit an iceberg in 1849, is now a documentary. John Kernaghan explains how it happened and how Irish America played a part.
Paddy Murphy’s body is slowly being stilled by a degenerative disease, but his eyes are alive, bright and knowing as he struggles to form words to match his racing thoughts.
He knows that the story he fought to keep alive, the compelling tale of the Irish famine ship The Hannah,which attempted a harrowing Atlantic crossing from Ireland to Quebec in 1848, only to encounter an iceberg. The captain abandoned the sinking ship and its nearly 200 passengers, many of whom miraculously survived 17 hours on the frozen ice and were rescued by the fellow famine ship The Nicaragua. Forgotten for some time, the story is now being told on large stages at both sides of the brig’s tragic Atlantic crossing.
Paddy, 70, has MSA, Multiple Systems Atrophy. He has received 24-hour care at his home in Newmarket, Ontario, just north of Toronto, as the disease progressed.
It has been a fight against time for him since its early stages in 2005 to make sure the world does not forget the history of some 70 Irish immigrants who perished on the ice floes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada — and the 129 who survived.
The story of cowardice and courage was told on BBC Northern Ireland on February 21, in a Hardy Pictures production called Ice Emigrants, and will be aired on St. Patrick’s Day on CBC Canada in a different docudrama entitled Famine and Shipwreck: An Irish Odyssey in the United States. (Galafilm, the Canadian documentary-maker, is looking at options for airing the documentary in the United States.)
The two docudramas have some common scenes but while the BBC one centers on the Donnellys, the CBC one focuses on the Murphy and Evans families. All the parties who come together in making the story of the Hannah agree that it would not have happened but for an article I wrote in Irish America in August, 2008.
That story told of Paddy Murphy’s research as a descendant of Bernard (Barney) Murphy, who was rescued from the freezing water as a child. In a tragic twist, a woman who had leapt into the water to save one of her own children, Mrs. Henry Grant, pulled Barney from the water instead. All her children perished.
The story made its way down the generations, but it was not until Paddy retired from a marketing career that he began picking up the threads.
His wife Jane, also of Irish heritage and from the small town of Westport, near Ottawa, where many Hannah survivors settled, began researching too. As Paddy’s illness deepened she was critical in getting the background needed to make the BBC and CBC docudramas.
But she says it could all have been wasted effort were it not for the Irish America article that was available on the Internet.
In late 2009, Alun Evans had been stymied in his attempt to learn more about the legacy of his great-great-grandfather William Marshall, who as captain of the Nicaragua had willed his crew to brave the ice floes to save Hannah’s passengers when its captain callously abandoned them.
Evans had a family heirloom: a silver cup that Quebec City officials had presented to Marshall for his bravery.
Evans sat at his computer in Wales and wished he could connect with descendants of the survivors his ancestor had saved. He typed in “Brig Hannah” and up popped the Irish America article. If he had waited a few days more, the piece would not have been available, he recalled.
“Your internet article from the magazine played a key part in the whole drama,” Evans told me. “If I’d surfed the internet a few days later for the word ‘Hannah,’ the article would not have been there. It was taken down a short time after.”
Still, he had recorded Paddy and Jane Murphy’s names and the Mullaghbane Community Association in Co. Armagh where historians Kevin Murphy and Una Walsh had published A Famine Link, The Hannah.
Evans connected with Murphys on both sides of the Atlantic and then with celebrated Canadian filmmaker Brian McKenna, who had sought for years to tell a story that symbolized the flight from famine that brought 100,000 Irish immigrants to Canada in 1847 alone.
McKenna, whose great-great-grandfather Francis McKenna immigrated to Montreal from Monaghan in 1874, said the story of a million Irish lost to famine has been carefully managed by the English over time.
“They have always come down more on the ‘act of God’ side, which is what an English governor of Ireland called it at the time, rather than what it was: a policy of extermination.”
The website for McKenna’s film, www.famineshiphannah.com, is pointed, terming the five years of potato-crop failure “The Great Starvation” and the Hannah as a “coffin ship.”
McKenna says the key to telling the story was connecting the Murphys with Evans – the family of the saved and the family of the savior.
“It was remarkable that Alun found your piece,” he said. “Getting descendants of a moment in history together at the site of the incident is something that provides really moving moments.”
Evans did that last April, almost 161 years later to the day of the shipwreck, as he came to Canada with Padraig Carragher and Sharon Donnelly-Carragher from Armagh who are fourth cousins of Paddy Murphy and represent a wing of the family who stayed at home in the Forkhill area and survived the famine.
In a touching moment, Donnelly presented Paddy with the finial off the gate of the Murphy homestead in south Armagh.
Meeting his newfound cousins and Alun Evans and touching the cup, the only concrete evidence of that fateful time in 1849, made all Paddy’s years of research worthwhile, his wife, Jane said.
Carragher told the Newry Reporter that it was a moving experience to relive what he and Sharon’s relatives went through.“The story of the Hannah is absolutely chilling. It was captained by Curry Shaw who was only 23 years-old and is said to have converted the coal ship to a passenger ship and set sail from Warrenpoint.”
He said one account claimed that Shaw ordered the ship’s carpenter to nail down the hatch to the passengers’ quarters when the ship’s hull caved in. But the man refused, allowing people out on to the ice.
Sharon and Padraig met up with Jane and Paddy Murphy and their son Tom last spring. Paddy was by then too ill to travel. The party and filmmaking crew boarded a fishing vessel in Prince Edward Island and made their way to the site where the Hannah was caught in pack ice and her hull crushed.
At McKenna’s request, Tom Murphy ventured out on to the shifting ice tethered to the ship.
Tom knew the story, but nothing prepared him for the emotional wallop of trying to move on the ice as outgoing tides began to break it up.
“My leg went down to my knee in a hole, the ice was moving, and the ship was bobbing up and down. Then I got it, the truth of the story. My relatives had been on this in the dark for many hours with little clothing. It just overwhelmed me.”
On the fishing boat, Jane watched her son struggling with his footing and connected emotionally with John and Bridget Murphy, who saw two of their four children fade into the night on a patch of ice.
Meanwhile, Alun Evans said it was eerie that the sea that day was similar to what William Marshall recalled in his memoirs.
“If on the 30th of April, 1849 [and the day after], even normal conditions had occurred, let alone the stormy weather that had prevailed for several days before, surely others would have drawn closer to death or even died aboard,” Evans said.
“But as it was, the weather had become dead calm, as Marshall indicates. Without the about turn in wind direction that had pushed the Nicaragua out of the treacherous ice at dawn, and then the stilling of the sea for the next couple of days, many more people surely would have perished.”
Evans says Marshall was a born-again Christian of his time and felt God’s hand at work in the rescue. Jane Murphy said there was certainly something mystical in all the connections made over time to make the documentary possible, including the Irish America link in the chain of events.
The blessing for her family was that Paddy got to see the documentary made.
“I think he wanted this legacy for his children, so that the story would carry on.”