Irish Famine ship Jeanie Johnson will set sail again

Entire families fleeing the famine also made up much of the passenger load. One can only imagine what the parents must have felt on first entering the dimly lit, stench filled hold.

For many the voyage must have been misery indeed. As the Jeanie Johnston shows there was no separation of the sexes, no privacy at all in the cramped holds, and always the fear of disease and death stalking the passengers.

How they all came up with the fare of 3 pounds and 10 shillings, a huge sum for the time, will always remain a mystery.

They must have sold everything but the scraps of clothes on their backs. They were required to bring their own food, as well as their own cooking utensils, but many were unable to do so.

As the Jeanie Johnston shows, there was just one stove for all the passengers who could number as many as 250. Mealtime was dependent on when they reached the stove — it could be as early as six in the morning or 11 at night.

In bad weather many families went hungry and were reduced to eating raw flower and meal. The ship carried a pittance of food for passengers.
Regulations called for 2 1/2 pounds of bread or biscuits a week, one pound of flour, five pounds of oatmeal and 21 quarts of water for the entire ship.

Toilets, of course, were non existent. Buckets were shared beneath deck and the contents thrown overboard. Once can only imagine the stench and the disease that inevitably followed.

There is every indication that the owners of the Jeanie Johnston were actually compassionate men for their time.

A ship’s doctor, Richard Blennerhassett, seems like a remarkable man who saved numerous lives onboard the ship.

. A testament to his ability is that not a single passenger of the 2,500 the Jeanie Johnston carried died on board the ship. Ironically, the doctor himself would succumb to cholera on another ship at the young age of 36 in 1854.

The original ship was reconstructed, using modern safety features, by Fred M. Walker, chief naval architect at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich near London.

The ship had enormous problems, both financial and passing its sea trials.

Since it has arrived, however, it has become a major tourist attraction. On the day I visited hundreds of parents were showing their children around the ship and explaining to them about the Great Irish Famine. I cannot think of a greater gift to give a child, either in Ireland or America, than explaining the past in such a vivid way.

The story of the famine was buried, attempts made to forget about it many times since it occurred. Even for many of those who survived there was a sense of shame about what happened, and a refusal to face the consequences of the greatest population movement of the 19th century.

Today, however, as the Jeanie Johnston and the famine memorials all over the U.S. show, we are once again reclaiming that past, understanding it and passing our knowledge on to our children. The Jeanie Johnston will be a vital link in that chain.

We know why the famine tossed left Ireland and what they faced once they reached America’s shores. There are ample writing and historical tomes on the reasons behind emigration and the extraordinary ordeal the millions faced once they made it to the New World. Indeed Gangs of New York, the Martin Scorsese movie, is at heart a magnificent portrait of how the Irish overcame that extraordinary adversity and triumphed.

The Jeanie Johnston is a missing link we have all been waiting for, a treasure that illuminates one of the darkest chapters in any country’s history. We should be grateful it was built. Compared to green beer, tooraloora songs and 40 shades of green, it is as authentic a vision of old Ireland as exists."

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