Jeanie Sets Sail for New World

The Jeanie Johnston

By John Kernaghan, Contributor
April / May 2003

After many false starts, the Jeanie Johnston famine ship replica is on its way to the United States.

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If there is a symbol of the trials and tribulations of getting the Irish replica famine ship Jeanie Johnston to sea on its homage to history, Tom Kindre is the poster boy.

When Tom McCarthy, the captain of the ship, quizzed him on crewing across the Atlantic, the member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary revealed he was in his 70s.

“Not too high up in the 70s, I hope,” said the captain.

“I certainly hope not,” Kindre replied.

He was 79 at the time. He was 81 on February 16, when the Jeanie Johnston finally nudged out of Fenit Harbour, almost three years after her maiden voyage was scheduled.

The ship set out for Tenerife, with plans to cross the ocean for an anticipated April 17 arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Over those interminable delays, the New Jersey octogenarian wondered if his dream would ever be fulfilled. Just getting the square-rigged barque built was a massive undertaking.

Dogged by scores of setbacks, it looked to be as improbable a project as an 81-year-old making the crossing.

And just as it was a link to the past for Kindre, as his grandmother had left Cork in 1863 at age 16 to come to the United States, the Jeanie Johnston project is a massive gesture to the waves of Irish immigration brought on by the Famine of the mid-1800s.

“It is a symbol of the Irish Diaspora and Ireland’s contributions to America,” said Denis Breen, the CEO of the project, who joined in mid-December as the initiative was rescued from turbulent financial waters. “There are 29 crew aged 17 to 80 and they are from the United States, Ireland, north and south, and Canada.” Northern Ireland politician John Hume describes the project as “a powerful symbol of peace and reconciliation.”

With funding from the International Fund for Ireland, the initial stages of the project saw young people from unionist and nationalist communities in Belfast working alongside peers from Dublin and Tralee.

Tom Kindre presents a plaque from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to Jeanie’s captain, Tom McCarthy.

They took direction from shipwrights drafted from around the world to recreate the Jeanie Johnston, the ship that made 16 crossings carrying over 2,500 Irish immigrants and, remarkably, never lost a passenger.

The ship was built in Quebec in 1846 and carried its first human cargo on April 24, 1848 when 193 passengers fled the famine for Canada. During the famine years, some 3,000 voyages like this carried more than 650,000 Irish people to the United States and Canada.

It was unprecedented, horribly wrenching as families were pulled apart and a terrible human tragedy. In 1847 alone, according to research, it is estimated that 30 percent of the 100,000 who set off for Canadian ports on the “coffin ships” contracted typhus and two thirds of those died, either at sea or after arrival in Canada.

Getting the replica Jeanie Johnston built, seaworthy, fitted, and manned was a wholly different ordeal, but one which nearly floundered on a few occasions.

In an ongoing log that Kindre kept as he awaited his date to relive history, he noted that “few realize the problems involved in building a 19th-century ship in the 21st century.

“First, there’s the wood – just the right cuts of Austrian larch and Irish oak for the frames and planking. One shipment wasn’t the best, so it was rejected. That meant going back to the woods, searching for new trees and cutting.”

The raw materials were one thing, but the expertise to take it, shape it, and fashion a craft that would pass modern tests for seaworthiness was another set of difficulties.

A diligent crewman at work.

“There are only so many left in the world who know the old techniques,” wrote Kindre, “and they had to be sought out and induced to come to Ireland.”

These craftsmen then taught and supervised trainees from Ireland, Northern Ireland, the U.S., and Canada.

If the Atlantic was “the bowl of tears” for sick, disheartened, and dying passengers on many famine ships, the trials in dry-dock were the hardest passage for project organizers.

There were huge cost overruns and in some corners the Jeanie Johnston was dismissed as a moving and important concept gone terribly wrong.

But as CEO Breen stressed, it was a project too important to Irish history to be allowed to fail. He predicts it will be a major draw as it makes its way up the Eastern seaboard this spring and summer.

With some 40 million Americans of Irish descent related to this period of vast immigration, it is hard to believe otherwise.

Like pilgrimages to Ellis Island, a visit to this ship should be another rite of passage for Irish descendants.

The Jeanie Johnston will likely whip up emotions by evoking pictures of voyages that averaged 45 days with small rations of food, no bathroom facilities, and no privacy.

For the then princely sum of three pounds, ten shillings, half a year’s salary for a working man, passengers got to lie four to a six-foot square bunk, beds in two decks.

Word quickly made its way back across the Atlantic to relatives that they should hasten to make a claim to a top bunk for the crossing or suffer the seasickness of those who lay above them.

The Jeanie Johnston certainly offers no Disney-esque romanticism, just the grim reality of crossings in which up to 250 people shared one stove and rations (according to original ship’s records) were meted out in measures of 2.5 pounds of bread or biscuits, one pound of flour, five pounds of oatmeal, and 21 quarts of water for the entire ship each week.

Moreover, in turbulent seas, the stove could not be used and the flour and meal were often taken uncooked.

The ship, however, was remarkable in that it was served by a doctor, Richard Blennerhassett, who was so dedicated to his calling that no passenger on the Jeanie Johnston perished on its 16 crossings.

Sadly, he died of cholera contracted on another ship a few years later, at just 36.

With modern engines to power her in the absence of wind, and modern technology and medicine, the 2003 crew face no privations, merely the whimsy of the elements.

As bosun Tom Harding noted in a February 21 observation, “although we are now back in strong gales and huge seas there is no turning back. This ship is going to fulfill its planned destiny and to any doubters we can only wish you could hear our rigging sing, `U.S.A. we’re on our way, from an Ireland crone of age’.”

A close-up view of the Jeanie Johnston’s masts.

Captain Tom McCarthy, meantime, made an electronic ship’s log entry on February 25 which summed up the voyage’s status.

“At present we are in 39 / 47 north 14 / 20 w, about 250 miles West North West of Lisbon, steering SW and motoring, but strong west winds are due and hopefully we will be having a good sail south again before nightfall.

“The crew have now all found their sea legs and the desire to be in port has taken a back seat. They all do their eight-hour watches each day in addition to cleaning stations (the happy hour) when the ship is scrubbed from truck to keel. A clean ship is a happy ship.” Also, each day a rota works to give the cook a hand. Each day all hands attend a lecture given by one of the professional crew on different Maritime topics – discussions on seamanship navigation, etc.

“In the evenings reading, chatting, videos and a few beers are the main ways of taking it easy. The devil doesn’t tempt the idle mind onboard this Lady.”

Plans for stops in the United States begin with West Palm Beach from April 17 to 28, Savannah, Georgia from May 2 to 12, and Charleston, South Carolina May 15 to 19.

The ship will be open for visitors to experience what it would have been like aboard an Irish emigrant ship during famine time and there will also be sail training opportunities with the possibility of joining the ship between West Palm Beach and Savannah and between Savannah and Charleston.

Details will be available on the website https://jeaniejohnston.ie/www.jeaniejohnston.ie.

Future plans for the ship aren’t set yet, but it is expected to visit the Chesapeake area in May, the Delaware area in June and the New York and Boston area in July of 2003. It will then visit north of Boston and right up into Canada, home of the original Jeanie Johnston, during August and September.

It will return home to Ireland in October.  ♦

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