In the small Irish town of Glencolmcille we meet Kenneth King. He is a maritime painter, and is very talented. He believed maritime art has the ability to touch different eras of history, and he has used his art as a way of looking at the relation of the shipping industry to Irish history as well as the influence of Irish ships and sailors on the maritime history of other nations.
The Irish Famine
He spoke to us about a recent project of his involving the Irish famine (created for the 1995-1997 anniversary period). He was curious about Irish-made ships carrying their compatriots to the United States and Canada. There were more than 2,000 ships that sailed from Ireland to the United States during that time period, of which about 700 were directly from Irish ports.
Although King did extensive research to find evidence of coffin ships to depict in his paintings, he ended up concluding that 95-97% of passengers were carried safely across the Atlantic, most heading to Canada. They headed to Canada because during this time the United States had increased port dues to discourage people from docking there, and some many immigrants docked in Canada and then crossed by land into the United States.
On a good run the journey took 25 days but one ship was recorded to have taken 100 days to make the crossing. It was a tough journey, often with disease affecting those aboard. Most of these ships were not passenger vessels, but rather merchant vessels with planks added. And if a ship was ever damaged and had to pull ashore, its passengers were more than likely ripped off when going ashore.
It was out of the port of Derry that the first liner services to American were offered, and with only minimal deaths experienced until disease hit the ships. Throughout Ireland there was a steady ‘hemorrhaging’ of people, either from emigration or disease. In the town of Glemcolmcille there were 5,000 people before famine, and 4,200 after. It is unclear if they were lost to disease or hunger or they simply left.
I asked King what his favorite ship was, and he said one in particular didn’t come to mind but he enjoy the stories where instead of death during the crossing there was birth – with 200 people leaving Ireland, and 202 arriving in the United States.
John Barry of County Wexford
King took particular pride in telling us the story of John Barry, known as the father of the American navy. Born in Ireland Barry eventually came to serve in the US Navy, and was, according to King, its first commissioned officer. Barry, as King emphasized, was not to be confused with John Paul Jones who was in fact Scottish.
In 1794 Congress ordered the building of frigates, which was overseen by Barry. These frigates were state of the art, as the Americans had been observing for some time the types of ships being built by the larger navies.
The painting above depicts these early American ships, while honoring the contribution that Irishmen made to the founding of the US Navy. In the background the USS Constitution can be seen.
Irish Ships during WWI
Depicted below (Oil: 16″ x 12″) is an Irish ship, the S.S. Irish Cedar c.1943, during World War II. There were attempts to prevent ships from being attacked by having their flags painted on the side, but as King pointed out that “didn’t really help them ’cause they still got sunk.”