A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the spring of 1847, in the midst of Ireland's Great Potato Famine, some 500 men, women, and children sailed from Liverpool to Quebec aboard the Virginius, one of hundreds of ships that carried immigrants to America. Many of the passengers had been forcibly evicted from villages near Strokestown on the estate of Denis Mahon, a Protestant landowner in County Roscommon and a major in Her Majesty's 9th Lancers. Thousands more would be forced to flee the country in ships dangerously overcrowded and short on food and water. Eyewitnesses told chilling tales of disease and starvation aboard such vessels, which were called "coffin ships." Following rumors that one such ship had sunk, Mahon was shot to death by an unknown assailant. One fanciful theory held that the killer had had a family member or loved one aboard the ship. Rumors of the vessel's demise, however, proved false. It is more likely Mahon was shot by one of his evicted tenants.
With students from Illinois State University, I began to investigate Gorttoose. Cottiers, the poorest of Irish farmers, have long been thought to have had no significant material culture. I wanted to see if that was so. Our initial excavations have focused on the homesite of a head tenant, who rented land from Mahon, lived on a small parcel of it, and sublet the rest to the cottiers. The results indicate that an abundant material culture was available in and around Gorttoose in the early nineteenth century. We have discovered that the people who lived at the site owned several kinds of decorated dishes, many varieties of bottles, and numerous metal tools. Their possessions can be expected to be more extensive than those of the cottiers, but what they owned does provide clues about tenant material culture in general.
Charles E. Orser, Jr. is a professor of anthropology at Illinois State University.