Ice immigrants from Warrenpoint to Canada 160 years ago

ship A ship similar to The Hannah which sailed from Warrenpoint to Canada in 1849

One hundred and sixty years ago a ship called 'The Hannah' left Warrenpoint for Canada.

Tonight on BBC One Northern Ireland, Ice Emigrants tells the incredible, true story of that voyage through the eyes of descendants from South Armagh and Ontario.

Here, producer Andrea McCartney shares some of the experiences of making the film.

"The year was 1849, around 180 emigrants, mostly young families from the Forkhill and Mullaghbawn area were on their way to join a community of Irish speakers who had settled in Ontario.

"Famine was rife in Ireland at the time and for many, this was their best chance of a future. This was also the era before ships were powered by steam and the risks were high: storms, sickness and cramped, unhygienic conditions all raised the stakes against survival.

"Just over a year ago BBC Northern Ireland commissioned Hardy Pictures NI and Gala Film, Canada, to tell the incredible true story of their voyage in The Hannah.

Descendants

"The filming would encompass a genealogical journey across two continents, a reunion between branches of a family separated 160 years ago and an emotional trip to the last resting place of The Hannah in the icy waters off the coast of Nova Scotia.

"The story begins in Mullaghbawn with Sharon Donnelly Carragher, her husband Padraig and two girls, four-year-old Rhiannon and two-year-old Blaithin.

"Sharon and Padraig live in the cottage which has been in Sharon's family for almost 200 years. Just a field away, however, stands another cottage. Broken windowed and doorless, you can feel the ghosts of families past populating the vacated rooms.

"'Ice Emigrants' is the story of Sharon's ancestors who stayed in Ireland and the Murphys who once lived in the derelict cottage next door.

"What drove them to leave their home and land in search of a new life?

Scramble

"Their descendants, Jane and Tom Murphy from Ontario, join Sharon and Padraig to uncover the past and the last dramatic hours of their voyage to Canada in the Hannah.

"To truly understand what their ancestors experienced, myself and the Canadian co-producers decided to take Sharon, Padraig and the Murphys out into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, as close as we could get to the co-ordinates of where the Hannah went down.

"But we had to move fast. 2010 was one of the worst years on record for ice. The reefs were receding rapidly.

"I flew out with Sharon and Padraig to Prince Edward Island, home to Anne of Green Gables, and accents easily recognizable as belonging to people of Irish and Scottish descent.

Padraig Carragher, Andrea McCartney and Sharon Donnelly-Carragher Ice Emigrants producer Andrea McCartney (right) Sharon Donnelly-Carragher with Padraig Carragher during filming for the documentary at Nova Scotia

"It took us seven hours to fly to Canada. It's hard to imagine the 1849 alternative: four to six weeks below deck with whole families crammed into one small bunk. And harder to still, to accept that the families who did take the risk were the lucky ones for back home in South Armagh, famine had struck particularly badly.

"As Kevin Murphy, local historian and author of the book 'The Hannah: A Famine Link' which inspired the documentary says: 'People were dying by the roadside.'

"Then it was time for the sea voyage to the ice floes of Nova Scotia. We set sail on St Patrick's day.

"Three hours into the voyage the ice appeared on the horizon: from the air it had looked like a jigsaw puzzle broken up by the silver waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence.

"From the prow of L'Etale 2, a boa more used to fishing for crab than carrying a film crew, it stretched across the horizon as far as the eye could see: an impregnable terrace of reefs sculpted by wind and sea into shapes which Sharon observed, were strangely human in form.

Perish

"As we came closer to the reefs the captain cut the engines. All we could hear was the eerie creak of the ice shifting and bumping against the hull. L'Etale 2 is a sturdy steel vessel, well able to withstand the conditions.

"As Jane Murphy said: 'the Hannah was a wooden ship. They didn't stand a chance.' All of us, film crew included, felt a cold unlike any other seep into us, as we stood on deck.

"As a documentary producer you hope that your contributors will engage with the story. For Sharon it was a question of empathy. As filming progressed she came to understand and articulate beautifully, as a young mother herself, the anguish of the harsh choices facing a mother in 1849.

"To starve at home with the family or to take young children on a treacherous journey into the unknown.

"And a treacherous journey it was. "The Hannah" foundered on the ice, their Captain saved himself and his crew but left his passengers to perish. The Murphys, along with the other passengers had to scramble over the side of the ship onto the very ice reef which had broken it in two.

"At the heart of the film is Sharon and Padraig's understanding of what happened next: a tale of heartbreak and loss, heroism and extreme cowardice and ultimately, a survival against extreme odds.

"As the film will tell, how some survived is an equally astounding tale. Late in the afternoon, we finally finished filming.

"The Captain started up the engine of L'Etale 2 and all of us were glad to be heading for shore. And as the ice receded, Sharon's observation still held true : the shapes outlined in the mist settling on the reefs really did seem like the figures of people left behind."

Ice Emigrants, BBC One Northern Ireland, tonight (Monday, February 21) at 10.35pm

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