How My Ancestors Begin Their American Dream

Michael Charles Carolan
21 min readAug 9, 2022


These exiled refugees fleeing the greatest political-environmental disaster of the Nineteenth century — one hundred and seventy-five years ago — on the anniversary of their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, tracked in realtime.

by Michael Charles Carolan
Published July 27, 2022

Read by the author

It’s July 27, 1847, and my third great-grandparents and their four children step from the gangplank of a crowded three-masted ship and onto Pier Twenty in lower Manhattan.

Thomas is forty years old, his wife Elizabeth is ten years his junior. There’s Bessy, age thirteen, Catherine, four, Annie, not yet one, and Michael, age three.

They have been thirty-four days at sea in the deadliest year of An Drochshaol, the “bad life,” or An Gorta Mór, “the great hunger.” Called “Black 47” for the disease, death and emigration caused this year by England’s genocidal response to the people living in her richest Kingdom.

Two of her children will live full lives, neither rich nor hungry, but in America. And the narrative that makes it to me is this: at my namesake’s funeral, my great uncle, just a boy at the time, recalled Michael’s “potbelly” that “stuck out” above the edge of his open casket.

On this summer day in 1847, though, the Carolans are survivors — among the 3,671 people, according to the New York Herald, who are arriving this week in the City — faces of hope streaming off the square-riggers berthed on the East River, along South Street, the storied “Street of Ships.”

Theirs is called the Patrick Henry — eight years old and named for the patriot famous for “Give me liberty or give me death” — a packet-ship (for the mail packets they carried) with three masts, sixteen sails and over half a football field in length. She’s known for her speedy, record-breaking passages across the Atlantic — many ships took upwards of six weeks —and this crossing is no different.

What They Saw: South Street, Rodney Charman (British, b 1944)

The Carolans are among her three hundred and fifteen passengers; her steward Peter Ogden will organize the largest U.S. fraternal organization for Black people; her captain Joesph Delano will become first cousin, twice removed, of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The actual President the year they arrive is James K. Polk, our second said to be of Irish descent. Our first President to visit the Emerald Isle is three decades away: Ulysses S. Grant in 1879. And to come, in just two years, are the voyages of the ancestors of our Presidents Joseph Biden and Barack Obama.

That day in New York, the wind was from the northwest and the thermometer had fallen from ninety-three degrees, according to the July 27 New York Evening Post.

An astonishing change has taken place in the weather. Yesterday was one of the most oppressive days of the season; we were sweltering under the scorching rays of a tropical sun, the air close and sultry. To-day we are luxuriating in the refreshing breezes of a cool October; the clouds look dark and chilling, and thick clothing is decidedly comfortable. This morning the thermometer was down to 64 degrees and at [noon], it is only 72. Too great care cannot be taken to adapt the dress to these sudden changes especially from heat to cold.

Standing in the New York sunshine of the day, the water lapping at the sides of their home for the last month, Thomas and Elizabeth can’t imagine that in a few years only two of their four children will be with them — Catherine and Michael.

Nor can they imagine they’ll have six more healthy ones, raised on a farm outside Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, over the next fifteen years: Julia Ann, Thomas Spencer, Martha, Anna Elizabeth, Lydia Tyson, and Mary Emma — thanks, in large part, to the generosity of an old childless Quaker couple, the Spencers.

George and Mary — part of a robust international religious charity network that provided measureless relief for the Irish people and for Black people escaping slavery north of Philadelphia, the Spencer name will be passed down by my family for generations.

Photographs, Children of Thomas Carolan (1806–1870) & Elizabeth Smyth Carolan (1817–1876), Various dates. Four of eight children who survived into adulthood. L-r clockwise, Michael Carolan, 1844–1906, born at Light Town, Springville-Dandlestown, County Meath, Ireland, who was aboard the Patrick Henry at age 3 and died Philadelphia; Julia Ann Haughey, 1849–1905, born in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, died Philadelphia; Martha Tansey Guppy, 1852–1929, born Willow Grove, died Philadelphia; Thomas Spencer Carolan, 1852–1915, born Willow Grove, died Philadelphia. Courtesy Ann Carolan Moerk, Elizabeth Haarlander, Nathan Kelley & Michael Thompson.

