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Retracing the history of a Sligo famine ship tragedy


The scene of the tragedy

The scene of the tragedy

The scene of the tragedy


County Sligo Famine Commemoration Committee will host a number of Canadians next week-end as part of a documentary tracing the story of Sligo emigrants who were abroad the ill-fated Carricks which sank in 1847 off the coast of Canada.

Amongst the visiting group will be Georges Kavanagh and his family are descendants of Patrick Kaveney and Sarah McDonald from Keash who along with their six children left Sligo along with 165 other famine emigrants on April 5th 1847. They travelled to Canada on the ill fated Carricks of White Haven which was wrecked in a storm as it approached the mouth of the St Lawrence river. Only 48 people survived, including Patrick Kaveney, his wife and their 12 year old son. Their five daughters perished in the tragedy.

Georges Kavanagh and his family are extremely excited to be coming 'home' to Sligo, to hear its music and visit its ancient places.

On Saturday, May 16th, they will visit the ancestral home in Keash and attend a music session at the Fox and Hounds pub owned by their cousin Pat Ward. On Sunday, May 17th, they will visit the port of Sligo from where the Carricks sailed and the old workhouse where thousands of famine victims lie buried in mass graves. They will also visit Mullaghmore to see the former estate of Lord Palmerston.

The Sligo visit is part of a documentary film project funded by the Quebec government and directed by Professor Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, an anthropologist at the School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

Georges Kavanagh's 'Teacht Abhaile,' or 'Rentrée' (Homecoming) is much more than a journey through family time. It is also a journey through cultural time. While most famine emigrants from the West of Ireland left home as Irish speakers in the 1840s and integrated into life in the New World as anglophones, the Irish-speaking Kaveneys left Sligo to become French-speaking farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers in Quebec's Gaspé peninsula-without ever learning English. Now, their direct descendant Georges Kavanagh is coming 'home' to see for himself what remains of the culture his ancestors brought with them to the New World. A retired civil servant, Kavanagh is an amateur historian and a gifted storyteller with an astute sense of the past. Now in his seventies and a forth-generation Quebecois of Irish origin, he has devoted over fifty years to preserving his family history-a story of diaspora that began in Sligo in April 1847, yet one that never found its way into official narratives of the famine tragedy.

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His great-great grandparents, Patrick Kaveney and Sarah McDonald and their six children (five daughters aged between two and ten, and a twelve-year-old son) left Sligo along with 165 other famine emigrants on April 5, 1847. Kaveney was a native of Cross, an Irish-speaking clachán near Ballymote on the border between Sligo and Roscommon.

Kaveney and his family left, possibly on the morning of April 4, along with 117 of his neighbours to walk the twenty miles to the bustling port of Sligo from where 65 ships carrying 13,000 famine emigrants would sail between April and October 1847. The Carricks made exceptional time crossing the Atlantic.

It left Sligo on April 5 and reached the mouth of the St. Lawrence on the night of April 28-29, just three weeks out of port. However, when it reached Cap-des-Rosiers tragedy struck. Caught in a storm caused by Labrador cold currents clashing with warm currents from the Gulf Stream, it was wrecked off the rocks and sunk in a matter of hours in darkness.

The small crew's inability to handle sail quickly, especially frozen sail, caused the ship to roll over before hitting the rocks. Of the 183 people who left Sligo, nine died while crossing the Atlantic. Of the remaining 174, only 48 survived the wreck. Patrick Kaveney, his wife Sarah, and his twelve-year-old son Martin survived.