Hibernia: A Ship Apart –
The Jeanie Johnston

The Jeanie Johnston under construction.

By Edward T. O'Donnell, Contributor
August / September 2000

It’s human nature to look for inspiring stories in larger narratives of suffering and tragedy, whether it’s the one about the band aboard the Titanic playing to the bitter end or the story of Oskar Schindler scheming to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

And so it is with the ship Jeanie Johnston, the latest in a series of projects to commemorate Ireland’s darkest hour, the Great Famine.

The Jeanie Johnston is a life-size replica of a ship used to bring Famine emigrants to America. It was constructed in Blennerville near Tralee, County Kerry, at a cost of $10 million (donated by the Irish Government, the European Union, the Elan Corporation and individual donors in Ireland, the United States, and Canada). When completed, the 150-foot ship is both a working sailing vessel and floating museum.

Construction of the Jeanie Johnston was a cross-border effort employing youth from Ireland North and South.

The original Jeanie Johnston was built in Quebec in 1847, the worst year of the Famine. It was purchased by a wealthy Tralee (County Kerry) merchant named Nicholas Donovan. Originally he intended the triple-masted ship to carry wood and other cargo, but quickly converted it to transport cargoes of up to 220 souls. For the next 10 years (1848-1858) the Jeanie Johnston made regular runs from Tralee (an area that eventually lost half its population during the Famine) to ports in America and Canada. It carried passengers on the voyage out and returned with timber and other goods. On at least one occasion, the ship returned with Famine relief supplies. In the winter of 1848, at the height of the Famine, the Jeanie Johnston arrived in Tralee bearing tons of Indian corn, flour, yellow meal, and wheat seed.

The ship’s greatest distinction is that it never lost a passenger or crewmember – either to disease or accident at sea – during its many voyages between 1848 and 1858.

Sadly, most Famine-era ships did not fare as well. Indeed, many of the vessels that carried Irish Famine refugees to the Americas were simply known as “coffin ships.” During the Famine’s worst year – Black ’47 – approximately 20,000 out of 100,000 emigrants perished at sea. Most were carried away by the diseases that ran freely in the reeking holds of the ships. Dr. J. Custis, a physician who traveled aboard six famine ships, wrote that although he had witnessed the devastation of the famine in the workhouses of Ireland, “it was not half so shocking as what I subsequently witnessed onboard the very first emigrant ship I ever sailed on.” As one priest observed, “it would be better to spend one’s entire life in a hospital than to spend just a few hours in the hold of one of these vessels.”

Even if they survived the perilous 25-50 day voyage to North America, thousands of Irish famine refugees perished in port hospitals and quarantine stations. The most notorious of the latter was Grosse Île, a quarantine station and makeshift hospital on an island in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec. Beginning in the spring of 1847, thousands of sick and weakened famine immigrants began to arrive and by year’s end more than 17,000 of them lay buried in mass graves.

Disease was not the only threat to human life aboard the coffin ships. Many Irish immigrants died in the more than 60 shipwrecks which occurred during the Famine years. The Exmouth, for example, foundered in 1847 just off the coast of Scotland, taking with it all but three of its 251 passengers. A few months later, the St. John fared only slightly better, losing at least 99 passengers when it smashed on the rocks near Cohasset, Massachusetts. Hundreds came to see the wreck, including Henry David Thoreau. “I sought many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised,” he wrote, “and one livid, swollen, and mangled body of a drowned girl – who probably had intended to go out to [domestic] service in some American family.”

On top of disease and disaster, immigrants faced still a third threat: abuse and mistreatment by callous crewmen. This took many forms, from overcrowding to violence, and occurred mainly on the shorter trips from Ireland to England. The worst incident occurred aboard the steamer Londonderry in the winter of 1848. Loaded with cargo and 174 immigrant passengers, the ship encountered a storm just off the coast of Donegal. While most of the passengers were expected to make the journey on deck, the captain ordered them herded into one of the ship’s three cabins. The next morning brought to light a horrifying scene: 31 women, 23 men, and 18 children had been crushed or suffocated to death. The jury that found the captain and crew guilty of manslaughter noted that the cattle aboard the ship had received far more humane treatment than the people.

Experiences such as these serve to emphasize the extraordinary record of the Jeanie Johnston.

Surely one of the reasons the ship boasted such a remarkable record was due to the owner’s decision, rare among the hastily convened ships that transported the thousands to the Americas, to keep a full-time physician on board. Dr. Richard Blennerhassett, son of a prominent Tralee doctor and a recent graduate from Edinburgh University, accompanied the Jeanie Johnston on its maiden voyage in April 1848. On that occasion he not only faced the challenge of protecting the lives of the passengers, but of bringing a new one into the world. He delivered a baby boy to Daniel and Margaret Ryal of Tralee. The couple promptly named him Nicholas Johnston Ryal – after the ship and its owner. Tragically, Dr. Blennerhassett later died of cholera while serving on a different ship. Evidence also suggests that the Jeanie Johnston‘s success was attributable to its experienced and humane captain, James Attridge of Cork.

Jeanie Johnston on her way.

The Jeanie Johnston met its doom at a surprisingly early age. In 1858, only 10 years after its maiden voyage, the timber-laden ship sank. In keeping with its unblemished record, its crew of 17 was rescued by a passing ship.

The Jeanie Johnston replica is slated to cross the Atlantic and begin a 20-city tour of America and Canada sometime this summer. When it does arrive it will surely draw large crowds, especially of Irish Americans. They’ll be drawn to the Jeanie Johnston both as a piece of Irish heritage and as a symbol of life in a larger story of immeasurable loss. ♦

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