Nor could Thomas and Elizabeth imagine that their eight children will produce thirty-one grandchildren and multiply exponentially, like every other emigrating family across the ages, given the chance. Their feelings of dispossession and forced migration from their beloved home country are with us today more than ever.

There are some one billion today globally, according to the World Health Organization, or about one in every eight people. The experience of migration is “a key determinant of health and wellbeing, and refugees and migrants remain among the most vulnerable and neglected members of many societies.”

And as for hunger, about 828 million were affected globally in 2021 — with a record 345 million, “marching to the brink of starvation,” according to a recent United Nations report, which is sparked by the war in Ukraine and spikes in food, fuel and fertilizer prices.

At the same time, this year, Ireland’s population is over 5.1 million, the highest population recorded in an Irish census since 1841.

To represent millions around the globe today, we consider the conditions in their abandoned homeland and reanimate their journey, that of a singular American family — from the birth of their eldest to the journey to Liverpool to the ship’s logbook for precise coordinates of their Atlantic passage. From the passenger manifests to baptism registers to census records, from newspaper accounts to family narratives — the descendants of survivors celebrate their escape, honor the memory of victims, and assimilate into larger, reinvigorated versions of themselves.

Manifest (partial), Ship Patrick Henry, taken July 27, 1847, upon arrival in New York City, showing T. Carolan, 40, Bessy, 30, Bessy, 13, Cath., 4, Mich., 2, and Annie, 1.

Thirteen years before this day, in 1834, the Carolan’s parish priest, Father Nicholas McEvoy, rides his horse from the Abbey at Kells three miles to the southwest, to a home at a crossroads in County Meath where the family has lived for more than a century.

The place is called Light Town — so named for the “stush-candles” lit at night in the foot-square, spy-hole windows of the cabins there. There were one hundred and fifty of them, built of sod and straw, said to take only two days to put up. They made a “really pretty sight,” according to the National Folklore Collection.

Before the roaring hearth — it is February — the priest baptizes Thomas’ eldest daughter Elizabeth (Bessy on the ship manifest). He handwrites “illegitimate” on her birth register, as was custom. Her mother’s name is “Bridy,” likely for Bridget. But Thomas raises Elizabeth as Bridy disappears, either to another relationship or death. Eight years on, in 1842, Thomas marries Elizabeth Smyth, who is soon pregnant.

Birth Register, Parish of Kells, Co. Meath, Catholic Church in Ireland, January 18, 1834, showing the birth of Eliza. “illegitimate” daughter of Thomas Carrolin (sic) & Bridy ? with sponsors Hon Smith and Catherine Donnally

First comes Kate in 43, and then Michael — my great-great-grandfather — in 44.

The following year, 1845, another child is perhaps born to the couple but dies at birth or shortly after. Their priest counts “no less than” fifty wagonloads of food headed for the port from which the Carolans will within two years depart.

“With starvation at our doors, grimly staring us,” McEvoy writes presciently in The Nation, October 25. “Vessels laden with our sole hopes of existence, our provisions, are hourly wafted from our every port.”

Annie is born in 46 — the year the priest who baptizes her writes that “many of my people are fainting for want of food — literally and actually dropping out of their standing for want of the most essential and commonest nourishment … Over upwards of three thousand does certain famine and death impend for the protracted period of at least four months.”

Father McEvoy helps set up a relief fund for donations and calls out local land baron Thomas Taylour, the third Marquess of Headfort — a royalty rank above an earl and below a duke. He donates only “the sum of ten pounds!!!” — the exclamations in the actual letter, dated that May to Lord Heytesbury, Governor of Ireland.

“Human life will,” McEvoy warns. “I feel painfully convinced, be immediately and extensively sacrificed.”

