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Bearing Witness: Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary (1847-1848)

The Bearing Witness: Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary (1847-1848) section features the remarkable, unpublished diary of Stephen De Vere. Stephen De Vere had travelled below deck in the steerage of a transatlantic vessel with Irish emigrants in 1847 to expose the harrowing conditions on board coffin ships; his letter to Thomas Frederick Elliot on 30 November, 1847 shocked British Parliamentarians into changing the “Passenger Acts” to improve conditions for emigrants at sea. But De Vere also kept detailed diaries during his voyage and visit to Canada and Ontario in 1847 and 1848 that provide rich descriptions of its natural landscapes, social customs and political contexts in which Irish emigrants started new lives. They have never been published and are made accessible through this exhibit for the first time.

Dr Jane Maxwell, Principal Curator, Manuscripts and Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, on Stephen De Vere’s Diary

Stephen De Vere’s Estate at Curragh Chase, County Limerick

Stephen De Vere (1812-1904) was one of the most influential eyewitnesses of the Irish Famine migration of 1847. He was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish Protestant family that owned a large estate at Curragh Chase, County Limerick.

Despite his wealth, De Vere felt closest to the Irish Catholic tenants on his estate, many of whom he sought to help escape from Ireland when it was stricken by the Great Hunger in 1847.

Stately grey building facade, boarded up windows, on hill in middle distance. Vegetation and bushes in foreground.
Stephen De Vere’s Estate House, Curragh Chase, County Limerick
Diagonal view of grey Celtic Cross on plinth. Trees in background.
De Vere family Celtic Cross on Curragh Chase Estate grounds.
Oil painting of landscape with trees and small lake in foreground, with side profile of a large two storey white house with windows and terrace with urns and sculptures on the right. Cloudy grey skies and rolling hills in background. J.H. Mulcahy 1834 signed in gold colour bottom right.
Jeremiah Hodges Mulcahy (1804-1899), A Landscape with Curragh Chase, County Limerick (1834). National Gallery of Ireland, Object Number NGI.1795.
Stephen De Vere resided at Curragh Chase and was twenty two years old when Mulcahy painted his home.

Sailing in the Steerage of a Coffin ship

In April of 1847, Stephen De Vere sailed with his former tenants across the Atlantic Ocean to help them start new lives in Canada. Although he could afford to stay in a cabin on board ship, he risked his life travelling below deck in the steerage class. He sought to bear witness to suffering of Irish emigrants at sea. De Vere personally escorted those who were at risk of starvation to help them resettle near London, Ontario. He hoped that he would inspire others to follow in his footsteps. His story is recorded in his remarkable red leather-bound diary that has been digitized in this exhibit. It provides a harrowing account of the hardships experienced by Irish emigrants during the trans-Atlantic crossing and after they arrived in Quebec and Ontario.

Stephen De Vere was a keen observer of his surroundings on board ship and on land. He kept detailed notes as he journeyed up the St Lawrence River to Quebec City and Montreal, and then on to Ontario by steam boat. De Vere travelled extensively throughout Ontario in 1847-1848, and then returned to Ireland. On 30 November, 1847, he wrote a letter while he was in Toronto to Thomas Frederick Elliot that described the horrific conditions Irish emigrants experienced on board “coffin ships” as well as steam boats on Lake Ontario. Although visual images of these “coffin ships” were circulated in publications such as the Illustrated London News, eyewitness written accounts of the conditions in the steerage were very rare.

Black and white wood engraving of two upper decks overcrowded with emigrants viewed in the stern of a trans-Atlantic vessel leaving port, with large crowd waving on dock and smokestack in the background.
The Departure, Illustrated London News (6 July 1850).
Black and white wood engraving of cramped conditions below deck in a ship, double rows of beds, passengers hunched over, clothing and belongings strewn about.
Emigration Vessel – Between Decks. Illustrated London News (May 10 1851).
“Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man”

De Vere’s letter had a profound impact on British parliamentarians after it was read aloud by the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, in House of Lords

and reproduced in the British Parliamentary Papers. It remains the most widely cited description of the Famine voyage:

In De Vere’s own words:

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How could it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people men, women, and children of all ages from the drivelling idiot of ninety to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease, by their agonized ravings disturbing those around them and predisposing them, through the effects of the imagination, to imbibe the contagion…

“Standing Like Pigs”
Irish Emigrants on Canadian Steamers

I have seen small, incommodious and ill-ventilated steamers arriving at the quay in Toronto, after a forty-eight hours passage from Montreal, freighted with fetid cargoes of 1,100 and 1,200 Government emigrants of all ages and sexes. The healthy who had just arrived from Europe, mixed with the half-recovered convalescents of the hospitals, unable, during that time, to lie down, almost to sit. In almost every boat were clearly marked cases of actual fever – in some were deaths – the dead and the living huddled together. Sometimes the crowds were stowed in open barges, and towed after the steamer, standing like pigs upon the deck of a Cork and Bristol packet. A poor woman died in the hospital here, in consequence of having been trodden down when weak and fainting in one of those barges. I have, myself, when accompanying the emigrant agent [Edward McElderry] on his visit to inspect the steamer on her arrival, seen him stagger back like one struck, when first meeting the current of fetid infection, exhaled from between her decks.

