In the very early hours of dawn, April 29, 1849, the ship, Hannah, en route from Warrenpoint and Newry, Ireland, to Quebec City, Canada, carrying perhaps 180 Irish immigrants and a crew of 12, struck a frozen reef in the strait near Cape Ray off the coast of Newfoundland during an ice storm.
The Hannah’s 23-year-old captain, Curry Shaw, son of one of the owners of the ship, prepared to abandon the vessel. But before he did so, he ordered the ship’s carpenter to nail down the Hannah’s after hatch: his Irish passengers would be sealed below decks. Then he and some members of the crew climbed into the life boat and rowed away into the darkness.
Another crewman, however, wrenched the hatches back open and those passengers still able climbed out on to the heaving deck.
Among those who staggered on to the Atlantic ice April 29, 1849, were Owen McCourt and his wife, Jane McKnight.
Now, over 162 years later, Owen and Jane’s great grandson, Pat McCourt, of Williamsburg, has traced the story of his family back to Ireland, and to the circumstances that led them to the deck of the Hannah.
“The Hannah was called, even in the day, a ‘coffin ship’, as were many of the ships which carried Ireland’s poor to the New World,” Pat McCourt told The Leader
McCourt, a retired principal, can remember, from a very young age, being fascinated by the stories told in his family about his Irish ancestors.
His desire to know more only increased when CBC National – Doc Zone – ran a documentary called “Famine and Shipwreck: an Irish Odyssey”, a film by Brian McKenna, on March 17, 2011. As a descendent of survivors of the wreck, McCourt was invited to be part of the documentary.
The Irish McCourts hailed from the lowlands of Poyntzpass, on the boundary between Counties Down and Armagh, about 15 miles from the town of Newry.
In the late 1700s, Pat McCourt’s great-great-grandfather had been moderately successful in setting up a small flax selling business.
Eldest son Patrick was educated as a doctor while Owen, the youngest son and Pat’s great grandfather, was a farmer, whose two acre holding was opposite his widowed mother’s six acres,.
He had been living with Jane McKnight, daughter of Scottish-Irish Protestants. “I suspect that both Owen’s and Jane’s families were very upset at their union,” McCourt said. “However, two children, Daniel (my immediate ancestor) and Eliza were born to them.”
No Irish Catholic could actually own land; he could only lease it from (often absentee) English landlords. And if a family actually tried to make any improvements to the home or fields, the rent was promptly raised.
For one third of the Irish, population, uneducated, faced with crushing rents and official English indifference (if not out and out dislike), life was a ceaseless grind of poverty.
Ironically, English papers regularly described the Irish as “lazy and indolent”, people who refused to work, to better themselves. In the 1800s, the stereotype was wide-spread in society and accepted.
The lowly potato was literally the sole basis of survival for many Irish families.
In 1845, a deadly blight attacked. Soon Ireland’s potatoes were rotting in the fields.
“The thing is,” Pat McCourt said, “there was enough food still being produced in Ireland, despite the blight, to feed the people. Landowners were exporting food all during the famine despite authorities knowing people were actually starving to death. But it appears that many English privately saw the famine as a convenient way to finally get rid of the troublesome Irish ‘problem’.
“If you can’t call this genocide, it’s pretty damn close,” Pat McCourt commented.
Prior to 1845, Owen McCourt agreed to stand as guarantor of a loan taken out by his McKnight brother-in-law.
“Then the famine came. His brother-in-law defaulted on the loan.”
Owen McCourt had to sell the lease to his eight acres for £80. When his brother-in-law’s debt was settled “we think he may have had £10 or so left. He and Jane decided to take the money and go to Canada to start over. Passage cost £2-3 each.”
They left Daniel and Eliza with relatives and boarded the ship at Newry.
Jane and Owen left Ireland on April 3, 1849. Owen was wearing a warm overcoat his doctor brother had given him at the last minute. It may have saved his life.
On the bitter morning of April 29, with the other survivors of the Hannah, they stood on the heaving ice.
“The ice broke apart,” Pat McCourt said, “forcing survivors into two groups. People slipped and fell into the arctic water. Hands and feet froze. Bodies were abandoned on the ice.
My great-grandmother said that when she was trying to get on board the rescue ship, she had to use her elbows and teeth to climb. Her hands were frozen. Later, horribly, a hatch cover was accidentally dropped on her damaged hands.”
About 10 hours after the Hannah struck, a second ship, also carrying Irish immigrants, came on the horizon. She was the Nicaragua, captained by William Marshall, whom McCourt calls the “hero of this story.”
Captain Marshall, described as a God-fearing Protestant who never expressed a word of anti-Irish sentiment, immediately turned to the rescue. His crew nearly mutinied, terrified at being lost on the ice themselves.
“Then,” Pat McCourt said, “they heard the people crying and begging from the ice and they relented. As Captain Marshall put it, ‘what has to be done, must be done.’”
When the survivors could not fasten bow lines or ropes with their frozen hands, he and his crew lassoed them, dragging men, women and children from the ice and on to the Nicaragua any way they could.
“He pulled 129 survivors off the ice that day, including Jane and Owen.” McCourt said. “He could not carry them all on his own already loaded ship, but other vessels had come on the scene, and he transferred the Irish survivors to them.
William Marshall will always be a true hero to me.”
Nothing was ever done to punish captain Curry Shaw for his actions April 29, 1849.
Owen and Jane ultimately decided to get off a second ship in Cornwall.
Daniel and Eliza McCourt eventually joined their parents in Canada in 1851. By then, 16 year-old-Daniel was ready to strike out on his own.
He apprenticed with a Cornwall shoemaker, then worked on the canal and down the Mississippi River, narrowly avoiding being pressed into the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
“Why does this story of the Hannah matter so much to me?” Pat McCourt commented.
“This is who I am. These people are part of my identity. Their stories and the heritage of these incredibly strong, determined Irish people are my background.”
But,” he added smiling, “even family stories can get changed. We were told Owen went back to the Hannah just before she sank to bring off blankets and, supposedly, meal.
Well, in reality, he brought off blankets and strong spirits. But that part of the story was apparently cleaned up in the telling.”