Thomas Taylour (1822–94), 3d Marquess of Headfort, Lord Kenlis & Earl of Bective, among the largest landholders of Kells at the time, and member of the Peerage of Ireland. The family held as many as 22,000 acres across Meath and Cavan by 1876. “An Irish Property”. Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1877. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The following May 1847 in Kells, the month my family emigrates to the eastern coast to catch a ferry for Liverpool, the fever hospital population doubles and the government is providing two thousand-plus inedible “portions” of a new soup scheme. So innutritious and pitiful a handout that a “mob” of townspeople revolts, claiming it “an offense to the dignity of the people.”

“The streets of Kells are crowded with men,” writes a correspondent for the London Morning Post on May 24. “All the bread and provision shops are closed up; the town is full of consternation….” The local paper calls it the Stirabout Rebellion.

From the Illustrated London News, 1846 [Public domain]

By the time the Carolans leave, a week or two later, the country is a virtual war-zone, with the constabulary, militia and more than thirty thousand troops of the British Army in-country, including hundreds of the 68th Light Infantry at Kells.

Police State-Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser, July 3, 1847 [British newspaper archive]

They are evicting people, quelling crime and protecting the abundant crops and livestock leaving Irish ports for England, including the following sample, published by the London Times, of one week ending July 8 and arriving at Liverpool: 1,228,950 pounds butter (measured in firkins), 345 tons wheat, 2,351 sacks wheat, 2,004 barrels flour, 148 tons oats; 43 tons oatmeal, 251 oxen, 152 calves, beef, pork, whiskey & 782 barrels of Indian corn meal….

Food During FamineLondon Times, July 24, 1847 [British newspaper archive]

Police are making arrests; assizes are full; locally convicted men and orphans will soon be sent to Australia.

Four years later, there’ll be thirteen hundred living in the Kells workhouse, about seven hundred above capacity. Mass burials of hundreds will take place at the Kells Union Paupers’ Graveyard, west of town, at the foot of the Spire of Lloyd — a noted landmark of the Seventeenth century.

I’ve been atop the tower on a 2020 visit to the region. It’s known as the “inland lighthouse of folly,” built in 1791, by the ancestor of a landlord I referenced earlier in this narrative: Thomas Taylour. His great-grandfather — the First Earl of Bective who was elevated to the Peerage of Ireland — built the tower to honor his father, Sir Thomas Taylor, the Second Baronet of Kells, who died in 1757.

To the churchyard — Loved ones identified with mourners when their family members emigrated, knowing they would likely never see them again. Getty Images

As for my third great-grandfather who arrived in New York one hundred and seventy-five years ago, he is born a stone’s throw from the Spire in 1806.

Thomas Carolan, Jr., is the second male born to Thomas, Sr., and Catherine Gilsenan, my fourth great-grandparents.

Upon Thomas, Sr.,’s death, as is custom, his eldest son Michael, born in 1804, inherits the two-story family home that remains today on what was then the poorer borderland fields of Balrath Bury estate.

Thomas, Jr., on the other hand, gets a small plot nearby on which to build a cabin and raise a family. It’s closer to Drumbaragh House, the seat of of the Woodwards, also a landlord of the Carolans. Not long after, Thomas leaves.

What’s Left

By 1854, after Thomas, Jr., has gone to America, a land survey shows that his older brother Michael rents twenty-six acres — 16 of them from Robert Woodward. He has a few cattle, pigs, crops, and sublets two small cabins. The Carolans are among the small and historically often-overlooked middle class, people who emigrated toward the beginning as opposed to those who left later — the much larger lower class whose lives traditionally garner more attention from scholars and the public alike.

The Carolan men are considered “middling” farmers, or those holding between ten and thirty acres, or perhaps even “middlemen,” those who collect the rents from the tenantry.

