Irish Famine ship Jeanie Johnson will set sail again


The news that the Irish Famine ship the Jeanie Johnston will sail again brings back a flood of memories.

It will be made ready for the Tall Ships race in 2012 which stops in Ireland. It is currently a tourist attraction in Dublin harbor.

It sailed to America in 2003, a perfect replica of a ship of the same name which left Kerry on 16 trips to American during the Famine.

I went onboard the Jeanie Johnstone back in Dublin in 2003 before it left for America. The following are my impressions.

"You simply cannot board this ship without the ghosts of your past and ancestors becoming vividly alive. It is a humbling and emotional experience akin to walking around the hugely successful famine cottage recreation at the tip of Manhattan.

There were massive cost overruns on the creation of the Jeanie Johnston, and even government inquiries into exactly how it took so long and was so expensive to build. There were those who said it would never be finished, and even more who thought it shouldn’t be.

To many it became a white elephant, a great idea gone awry. They were gravely mistaken.

The Jeanie Johnston provides a missing link in the history of the millions of Irish coming to America. For the first time we Irish Americans can go on board a famine era ship and see, feel and hear the sounds of what that incredible voyage across the North Atlantic must have been like.

We are discovering the world of those who gave everything to come to America to begin the great trek which has now resulted in over 40 million of Irish descent in our land.

The Atlantic was known as the “bowl of tears” because of the number of famine wracked Irish who died on the trip and who never saw the Fresh Land, or Oilean Ur as they referred to it in Gaelic. Now you can see and understand what the seafarers faced when they boarded in their millions at Irish ports.

The original Jeanie Johnston made its maiden voyage on April 24, 1848, right at the height of the Famine. It made 16 voyages in all to North America and carried over 2,500 souls fleeing the famine.

The coffin ships took up to 40 days to reach their destinations in North America. It was a voyage for many similar to what African Americans faced aboard the slaving ships. African Americans came to America in chains, the Irish in coffin ships. No other ethnic groups can remotely compare with their experiences.

It is a humbling and dramatic experience to board the Jeanie Johnston, as I did this week in Dublin, and experience the wave of emotion that whips up in you when you encounter first hand what people faced.

Just a few hundred yards away from where the ship is docked, whether by accident or design, is the Dublin famine memorial, which depicts several painfully thin ghost like figures. One is carrying a sick child strapped across his back, another barely able to walk because of the hunger, making their way to a famine ship. You can see the masts of the Jeanie Johnston in the near distance and you can imagine from the depiction of these starving emigrants, just how awful an experience lay ahead of them.

Once on board the ship it is the steerage section, where they lay six four to a six-foot square bunk, with beds stacked on top of each other, which really hits home.

There is a record of a letter from a family who made it to America telling relatives who were coming over that they should try immediately to secure a top bunk when they boarded. The reasons were clear. Passengers were often violently seasick and if you were on the lower bunks you often suffered the consequences.

There are life-sized models of emigrants lying in the bunks. You see one family with the mother and father and two children lying between them crammed into the six-foot square space.

You see and hear the racking cough of a female emigrant, showing the first signs of cholera, as the ship’s doctor tries to tend to her. Mid 19th century medicine was no match, however, for such diseases which ran rampant through many ships.

The recreation of a family parting for the last time on the Quay in Tralee is also heart rending.

The full impact of what famine emigration meant hits home. Those on board would never return, dead or alive, unless they were incredibly lucky.

Parents, brothers, sisters, children were all saying goodbye to country kith and kin for the last time. They must have been very frightened.
Most were peasants who had grown up knowing nothing of the sea. Surprisingly, perhaps, the largest group was single women between 16 and 30 who were facing indescribably poverty and privations at home.