“Avoid Sailing on an Irish Famine Ship” is a newly published book based on the period during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s. It is part of “The Danger Zone” series of historical fact books. What’s different about this book on the famine is its treatment of the subject. Very often teaching about the Irish famine can be a bit boring for the pupils, however much the teacher tries to liven up the subject. However, this book tells the story of the famine in a simple, colourful and yet apparently historically accurate way. While you may think that the book title and cover illustration minimises the true significance of the famine to Ireland, nevertheless the book does treat the theme well and is very suitable for pupils in the middle and senior classes in the primary school.

In terms of content the book is well laid out and follows a logical sequence of events. The reader is told that you are Brian Walsh, living in the West of Ireland in the 1840’s and the story of your life during the famine period is re-created. All the important events of the famine are included in the book: the reliance on the potato for food; the absentee landlord system; the workhouse; the potato blight; the famine ships; famine fever; coffin ships; arrival in the new world. The book is full of colourful illustrations, some of them almost comic book style. Yet these do not diminish the story being told. Instead, I feel that they may serve to make the theme of the famine more accessible to primary school aged children. Each chapter is given a double page in the book. The chapter tells the story of how you, Brian Walsh, are affected by the events of the famine as they are happening. Each chapter also has a “Handy Hint” box with tips for Brian as to how he might survive the events in the chapter. A glossary is included at the back of the book explaining some of the terms used in the book. An index is also included.

At only 32 pages long, the book is quite short, nevertheless I still found myself learning things about the famine that I didn’t know: eg. People on famine ships were allowed to cook food on deck using wooden boxes lined with bricks. Such fires claimed many lives; Some famine ships sailed to Canada instead of New York as it was cheaper; During the five famine years 50 ships sank as a result of hitting icebergs. Pupils will be interested in the fact that in one workhouse 150 boys had to share 24 beds!

The book is written by Jim Pipe, who lives in Dublin, and illustrated by David Antram. For a book that is about the Irish famine, it is ironic that it is published in Great Britain and printed and bound in China! Other titles in the series are: “Avoid Sailing in the Spanish Armada”; “Avoid Exploring with Captain Cook”; “Avoid Sailing with Francis Drake”; “Avoid Sailing on the Titanic”; “Avoid Becoming a Pirate’s Prisoner”; “Avoid Sailing on a 19th Century Whaling Ship”.

The ISBN of the softcover version of the book is 978-1-905638-78-9. I bought my copy from Dubray books for €9.00. I’m sure it’s available in most bookshops and it’s well worth having in your classroom if you are thinking of teaching about the famine.