In the Carolan’s case, their sole landlord is eventually one from generations of male progenitors of the Nicholson family. Beginning with Gilbert Nicholson in the 17th century to Christopher Armytage Nicholson, who died in 1849, and ending six generations later in the 1960s — all descendant-members of the British Ascendancy who were bestowed lands in return for military service during Cromwell’s conquest in the mid-seventeenth century.

There’s Christopher’s infamous son, John Armytage Nicholson (keep reading), then his son Christopher A., his son Gilbert whose brother John Hampden succeeded, whose son was Christopher H., and finally, his son, John Warren Nicholson, born in 1931. The estate converted to hospital during the First World War and hosted German refugees during the Second World War.

On the outer edge of the estate remains my family’s former two-story stone house, today unoccupied and overseen by a family related by marriage. It is similar to homes of the large farmer class of the era — late 18th century, who held between thirty and a few hundred acres and lived in such structures with slate roofs, as opposed to the mud houses with thatched roofs of the middling and small farmer.

The home was likely paid for by the Nicholsons, perhaps in exchange for trade services the family provided. According to Leon Uris in his epic Trinity (1976), the family trade, smithing, was known in village life as “second in importance only to the priest.”

“The [blacksmith] was a source of wonderment with its magic pools of fire,” sparks flying in “the execution of highly secret formulas passed on by the fairies.”

After all, Michael — Thomas Carolan’s three-year-old son on the Patrick Henry — becomes a blacksmith too, on a farm in the New World, north of Philadelphia.

Mural, in the great hall of Balrath Bury, depicting the estate, seat of the Nicholson family, three miles southwest of Kells, County Meath. Courtesy Michael Carolan, taken in 2020.

By the time my ancestors left Light Town, everyone is encouraging them: Church, State, landlord, family, even their hometown newspaper, the Meath Herald, on page five of the issue published February 20, 1847.

“We do not for a moment hesitate to encourage all who may have any idea of emigrating, especially the younger portion of them, not to lose a moment considering of the matter, but to sacrifice even their holdings to obtain the means of emigrating.”

Many believe the seeming environmental apocalypse is God’s punishment; the winter of 47 is unusually devastating, the public works projects that employed people are shuttered, the failure of the second entire potato crop is complete, food prices are skyrocketing. In fact, as Thomas makes his mind up to emigrate that spring, calves, sheep and rabbits are being slaughtered, on the spot, upon the vast estates surrounding Kells, including that of his landlord’s son John Armytage Nicholson.

Nicholson wants the family’s eight thousand acres put to pasture, to fatten cattle, and is said to have paid for the Carolan’s passage to New York, according the National Folklore Collection.

And for the next decade, Nicholson works diligently at evictions — so much so that tenants attempt to assassinate his son, Christopher. Then on October 5, 1869, while the elder is enroute to the family seat at Balrath Bury, they take a shot at him. Suspecting an attempt upon his life, he is said to place, in the front of the carriage, his coachman, who is killed instead. The event makes international news.

During this era, my great uncle Michael sublets cabins to the Casserlys and the Swifts, both families are among the many who are evicted by Nicholson.

Michael’s son Bryan Carolan marries Mary Brady, who comes from a family in nearby Kilskyre. Like most in the generation after the Great Hunger, they have no children. Upon Bryan’s death in 1893, the two-story home and lease of the land transfers to his wife, and after her death in 1928, to her nephew. The Bradys today are stewards of the place.

After Emigrating: From April 16, 1870 issue of the Illustrated London News, “A Meath Country Gentleman Walking in His Park,” depicting John Armytage Nicholson at Balrath Bury, with its demesne, six months after tenant(s) attempted an assassination (the official Land Wars would begin a decade later), thirteen years after the Carolans emigrated. “He seldom ventures beyond the limits of his own park, and whenever he takes a walk he carries a loaded rifle, and is protected by a constable on each side of him, with two more constables behind, all with their carbines at full cock. If he goes along the high road, he is followed by a party of armed policemen in a car, with a short ladder by which to scale any wall over which the assassins might escape pursuit.”

