London-Irish play about a coffin ship that sank

US President Joe Biden partly inspired the latest play from Irish Theatre and written by London-based Irish playwright John Dunne.

Joe Biden said of the conditions that his ancestors left Ireland in: “When my great grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was he going to live long enough for that ship to get as far as the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits were doing – they were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave but they had no choice.”

Joe Biden’s forebears were forced to abandon the counties of Mayo and Louth and seek a new life in America. The only means to escape to the Promised Land was via a coffin ship where the survival statistics were grim.

John Dunne told The Irish World: “The story came up really because of Joe Biden. His family left the same area a few years previous to the Hannah. Of course, the Joe Biden story is vey well known. That gave us an extra impetus.

“The idea was already there but I read some coverage about Joe Biden in The Irish World and I thought, ‘The story has got roots. It’s not just a nice little tale’.”

The Hannah Coffin Ship tells the true story of a coffin Ship which set off for the New World in 1849 with tragic results.

“The Hannah struck an iceberg and sank.

“There is drama within the show itself. There’s internal drama as well as external drama.

“There are internal conflicts: People leaving Ireland is the main one of course because, unlike now, they couldn’t get online and come back in an hour. Once they left Ireland, that really was it.

“That internal wrench was important and there are external conflicts as well.

“There’s the bigger conflict, the reason why people had to leave and Joe Biden quite clearly blames the Brits for what happened to his family.

“There’s the global, the internal and the personal all happening at the same time which is the interesting part of the play.”

Hannah was transporting Irish immigrants fleeing the famine from Warrenpoint and Newry to Quebec City when she sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Sunday 29 April 1849 resulting in, as well as can be ascertained, 49 deaths.
When they found that there was no hope of saving the ship, the captain ordered the ship’s carpenter to hammer shut the after hatch, trapping the passengers below, but another seaman wrenched it open.

Captain Shaw and his first and second officers then fled in the only lifeboat.

The play aims to examine the personal and tragic stories of those who were on the ill-fated vessel.

John said looking forward to welcoming a real life audience to the show: “It’s been a long time. Fifteen months is a long time for the theatre industry to be closed down and it is a great shame.

“It’s amazing having the cast back onstage. That’s a big deficit. We need to be under the stage lights and have people in front of us even though they are wearing masks.

“The show goes on.”

The Hannah Coffin Ship by John Dunne can be seen at the Bread & Roses Theatre, 68 Clapham Manor Road SW4 6DZ and closes Saturday 12 June.

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