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Truth re Coffin ships?*
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The truth about coffin ships? (teacher notes)
Task 1     Task 2     Task 3     Task 4
Central theme
The central theme of the activity is to get students to think about widely held perceptions of the Famine, or in this case the flight across the Atlantic which was precipitated by the Famine. The traditional, popular view is that the starving migrants fled across the sea in appalling coffin ships.
Tasks 1 & 2: The memory of coffin ships/A view from on board a coffin ship

Tasks 1 and 2 are likely to reinforce this view. This is of course deliberate, in order to then make the comments in some of the better web sites and the patterns revealed in the data more of a revelation.

The key learning point is not that the traditional story is right or wrong, but that the story is complex, and popular memory is often selective.As a result, elements of the bigger story are sometimes left out of popular memory.

Task 1 is further supported by a PowerPoint file containing the two images. You could use this on a whiteboard and get students to observe points about the imagery of the monument.

Fact or fiction?
Task 2 is interesting in terms of the fact that diary is fictional.When it was first published this was somewhat unclear and caused confusion and controversy. Students might be interested in following up this little sideline in the story.

Here are two extracts which might generate interest. The information could also be used as part of the task of course.

Following the very successful publication of Famine Diary by Wolfhound Press in 1991, widespread interest in the subject has led some historians to question the existence of Gerald Keegan, and the authenticity of the original diary. However, I have no hesitation in standing over this fictionalised version as an accurate representation of the conditions and events of the period.
James J. Mangan FSC

During the printing of this edition, the controversy generated by the publication of Famine Diary readied a significant climax. Some critics questioned the authenticity of the Keegan diary on which it is based, alleging that the diary was a work of fiction written by Robert Sellar, who published the first printed version under the title Summer of Sorrow.

Consequent on this controversy, Radharc Films, who intended to use part of die original diary in their television series on the Irish famine, took steps to check authorship. With advice from the Gardai and help from AFrI, Radharc commissioned a study to check the allegation that the diary was written by Sellar. Dr Michael Famngdon studied the text of Keegan’s diary, and that of its introduction by Sellar, using modem analysis techniques of cumulative sum stylometry, which he has used in presenting evidence to the Central Criminal Court, Dublin and at the Old Bailey, London. His summary conclusions are clear:

1. In my opinion Robert Sellars is not the author of The Diary of Gerald Keegan.
2. The samples from the Diary of Gerald Keegan are, in my opinion the mixed utterance of two or more people. However, most of me sentences are by the same person, not Robert Sellars.


Task 3: Coffin ships on the web

Task 3 will probably need managing and adapting according to your class. You may feel happy enough to let them take a free search of the Internet. You may wish to confine certain students to one site or even one part of a site.

Extracts from two of the sites have been copied into Word files (A Watery Grave and The Worst Coffin Ships) to make the more accessible, both technologically (in case your connection is unavailable) and also in terms of the level of demand.

Clearly all need viewing in advance of use in class. In task 3 it is also important to discuss issues of tone and style, just as with task 2. This is not set out formally in the task, but it is a potentially valuable tool for stretching more able students or the issue of reliability could be discussed in a whole class format, perhaps feeding back on responses to task 3.

A final technical point for task 3 – sites such as these sometimes close down. You can usually find an archive copy of the site at Type the address you were looking for into the ‘Way Back’ machine and it should appear.


Task 4: How do we make our minds up?

The primary purpose of creating this data on ships arriving in Quebec in 1847 was to allow students to exercise their powers of analysis on a large, completely authentic, historical document. In its electronic form, opportunities open up to young people which were unavailable even to those who compiled the information in the first place. The various queries should all be relatively easy to perform using Excel’s search, sort and graphing functions. Remember that Excel will also perform calculations such as percentages, averages and totals.

The final three columns of the file are highlighted in yellow. This is because they did not appear in the original. They are calculations based on the data. You may want to remove these before showing the file to students and get them to create these columns. It should be stressed that the thought process about which calculations to make and searches to carry out are just as important as the actual results themselves.

The final stage of the task is an attempt to help students to summarise their learning. If you have access to voting handsets you could use these questions to ‘poll’ student views.