“Give me liberty…”

In early June 1847, Thomas walks his family — with perhaps a donkey pulling a cart on which is a trunk and traveling supplies — the twenty-five miles to the east coast of the country, to the Drogheda Steam-Packet Company. There they likely sell the animal to pay the five shillings a head to catch the steam cattle ferry, the St. Patrick, to cross the Irish Sea for Liverpool.

The First Leg — Journey to Liverpool — North Quay, Drogheda, 1860–1883. Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland.

On June 23, according to the Liverpool Mercury, the daytime high is sixty-three degrees on the River Mersey, at the Waterloo Dock, showers at noon, winds from the west to northwest.

The Patrick Henry is ready to sail after bringing recently from New York to Liverpool, “the very large quantity of 1,065 barrels of soda biscuit and 400 packages of bread, or common biscuits” for the Ireland relief efforts. No matter, the ship is today full of human cargo — eighteen first-class passengers and two hundred and ninety-nine people in steerage, says her manifest.

And the Carolans are off, heading for America, where the streets are paved in gold, in the upper hold of the ship known as “one of the best and most dependable packets of the era,” part of Grinnell, Minturn & Co.’s Blue Swallowtail Line.

Waterloo Dock, opening to the Mersey River, Liverpool, U.K. from Ackermann’s Panoramic View, 1847 [public domain]

In her lowest orlop deck, bars of iron as ballast and thousands of dollars of merchandise, in bales and bundles, casks and cartons, to be unloaded at the port of New York and distributed across the country by the of the era — the railroad.

Their passage costs around six hundred and fifty dollars each, in today’s dollar, for a combined six foot by three foot by three-foot-high steerage berth, if they were lucky. First class passage costs more than four thousand dollars. American-made, in the shipyard of Brown & Bell in New York, the Patrick Henry launched November 6, 1839, to great fanfare in the press.

Her measurements: about one thousand tons in volume (burthen), thirty-five feet wide (beam), twenty-two feet deep; with two decks, an eighteen-foot draft and one hundred and fifty-nine feet long.

That’s a foot shy of the average length of a luxury yacht today, which carries, by law, just twelve passengers — according to “The Haves and the Have-Yachts,” an article in the July 18, 2022, issue of the New Yorker.

Their food: whatever they could carry, with the shipping company to provide a pound of meal or bread for each adult, daily, a half-pound for each child seven to fourteen, and a third-pound for each child under.

The voyage is by all accounts as much bewildering as brutal. A few months before the Carolans depart, an Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament named Stephen De Vere voluntarily traveled in steerage to observe the typical conditions. His report is frequently quoted by historians: “Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children, of all ages from the driveling idiot of 90 to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth, and breathing a foetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart.”

Life Aboard — Likely taken from the Illustrated London News, circa 1850 [Library of Congress]

The dim interior of the steerage is lit by a few lamps. The aisle between bunks is clogged with food boxes, cooking utensils, clothing bundles and “whatever small mementos the women had salvaged from their abandoned homes.” Hatches are left open but as the Patrick Henry reaches the open water, the rolling produced the inevitable seasickness.

The lack of toilets is woefully apparent and before two days pass, they are “initiated into the unbelievable hardships of immigrant passage to the land of the free.” Thievery and assaults between passengers are commonplace and from the crew itself — including a documented voyage on the Patrick Henry in April 1846 under Captain Delano’s younger brother.

The Packet Ship “Patrick Henry” in distress at sea under a winter storm January 1854-oil on canvas-Solon Francis Montecello Badger-size 18 1/2" x 31 1/2" 4' x 36 3/4"
The Packet Ship “Patrick Henry” in distress at sea under a winter storm January 1854. Oil on canvas, Solon Francis Montecello Badger (MA, 1873–1919), 18 1/2" x 31 1/2" 4' x 36 3/4" []

The Carolans watch the receding shores of England; then the rocky coast of Wales; at midnight sailing silently past Holyhead, and they see the coast of Ireland. Under a heavy press of canvas, they pass the jagged Tuskar Rock, off County Wexford, and lastly Cape Clear. About forty-three hours after leaving the Mersey, they are well beyond the sight of land, far out in the great open expanse of the Atlantic.

