Gerald Keegan's Summer of Sorrow, 1847 (Published 1895)


In 1847, Gerald Keegan crossed the Atlantic in from County Sligo, Ireland to Grosse Ile, Quebec, Canada, which at that time was still part of Great Britain. His diary of that journey, titled Summer of Sorrow, was published in Huntingdon, Quebec in 1895. In 1982, James J. Mangan wrote a fictionalized account based this diary called The Voyage of the Naparima, later republished in 1991 as Famine Diary: Journey to a New World.

Mangan's edition does not make the entire text of Keegan's diary available; however he does include a handful of excerpts from the original manuscript alongside his fictionalized version. A modern fictionalizes version of the ocean crossing is obviously of no use to us. On the other hand, the original 1895 edition, even if creatively embellished by the author, is still useful to scholars interested in eye witness accounts. The editorial choices Keegan makes in retelling his journey for a reading audience are perhaps as valuable as a historically accurate account.

More troublesome, however, is the fact that Wolfhound Press, which published Mangan's fictional account, notes that the authenticity of Keegan's diary has been called into question. Some scholarsbelieve the diary is the work of two or more writers, possibly Keegan and an editor.

Keegan's diary entries make for absorbing reading. The editor wishes to warn her readers, however, that their authenticity is still in dispute. With that caveat, I present these excerpts from the 1895 diary for whatever their worth.


(The diary begins in February, 1847, but no dates are given for these excerpts from the original text.)

With doubt thrown on the landlord's good faith, the poor people went on arguing among themselves until a majority decided to stand out and demand better terms. On hearing this, the agent sent word they must decide within a week. If they rejected the offer, it would be withdrawn and no new one would be submitted. My uncle had coem to get my advice, 'For sure,' he said, 'you are the only scholard in the family.' I comprehended the infamous nature of the offer. The people did not own the land, but they owned the improvements they had made on it, and had a right to be compensated for them. I knew my uncle when a boy had rented a piece of worthless bog and by the labor of himself, and afterward of his wife and children, had converted it into a profitable field. Should I advise him to give it up for a receipt for back rent a free passage to Canada? I tried to find out what he thought himself. Are you for accepting the offer, Uncle?

'That depends,' he answered. 'Give me a crop of spuds as we had in the ould times, an niver a step (Mangan, 23.)


One of our many tacks brought us close to me English coast. It was my first and likely to be my last view of that country. Aileen has made our cabin snug and convenient beyond belief. Her happy disposition causes her to make the best of everything.

19.-- The westerly breezes that kept us tacking in the channel gave place, during the night, to a strong east winds, before which the ship is bowling at a fine rate. Passing close to the shore we had a view of the coast from Ardmore to Cape Clear. Aileen sat with me all day, our eyes fixed on the land we loved. Knowing, as it swept past us, it was the last time we would ever gaze upon it, our hearts were too full for speech. Towards evening, the ship drew away from it, until the hills of Kerry became so faint that they could hardly be distinguished from the clouds that hovered over them. When I finally turned away from eyes from where I knew the dear old land was, my heart throbbed as it if would burst. Farewell, Erin.

22. -- Why do we exert ourselves so little to help one another, when it takes so little to please! Aileen coaxed the steward to let her have some discarded biscuit bags. These she is fashioning into a sort of gown to cover the nakedness of several girls who could not come on deck. The first she finished this afternoon, and no aristocratic miss could have been prouder of her first silk dress than was the poor child of the transformed canvas bag, which was her only garment.

23. -- This is Sunday. The only change in the routine of the ship that marks the day is that the sailors gave an extra wash down to the decks and after that they did not work except trim the sails. They spent the forenoon on the forecastle mending or washing their clothes. During the afternoon it grew cold with a strong wind from the north-east, accompanied by driving showers. Towards sunset the sea was a lather of foam, and the wind had increased to a gale. When the waves began to flood the deck, the order was given to put the hatches on. God help the poor souls shut in beneath my feet!

Another came, it caught in our cable, and before the swish of the current washed it clear, I caught a glimpse of a white face. I understood it all. The ship ahead of us had emigrants and they were throwing overboard their dead. Without telling Aileen, I grasped her arm, and drew her to our cabin.


Click here to read the end of Gerald Keegan's diary