On a blustery July day, I descend the narrow ladder into the depths of the Dunbrody, an exact replica of a three-masted sailing ship that ferried thousands of Irish people across the Atlantic to New York and Quebec during the Famine years.
I have often wondered what it would have been like to make that journey. Would I have had what it takes to survive the five-to-six-week passage? I know for sure that I wouldn’t have been much fun to travel with. I suffer acutely from motion sickness, so God help anyone who was sharing my berth.
I’m also a borderline claustrophobe. What strikes me as I stand at the bottom of the ladder surveying the lower deck, is how small the hold of the ship is. When you take away the crew’s quarters, the captain’s cabin, the cargo area, and the space for cabin passengers, you are left with the middle “steerage” section and it’s not that big.
Stacked bunks set up on both sides of this section measure six feet by six feet, which would be fine if it was for just one person. It wasn’t. An adult was allotted 18 inches of sleeping space, a child half of that. Whole families and their belongings were crowded into these bunks. There was no separation of men from women, single from married, and no privacy. A rudimentary toilet served the two first class cabins; the steerage passengers made do with a bucket. If the weather was good you were allowed on deck once a day for 30 minutes, if it was stormy, you were locked in below. Rations were meager; dry, hard bread was a staple.
I would have had to be pretty desperate to get on such a ship. Most of the passengers on the Dunbrody were. They were escaping starvation and evictions – they had little choice but to leave.
The Dunbrody, moored now in New Ross, Co. Wexford, the port from which she sailed, was designed to carry 187 passengers, but we know from records that when she arrived at the quarantine station on Grosse Ile, in July 1847, she had 317 passengers on board. Four had already died – two old people, a young girl, and an infant. Three people were detained in quarantine. We don’t know if they recovered or are buried with the other 4,000-5,000 Irish who lie in mass graves on the island.
The rest of the passengers continued on their way.
The Emigration History Centre
What the journey was like for these passengers, the scene on the quayside before they left, and their experiences on landing in the New World, are all stories explored in the new Emigration History Centre that has been built up around the Dunbrody. The archive of Graves & Sons, the shipping firm that built the original ship, is at the heart of the exhibition. Every passenger you hear or read about is based on a real person who made the journey. Actors in period costume bring you their stories, and audio and visuals help enhance the experience. Photographs from the 1800s – of logging camps in Canada and tenements of New York (the two ports of call for the Dunbrody were Quebec and New York) help us understand what life was like for the new immigrant.
The Irish America Hall of Fame, which was established by Irish America in 2010, occupies its own
section and honors those immigrants and their descendants who made significant contributions to America. On July 8, Michael Flatley, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, was guest of honor at the opening ceremony.
“To be here is a very humbling experience,” he said, addressing the 400 or so gathered. “Standing in this magnificent structure, I’m reminded of all the tears that were shed right on this very spot. How many mothers cried right here?” he wondered. His own mother who emigrated from this area looked on. “When people said goodbye here and landed in the New World, they weren’t always welcomed with open arms. It was a hostile new world and many were greeted with signs that read ‘No Irish need apply.’ They didn’t sit around crying, they didn’t go on the dole – they fought, they worked and many of them came back as heroes. And this is something this center allows us to celebrate and acknowledge. It’s very important that we recognize not only the difficult times but also celebrate our achievements as a race,” he said.
I spoke to Michael after he toured the ship with his wife, Niamh, and their son, Michael St. James. He was visibly moved. “This place is not just important now. It will be important a hundred years from now that this history is recorded,” he said.
Sean Reidy, the man behind the Dunbrody and the Emigration Centre, is also the CEO of the JFK Trust, which promotes development in this area of the southeast.
Back in 1991, the Trust was looking to build a heritage center in New Ross, and Sean had the idea of building a sailing ship that would reflect the maritime heritage and the emigration
history of the port.
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.