For getting food cooked, stoves are set on deck and lit at specified intervals for cooking. Crowding upon each other, passengers vie to heat a little oatmeal or soup, perhaps made of salt beef or bacon. As for gales, they blow up out of nowhere, and on most voyages. To everyone who had never set sail, like the Carolans, they are terrifying experiences as they had never undergone before.

At the first dash of spray over the bulwarks, the hatches on the steerage are battened, passengers sealed in their box. For hours if not days, in utter darkness, since neither candle nor lamps can be lit, they wait. Women shriek, children scream. At every roll or pitch of the ship, they believe to be sinking. The masts creak, the whole vessel lurches. The water oftentimes pours down in torrents, through cracks and holes into the lower decks.

Harper’s Magazine, 1883–1884, Vol. 68, p. 218. by way of Library of Congress

After ten days at sea, it’s July 2, and everyone in the family is through their seasickness. Teenaged Bessy is helping her stepmother with the toddlers. Thanks to excerpts from Captain Delano’s logbook published in New York newspapers, the Patrick Henry is precisely six hundred and sixty-nine miles beyond Tuskar Rock, and averaging three-and-a-half knots.

The Carolans climb up to the main deck and look across the bulwarks; there’s a smaller packet-ship, The Samuel Hicks, off the bows, headed for Liverpool to pick up passengers. Commander Delano orders “signals” exchanged with Captain Bunker whereby flags are raised from the deck to communicate — compass, relative bearings, standard times, ports, designations and other information.

The next week, Day 18, they are fifteen hundred miles from Liverpool and averaging a whole six knots. The British bark Emigrant crosses their path. As for life onboard, the women sew and knit,

…tradesmen made money repairing shoes and clothes; boys and girls copied the characteristic rolling gate of the sailors or danced to the tune of the diminutive Irish fiddler, who played as indefatigable as a dummy cranked up after every song. During these few hours when gaiety surmounted the underlying sadness, anxiety and fear, the crowded foredeck was like a bit of Ireland revisited.

Nearby the sailors and apprentices listened to the infectious music and shouts of joy, swabbed decks, mended sails, tarred ropes, spun yarns, and chopped broken spars into firewood.

The Voyage in realtime — based upon latitudes and longitudes published in newspapers upon their arrival. Courtesy Michael Carolan, from Facebook account posts, July 2022.

On July 14, Day 22, on deck, Bessy is holding Annie and sees a ship in the distance, sailing in their direction, with “a cross in her foretopsail.”

Ten days later, Day 32, July 24, Land-ho! Nantucket Island in the distance and little Michael’s third birthday with song and extra biscuit.

The day following, July 25, off the Shoals, they pass the Hottinguer, a packet-ship similar in size, under Captain Ira Bursley, headed for Liverpool. It’s the very ship with at least two voyages in the history books. The first: Sarah Mytton Maury, an advocate for improved conditions on immigrant ships, sailed two years prior, 1845, from Liverpool to New York, and published her account of life onboard such ships.

“Apart from the commander, first, second, and third mates, the crew … consisted of the steward ( a black man) — two black cooks, a carpenter, and untypically for a sailing ship, a blacksmith, and twenty-four sailors. … composed of men from no less than ten nations, England, America, Spain, Italy, France, Denmark, Prussia, Holland, Portugal, and Scotland — a fair number of whom had little or no understanding of the English language!”