Stephen De Vere’s Famine Diary

Despite his influence, however, the fact that Stephen De Vere kept diaries during his voyage from Ireland to Canada in 1847-1848 remains little known. His story of the trans-Atlantic voyage and of his experiences in Ontario is recorded in his red leather-bound diary. It remains unpublished and is made publicly accessible for the first time in this exhibit.

In April 1847, he personally escorted his former tenants who were at risk of starvation to help them resettle near London, Ontario, in the hope that he would inspire others to follow in his footsteps. He travelled extensively in Canada West in 1847-1848 recording his impressions of Famine Irish emigrants, but then returned to Ireland.


Stephen De Vere, Sacred Feathers (Peter Jones), and Residential Schools

On 23 June, 1848, Stephen De Vere visited the Ojibwa Methodist preacher and chief Peter Jones, or Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), in “Munsee Town Indian village” in southwestern Ontario. De Vere records that he “dined with Revd. Peter Jones, Indian Chief, & Wesleyan missionary married to an English manufacturer’s daughter, who fell in love with him in London & followed him to America”. As chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit River, Peter Jones had contributed £12.10 “to the Irish and Scotch [Famine] Relief Fund” on behalf of the “Indian Tribes, Canada West” the previous year. De Vere describes Peter Jones as: “Highly educated. [He] has written volumes of hymns in Indian and English which he gave me. When in England lately he obtained subscriptions over £1000 for building a school for general and agricultural education of Indians.”

In fact, De Vere witnessed the foundation of the Canadian Indian Residential School system. He notes that “the Munsee & Chippewaya, have allocated 200 acres for the school, of which they have conveyed by deed the necessary enough for the building.” Peter Jones had moved to Munceytown in 1848 to oversee the construction of Mount Elgin residential school, after he was appointed its superintendant. Yet by the time De Vere visited him, Peter Jones had resigned his position. He did so because he fell ill and had discovered that the school would not be under native control. Indeed, De Vere records that Jones now “disapproves of the Govt. system of providing for Indians – makes them improvident and indolent”. Ultimately, he registers Peter Jones’s repudiation of the residential school system that he had initially helped to establish.

Black and white photograph of middle aged man with dark hair in partial profile facing away from camera viewed from the waist up, dressed in Native Canadian regalia and holding a peace pipe.
Photograph of Chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit River, Peter Jones, or Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers) taken in Scotland in 1845 three years before he met Stephen De Vere.
Black and white newspaper article under heading FURTHER SUBSCRIPTIONS TO THE JOINT RELIEF FUND
Record of indigenous peoples' donations “to the Irish and Scotch [Famine] Relief Fund” on behalf of the “Indian Tribes, Canada West” in the Montreal Transcript (23 April, 1847).
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Canadian Press Coverage of Stephen De Vere:
"A zealous and devoted man"

Ultimately, Stephen De Vere’s legacy was to help safeguard Irish emigrants at sea by bearing witness to their suffering. Although he was "a gentleman of fortune, and the proprietor of some estates in the south of Ireland", reported the British Canadian (20 May, 1848), De Vere joined his former tenants on the trans-Atlantic voyage:

determine[d] to try the experiment himself… He accordingly picked a dozen volunteers from among the numbers who would gladly have accompanied him, and with them took shipping for Quebec, in the steerage of one of the regular passenger ships. Landlord and tenants fared alike, the former taking careful notes of the events of the passage.
Two columns of newsprint under headline Emigration.
British Canadian, 20 May, 1848

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One paragraph newspaper article, headline Emigration, with Toronto and Church handwritten in top corners.
Undated Toronto Church article [c. 23 May, 1848] paying tribute to Stephen De Vere.

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Three paragraph newspaper article. Toronto Patriot May 23. 1848 handwritten above print text.
Toronto Patriot. 23 May, 1848.

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Before he returned to Ireland in 1848, he was praised in the Church newspaper as a "zealous and devoted man". "In Toronto he closely and frequently inspected the Hospital sheds, crowded as they were with contagious fever, and accompanied the Emigrant Agent [McElderry] in his visits to Steamers as they arrived with their loads of passengers, and to the Emigrants Sheds," reported the Toronto "Patriot" on 23 May, 1848.

Ultimately, Stephen De Vere was inspired by the Canadian caregivers of the Famine Irish such as Edward McElderry and Bishop Michael Power who are commemorated in Ireland Park and Dr. George Robert Grasett Park in Toronto. He worked alongside them in caring for stricken emigrants and attested to their sacrifice. De Vere’s unpublished diaries provide an invaluable record of the Irish Famine migration to Canada and resettlement in Ontario 1847-1848.

Stephen De Vere’s biographical essay

His unpublished diaries provide an invaluable record of the Irish Famine migration to Canada and resettlement in Ontario 1847-1848.

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Black and white image of older man’s face and shoulders, balding with white bushy beard. Caption in image reads: Sir Stephen De Vere, Elder Brother of the Poet.
Stephen De Vere Portrait in old age