Journal Volume 5 2006

Surplus People from Newcastle and Ballyvolan  (continued/7)

The Sabbath at Sea

I have written elsewhere about the horrific conditions these emigrants suffered at sea,14 and it would serve little purpose to repeat it here. There is, however, one aspect of such a voyage that I have not recorded in print, although I have spoken about it from time to time. That is religious observance. Life on board an emigrant ship was far from pleasant, even on board well-run ships, such as the Dunbrody and the Swan, and even when the weather was remarkably fine or the voyage remarkably short. Not surprisingly, religion was a consolation for many. Unfortunately, I do not know of any ex-Fitzwilliam tenant leaving a diary or written account of the voyage, so I cannot cite particular instances on those particular ships,15 but there is no reason to assume that the daily life, and especially the Sabbath daily life, was any different to that recorded by other passengers on other ships. These accounts shed light on how diligent or how lax the passengers and crews were in the practice of their respective religions, and what role the clergy played not only during the voyage but also on the arrival of the emigrants in places like Quebec.

The average length of voyage across the Atlantic was six weeks. Some of the better ships in exceptionally good weather could do it in four or five, while adverse conditions, bad ships, bad seamanship, and major outbreaks of fever could keep a ship at sea for anything up to ten weeks. So, there were going to be at least four and perhaps as many as ten Sundays encountered during a voyage. Most the captains were, at least nominally, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist or another Protestant denomination. Most of the passengers who sailed from Irish emigration ports, such as New Ross, were, again at least nominally, Catholic. There is a good deal of research being done at the moment into religious practices at that time and for a few decades before and it would seem that the almost universal practice of church-going in Ireland didn't really begin until the 1860s.16 Nevertheless what is important here is the vast majority of Irish people were affiliated to one or other of the major Christian churches, and it is interesting to read what some of the passengers recorded in diaries regarding observance of the Sabbath and other religious practices.

One of the best-known eyewitness accounts of a voyage in 1847 is that of Robert Whyte. He noticed there was no sea chant to accompany the weighing of the anchor, 'it being the Sabbath’.17 The following Sunday he had a mixed reaction to what he saw. First he said:

‘The Passengers were dressed in their best clothes … and the sailors donned their holiday toggery in the afternoon.’

But then he remarks:

‘Very few of them could read; neither did they seem to have any regard for the Sabbath. In the evening they had prayers in the hold and were divided into two parties - those who spoke Irish and those who did not; each section having a leader who gabbled in his respective tongue a number of 'Paters & Aves' as quickly as the devotees could count their beads. After these religious exercises they came upon deck and spent the remainder of the day jesting, laughing and singing.’18

By the end of the third week, a little less than halfway through the voyage and when sickness first began to make its presence felt, Whyte wrote:

‘Having hinted to the captain the propriety of having divine service read upon the Sabbath, he said that it could not be done. The sailors were too busy. This day, therefore, had no mark to distinguish it from any other. The poor emigrants were in their usual squalid attire, neither did the crew rig themselves out as on former Sundays.’19

Considering the religious animosity endemic in Ireland, perhaps the workload of the crew was a handy excuse for the captain not to encourage an open display of any particular religious service.


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