The Vessel that brought the Carolans to America, from Liverpool to New York City, 34 days at sea, under the Master Joseph C. Delano, cousin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. ‘The American Packet Ship Patrick Henry Off The Cliffs of Dover,’ oil, 1859, Philip John Ouless (British, 1817–1885). Flying the red and white flag of Grinnell, Minturn & Co.’s Red Swallowtail Line, London to New York (1823–1880). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Maury watched, with great interest, as several hundred emigrants, mostly Irish, climbed out of the steerage, noting that several of them were carrying musical instruments, which included a pair of bagpipes, two or three fiddles, and some flutes. The musicians took up their positions, and soon they were joined by a whole chorus of singers. Within minutes the deck of the packet ship was akin to events at an Irish country fair, with scores of men, women, and children, laughing, dancing, and jigging around the caboose — making it almost impossible for the sailors to work the ship. The very considerate Captain Bursley tolerated it for some time, then, by way of a kindly ruse to restore order, explained to them that if they continued to dance in that manner they would upset the ship. This seemed to work, for without a murmur they all sat down, becoming as quiet as church mice!”

The second: the Hottinguer would sink, taking down Captain Bursley and thirteen crewmen, off Blackwater-bank, not far from Tuskar Rock, near Wexford, three years later, in 1850.

Three days later, Day 34 at sea, the Carolans are on deck again, gazing as Manhattan’s southernmost point sweeps by, where “green lawns surrounded The Battery and promenading ladies and gentlemen could be seen through the foliage.” Soon, South Street “and the many ships tied to her flank, their tangled thicket of masts and rigging almost concealing the dingy warehouses behind them.”

View from South Street, New York in Packet Ship Days. “Opposite Grinnell, Minturn & Co.’s Swallow Tail Line Pier in the Forties.” Painting by Harry Saunders. 1867. From McKay, Richard C. ‘Donald McKay and His Famous Sailing Ships. United States,’ Dover Publications, 2013. P. 54.

Suddenly, the “chorus of welcome” and “questions and answers between the sailors aboard the tied-up ships and those aboard…” the Patrick Henry. Word circulates that they have once again come within a day of the speed record. The vessel remains one of three transatlantic sailing packets that held the record for the fastest Liverpool to New York crossing for a period of twenty-five years or more, at thirty-three days. This is likely why Captain Delano, of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the Patrick Henry — of which he later owned two sixteenths — “made more money than any other ship belonging to her owners.”

Captain Delano takes roll; there have been no deaths on the voyage though a New York newspaper claims two hundred and eighty-eight in steerage, another claims three hundred, the manifest shows two hundred and ninety-seven.

Evening Post (New York), July 27, 1847. []

In Canada, it’s far worse this summer. The voyage is cheaper; the British boats shoddier. About one hundred thousand people fled, with seventy thousand to Montreal, which had a population of only fifty thousand at the time. More than six thousand women, men and children perish, and today lie in “North America’s largest Irish mass grave.”

Back in the Carolan’s former townland in County Meath, the population plummets fifty-four percent in a decade. Three decades later, the fifty houses of Springville, of which Light Town is a part, are reduced to eleven.

In 2011, there are only four houses, one of which is “vacant.”

That’s the two-story stone home of my ancestors, which I have visited, held today by the O’Brádaigh (Brady) Family, who are related by marriage. See: Éireann’s exiles — reconciling generations of secrets and separations.

Pastel, O’Brádaigh (Brady)-Ó Cearbhalláin (Carolan) Homestead, Melissa Carolan Gouffray, sister of author, 2022. Photo by Conor O’Brádaigh. The residence of Emigrant Thomas Carolan’s grandfather, father and older brother, built @ 1800 by Nicholsons, the landlord, at Light Town, Springville-Dandlestown Townland, Kells Parish, County Meath. Today held by the O’Brádaigh Family, related by marriage.
Conor and his father Johnny O’Braidagh (Brady), in March 2020, in front of the O’Brádaigh (Brady)-Ó Cearbhalláin (Carolan) Barns and Homestead, still standing outside of Kells, Ireland. Courtesy Michael Carolan.

Today, my daughter lives in New York City. To celebrate the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary, I recorded a radio essay and have contacted descendants of the eight children of Thomas and Elizabeth, the family names passing through the years: Mariemma, Spencer, Michael, Elizabeth, Thomas.

