Review: The Jeanie Johnston Experience Replica of Irish emigrant ship provides insights into the woes of the Atlantic crossing

Review: The Jeanie Johnston Experience

Replica of Irish emigrant ship provides insights into the woes of the Atlantic crossing

By Gerry Regan
Producer/The Wild Geese Today

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Jeanie Johnston at her Manhattan berth, with the Statue of Liberty to its left and Ellis Island immigration center, today a museum and history center, on the horizon at the picture's right-center.

New York — July 3 — What struck me first about the Jeanie Johnston, as I spied it from the esplanade along Battery Park City, is the ship's small size, measuring 154 feet from stem to stern. And its well-scrubbed appearance, too, with fresh-looking black-paint covering its hull, and cheery, youngish crew in yachting gear.

This detailed, to-scale, replica of the ship that brought more than 2,500 emigrants from Kerry to North America during the Famine years looks better suited for a naval academy or a regatta than a tribute to the intrepid spirit of the Famine-era Irish emigrants. But looks are deceiving.

The original Jeanie Johnston was built in Quebec in 1847, and sold to Tralee, County Kerry-based merchant Nicholas Donovan as a cargo vessel. Its namesake never lost a soul, to either sickness, despair, or callousness, in 16 Atlantic crossings from 1848 to 1855. With each voyage averaging seven weeks, this is a remarkable record, especially in the era of the infamous "coffin ships" that typically plied the emigrants' route.

The three-masted barque, which reportedly cost nearly €14 million to create, does represent for masses of visitors both Ireland and the success of its emigrants, so its well-scrubbed appearance can be forgiven, even by a stickler for realism such as I. And the ship does contain a number of other inconsistencies—concessions to safety that combine traditional material and craftsmanship with features such as steel bulkheads, diesel engines, and electronic navigation systems.

Margaret Conway — sea sick or home sick?

I spent a little less than an hour on board the Jeanie Johnston, on the late afternoon of her arrival in Manhattan, far more than is needed to get a feel for the ship and its hardscrabble Famine-era passengers. I encountered a mere handful of fellow visitors as I lingered below deck, and they moved quickly through. I shifted back and forth, taking pictures, contemplating the human drama simulated below decks.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Margaret Conway, clearly ailing, as portrayed below deck.

After going down the 10 steps into the makeshift passenger quarters, one encounters "the passengers," an array drawn from the ship's 16 trans-Atlantic voyages, portrayed by authentically clothed, plaster-looking figures, animated by soundtracks specific to their stories.

"Margaret Conway" was the first I encountered, and a more-woeful soul you'd be hard-pressed to find. According to the ship's informative, two-page "Walk-Around Guide," Margaret, 15, sailed with her 12-year-old brother John, minus their parents, on the Jeanie Johnston in April 1851. The brochure ascribes her look to the "anxiety of the journey," but she simply appears dreadfully sea sick.

There are 10 identified personages portrayed in such manner in the lower deck, all helping create a vision of life on board during the ship's voyages. They include Ellen Mahony and children, Margaret Ryal and her newborn son, and 23-year-old Patrick Kearney, seen eating, if not exactly relishing, a plate full of food, anticipating, according to the guide, lean offerings to come.

Jeanie Johnston's
Ports of Call

The Jeanie Johnston will move to Port Jefferson, for the Long Island village's Irish Fair, July 14 through 17. Then she moves to Newport and Providence, Rhode Island; Boston; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; New Brunswick, Halifax, Miramichi, Montreal, Quebec City and St. John's, in Canada, before wrapping up October 20. See the Official Jeanie Johnston website for the complete, up-to-date schedule.

The passengers seen here, who all embarked in Kerry at Blennerville, were fleeing poverty in Kerry for uncertain futures. According to the guide, in 1847, "Black '47," the deadliest year of the Famine, about 50,000 emigrants perished en route to North America. All in all, the famine led to the deaths of about 1 million of Ireland's eight million people, and the emigration of another two million, according to figures generally found in reference books.

There are no windows in the walls, and but one or two hatches, so the quarters are close. There are 14 berths, each measuring 6-foot-by-6-foot to hold four individuals—a family perhaps, or single men or women, or even passengers of mixed gender, if conditions called for.

'Come on, Ma'am. Come on. Get up that phlegm.'

The berthed ship gently rolled, and the air grew exceedingly warm and humid, though it was a mild 75 degrees or so on deck. I began sweating profusely.

There was just me, and a dozen manikins, including four sharing one bed. If I was here with the 193 passengers in the ship's maiden voyage, the heat and human odors at night or during a storm, when all are presumably below deck, could clearly be oppressive, even in spring.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
An emigrant's view of sunlight from the hold of the spruced-up Jeanie Johnston.

Margaret Ryal, from Kerry, like many of her fellow passengers, nursed her infant, born aboard the ship. Blennerhassett, born in Dublin but who grew up in Dingle, an extraordinarily humane and proficient physician, tended to a woman with wan pallor laid out in a berth. I closed my eyes, and listened. In a sing-song Kerry accent, playing on a recorded loop, the doctor's voice is heard encouraging her: "Come on, Ma'am. Come on. Get up that phlegm. You have a touch of fever. I'll mix some fever powder for you."

You also hear children crying, and a woman or child's voice singing a melody of nonsense syllables, surely a comfort to any in earshot, then and today. Meanwhile, a crew member shouts that single men must take the berths aft, and a woman's comforting voice tells crying children "Whisht!" (Quiet in Irish!)

With the rising humidity and the cramped living and sleeping quarters, no more than 60 feet long and 26 feet wide, holding hundreds of passengers stuck below decks during stormy weather, I felt myself understanding, and feeling, the crucible that was the emigrant's lot.

As well, the Jeanie Johnston's current odyssey may well inspire a closer look at other, less-vaunted Famine-era emigration ports, which heretofore seems largely focused on Cork, Dublin, and Liverpool. Much of the historical data cited by the project was compiled by the project historian Helen O'Carroll, now curator of the Kerry County Museum, according to Brendan Dinneen, secretary of Tralee-based The Jeanie Johnston Company.

A woman's comforting voice tells crying children "Whisht!"

No decisions have been made about the future of Jeanie Johnston beyond 2003, Dinneen, replied via e-mail, "probably to be influenced by the outcome of the tour."

According to the project brochure, the Jeanie Johnston Project was funded by the Irish government, European Union, and donations from local and state municipalities in Ireland and private donors worldwide. An international team of young people, including both unionist and nationalist youth from Northern Ireland, and from the Republic, the United States, and Canada, built the replica.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Captain Attridge's caution to his passengers. He lost not a single one in 16 crossings.

Editor's Note: The Jeanie Johnston is berthed at North Cove Marina near Battery Park City, off Liberty St., on the west side of Lower Manhattan, through July 13. The fee for entering the ship is $7 for adults and $5 for children under 12. Visiting hours are from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in New York. While there, you can visit New York's Irish Hunger Memorial, at the corner of Vesey Street and North End Avenue in Battery Park City, between the Embassy Suites Hotel and the Hudson River. For more information on the ship and schedules of arrivals and departures during the rest of its North American tour, visit the ship's official website, atwww.JeanieJohnston.ie.

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Tags: Famine, Jeanie, Johnston, Review, Ship

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