The poem 1847 by Maura Dooley is set against the backdrop of the Irish Potato Famine which took place during 1846 â€“ 1850. The Potato Famine began with a blight of the potato crop that left acres of Irish farmland covered with black rot. Peasants who ate the rotten produce sickened and were plagued with cholera and typhus. Hundreds of Irish were made to emigrate to America and Britain. They were forced into ships where the ship-owners crowded the desperate Irish onto rickety vessels labeled â€œcoffin shipsâ€. These ships reached port only after losing a third of their passengers to disease and hunger.
Dooley, being of Irish descent, tries to recreate the bitter experience of the Irish historical experience of displacement and emigration. In the poem Dooley gives voice to a girl escaping from the Great Famine. The speaker describes the gamut of emotions she had to face being in a ship for days together. She begins by describing â€˜Maâ€™, whose â€˜face is blackâ€™. During the famine a disease called typhus had plagued the Irish, a disease whose outbreaks occur in areas where people live in unhygienic and unsanitary conditions, resulting in a macular eruption (dark spots on the skin) which spreads to the entire body. Therefore typhus could have resulted in the blackening of Maâ€™s face. Another reason for her blackened face could have been the growing hair, which was not looked after and grew long enough to cover her face making it appear black. As it is stated in Irish history, people were hoarded into the ships, and therefore were all cramped together. As a result of sitting in a cramped place, Maâ€™s hands did the work of paws, supporting her; thus it is stated that â€˜her hands are pawsâ€™. Hunger and starvation lead not only to weakness of the physical self but also weakness of the mind.