Many cousins whom I love remain in Philadelphia.

That’s the birthplace of my great-grandfather Matthew, the son of that three-year-old emigrant Michael, and his son, my grandfather Walter, who married my grandmother Verna Mae Rose, a granddaughter of an emigrant from . . . you guessed it, England.

And for a little synchronicity — my father’s birthdate is July 24. That’s precisely ninety-three years after, to the day, of the birth of Michael, his great-grandfather, the three-year-old who sailed on the Patrick Henry.

Happy Eighty-fifth birthday, Dad.

William George Carolan, father of the author, born in Philadelphia, standing at the site, in 2018, of where, according to the 1850 Census for Moreland Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, the Carolan family (his great-great-grandparents Thomas and Elizabeth) first settled (possibly an old log schoolhouse building) after emigrating from Ireland. It’s in the heart of today’s Willow Grove, at the intersection of Park and Easton.

This article was revised from an article published July 27, 1847, on

Éireann’s Exiles: Reconciling Generations of Secrets and Separations
Listen here.

Contagion in the Family’s Past and Present. New England Public Radio.

The essay that started it all: Perpetual Hunger, Crossroads Irish-American Writing Prize. Listen here.


Newspapers: New York Daily Tribune. New York Herald. Liverpool Mercury. Evening Post (London), London Times, Meath Herald & Cavan Advertiser (Kells), Anglo-Celt (Cavan)

Bixby, William. South Street: New York’s Seaport Museum. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1972. P. 86.

Connell, Peter. The Land and People of County Meath (2004).

Connelly, Sean. On Every Tide: The Making and Remaking of the Irish World (2022), p.50.

Gallagher, T.M. Paddy’s Lament: Ireland 1846–1847: Prelude to Hatred (1985)

Fairburn, W. A. Merchant Sail (1945)

Fogarty, C. Ireland 1845–1850: The Perfect Holocaust and Who Kept It ‘Perfect’ (2014)

Holfter, G., and Horst Dickel. An Irish Sanctuary: German-speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933–1945. De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2017.

Holfter, Gisela, and Horst Dickel. An Irish Sanctuary German-Speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933–1945. De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018.

Parliamentary Debates, vol. 104, March 29 to May 7, 1849, p. 103; and cited by numerous historians.

Hollett, David. Passage to the New World: Packet Ships and Irish Famine Emigrants, 1845–1851 (1995)

Kinealy, Christine. Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers. India, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.

King, Jason. “Montreal’s Grey Nuns, the Great Hunger Migration and the Miracle of Rose’s Marble” in Heroes of Ireland’s Great Hunger. eds. Christine Kinealy, Jason King and Gerard Moran. Hamden CT: Quinnipiac University Press, 2021.

Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland. Balrath Bury House. Website: (Nicholson)

Miller, Kerby A.. Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford Paperbacks). United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Measuring Worth,

National Archives of Ireland (; Census of Ireland, 1841–1871; 2011.

National Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Collection, Co Meath, Drumbaragh, Volume 0703 (1939)

Carolan, Michael. Patrick Henry (packet) 2020

Slater, compiler. (Royal) National Commercial Directory of Ireland (1846)

Steamships of Drogheda

Vane, W.L. The Durham Light Infantry (1914)

Whyte, Robert. The Ocean Plague, Or, a Voyage to Quebec in an Irish Emigrant Vessel. First published in 1848.

Holfter, G. and Horst, D. An Irish Sanctuary: German-speaking Refugees in Ireland 1933–1945 (2017)

Copyright: Michael Charles Carolan 2022.

Michael Carolan was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He is Professor of Practice in the Department of English at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was awarded the Crossroads Irish-American Writing Prize in 2011. He writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Springfield Republican, the Kansas City Star,, and New England Public Radio. He lives in western Massachusetts.



Michael Charles Carolan

A Midwesterner living in Western New England. Writing and publishing fiction and creative nonfiction. Husband, father, son, brother, teacher.