Friday 17 November 2017

Sail of the century

On a chilly, overcast morning in early March, the Jeanie Johnston, with her proud, high masts and string of lights along her deck, is a very pleasing sight. Surrounded on all sides by modern, glass-fronted office blocks, the old-fashioned ship looks gallant and defiant. She speaks of another time.

The ship, moored at Custom House Quay is a replica (and a good one) of the original Jeanie Johnston, built in Quebec in 1847. She was then bought by Tralee-based merchants, John Donovan & Sons, as a cargo vessel.


However, between 1848 and 1855, this 700-ton ship would bring many Irish emigrants, desperate to escape the Famine, to start a new life across the Atlantic.

Her maiden emigrant voyage was made from Blennerville, Co Kerry, on April 24, 1848, when she set off for Quebec with 193 passengers on board.

At this time, many ships were ferrying emigrants across the Atlantic to start their new lives in the great cities of North America, but what is remarkable about the Jeanie Johnston is that, in all her 16 voyages, no crew or passenger lives were ever lost on board. This can be attributed to one simple thing – she had a doctor present.

Dr Richard Blennerhassett was born in Dublin, grew up in England and studied in Edinburgh. He chose a life at sea and under his care on the Jeanie Johnston, no lives were lost. In fact, in 1848 a healthy baby boy was born to one Margaret Ryal and named Nicholas Johnston Ryal, after the ship's owner (Nicholas Donovan) and the ship itself.

Dr Blennerhasset contracted cholera and died at the age of 36.

The captain of the Jeanie Johnston, Captain James Attridge, who captained the ship during her years as an emigrant ship, was also known for his professionalism and humanitarian attitude.

So much so, that many emigrants who arrived safely in North America wrote letters to the Captain, thanking him for his care and attention during the voyage.

He ran a tight ship it appears. A notice says that there was no lighting of fires, spitting, gambling, alcoholic beverages, smoking, swearing, or naked flames and candles. Passengers were also encouraged to go up on deck to get fresh air and sunlight.

Today, you visit to get some idea of what it must have been like to be a frightened emigrant (often travelling alone) on a ship to a strange, faraway land.

The sign as you enter the boat says: This way for passage to North America. Back in the day, pretty much all of the area below deck would be given over to passenger and crew accommodation areas, now of course, much of the area is taken up with the engine.

The first thing that hits you is the low ceiling. Lights give a faintly orange glow to the rows of bunks that line each side of the room. There are four bodies to a bed and raggedy curtains are the only privacy afforded.

Down the centre of the room is a long wooden table for eating and socialising, but it's fair to say that that area would have been taken up with bunks, too. If you can imagine the ship being tossed around in a stormy Atlantic Ocean, it would have been absolutely terrifying.

Toilet facilities were non-existent – essentially buckets were filled and then thrown overboard.

Food was provided on the voyage – biscuit/bread, flour, oatmeal, tea/sugar, molasses – but passengers had to bring their own utensils. The trip took on average 47 days. It would have been incredibly claustrophobic.


Back on deck, the air felt fresh. The Jeanie Johnston hasn't sailed now for three years, but the aim is to get her back on the sea. These days, as well as giving people an insight into an emigrant ship, she can be hired for various functions.

According to tour guide, Paul McCarthy, the ship is a popular venue for all sorts of occasions.

"We have Christenings, barbecues, civil ceremonies, musical evenings, maritime lectures," he says. "People like it because it's so unusual."

This could just be the perfect place for my birthday.

The Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship and Famine Museum has daily guided tours, adult, €8.50; family (2 +2), €20. Check www.jeaniejohnston.ie for details

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