Implementing this idea was another matter. This was way before the other Famine ship, the Jeannie Johnson, was built, so there was no model on which to base his plan. But luck was on his side. A marine artist named Gary Fallon came forward with information about a ship called the Dunbrody. And David McBride, who had worked for the Graves Company, contributed boxes of the ship’s artifacts, including passenger lists, letters from the ship’s captain, and most important, the original bill of sale, which included the precise dimensions of the vessel. Thus, Naval architect Colin Mudie was able to build an exact replica.
Fáilte Ireland (the tourism development body) came through with a grant, and the ship was built and ready to launch in February, 2001. Jean Kennedy Smith (Ambassador to Ireland, 1993-98), who has family connections to New Ross, and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern officiated at the christening ceremony.
Once the Dunbrody was open and attracting a good number of visitors, the Trust returned to the idea of expanding into a fully fledged emigration center. “We were able to tell part of the story but we wanted to do more,” Sean explains.
“We wanted to honor Irish Americans who had succeeded in the U.S., and the connection with Irish America magazine came at a time when we were developing the project, and we were delighted to implement it,” he continued.
At this time too, Fáilte Ireland was looking at existing projects that were successful but needed funding for upgrading. Sean received the news that additional funding was available late in 2010. He now faced the challenge of getting the center built and ready for the high tourist season. “On November 6, 2010, the ship was moved to dry dock and construction began. We managed to get it finished and have our opening on July 8,” he explained.
The new Centre was an immediate success. The opening received wide media attention, and the following weeks brought many visitors, including two Hall of Fame honorees.
On July 29, Maureen O’Hara, who now lives in Glengarriff, Co. Cork, arrived at the Centre in style – in an open-topped car. Fans lined the quayside to greet her. She stopped to sign autographs and copies of her memoir Tis Herself and once inside, guests were treated to a lively repartee between herself and broadcaster George Hook. The star’s early days in Hollywood, her late husband pilot Charlie Blair (the love of her life), the Maureen O’Hara Foundation, the Maureen O’Hara classic film festival, and the annual Maureen O’Hara Legacy and Excellence Awards dinner, which will take place in Bantry on October 1, and honor John Wayne’s son Patrick, were all discussed. “He was a family man, a good Catholic,” Maureen said of her Quiet Man co-star. Director John Ford was difficult to work for, but “he was brilliant.”
It was Ford who had chosen the classic song of exile, “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” as the theme music for the movie, and in honor of Maureen, Gerard Farrelly, the son of late composer Dick Farrelly, was on hand to accompany Sinéad Stone in a haunting rendition, which moved the audience to tears.
Exiles and emigrants from this part of Ireland left an indelible mark on America, including John Barry who became the founder of the American Navy; James O’Neill, the actor and father of playwright Eugene O’Neill; and Patrick Kennedy who followed his sweetheart Bridget Murphy to Boston in 1849 and became the great-grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, who visited New Ross in June, 1963.
Another young man who left Wexford during Famine times was Michael Keough. The 20-year-old emigrated to America in the 1840s and settled in the prairies of northwest Iowa. It was on Michael’s farm that Donald Keough was born in 1926.
On September 15, Donald, whose career culminated in his being named president of Coca-Cola, made a private visit to the Dunbrody and the Irish America Hall of Fame. Fittingly, he was in Wexford to attend the opening of a new Coca-Cola bottling plant, which will bring much needed employment to the area.
“It is with great pleasure that we welcome Donald Keough to our visitor centre today as we dedicate the departure area of our exhibition to the memory and vision of Donald’s great-grandfather Michael Keough,” said Sean Reidy.
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York at the end of 2010, Donald paid homage to all those Irish who took their first brave steps into the unknown. “The real members of the Hall of Fame are the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who had the courage to come here,” he said.
His visit to the Dunbrody brought the family story full circle – from shore to shore.