Research Programs: Summer Stipends

Period of Performance

5/1/2015 - 6/30/2015

Funding Totals

$6,000.00 (approved)
$6,000.00 (awarded)

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine

FAIN: FT-229215-15

Cian T. McMahon
University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Las Vegas, NV 89154-9900)

Summer research and writing on European, Immigration, and U.S. History.

In Irish America's rogue gallery of oppressive technologies, the "coffin ship" enjoys pride of place. Folklorists and grandmothers alike agree on the basic outline of that "miserable epic" yet few academics have tackled the subject. My goal is to reevaluate this timeworn symbol from a transnational perspective through archival research. Mid-nineteenth-century migrants traveled on a global shipping network designed, built, and operated in the service of modern capitalism. Using the Famine-era Irish as a case study, The Coffin Ship examines the ways in which migrants negotiated, and even shaped, this world system. This project has appeal for scholars and general audiences across the humanities. A critical phase in the history of globalization pivoted on the process of human migration, yet there exists no close study of the instrument that lay at its Irish heart. The Coffin Ship offers a new perspective on the history of mass migration: from the decks of the ships themselves.

Media Coverage

Irish Times (Dublin) (Media Coverage)
Publication: Irish Times (Dublin)
Date: 6/21/2021

Irish Historical Studies (Review)
Date: 2/22/2021

Estudios Irlandeses: Journal of Irish Studies (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

Journal of the Early Republic (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

Irish Literary Supplement (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

Études irlandaises (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

International Migration Review (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

H-Net Reviews (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

Socialist Review (Review)
Date: 2/22/2022

Associated Products

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine (Book)
Title: The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea during the Great Irish Famine
Author: Cian T. McMahon
Abstract: A vivid, new portrait of Irish migration through the letters and diaries of those who fled their homeland during the Great Famine. The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, a groundbreaking work of transnational history, Cian T. McMahon offers a vibrant, fresh perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself. Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history. Based on archival research on three continents and written in clear, crisp prose, The Coffin Ship analyzes the emigrants’ own letters and diaries to unpack the dynamic social networks that the Irish built while voyaging overseas. At every stage of the journey—including the treacherous weeks at sea—these migrants created new threads in the worldwide web of the Irish diaspora. Colored by the long-lost voices of the emigrants themselves, this is an original portrait of a process that left a lasting mark on Irish life at home and abroad. An indispensable read, The Coffin Ship makes an ambitious argument for placing the sailing ship alongside the tenement and the factory floor as a central, dynamic element of migration history.
Year: 2021
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: WorldCat entry (1479820539)
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: NYU Press link
Publisher: NYU Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9781479808762


Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2022
Date: 12/1/2022
Organization: Choice

Honorable Mention, Theodore Saloutos Book Award
Date: 4/1/2022
Organization: Immigration and Ethnic History Society