Corrections or additions?

This article by David McDonough was prepared for the June 25, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

What News Of The Jeanie Johnston

What news of the Jeanie Johnston?

And does she ride today?

Or does she stand immobile

In a corner of the bay?

Are they putting her together

With sealing-wax and gum?

She’s a grand new Irish lady

But will she ever come?

No. The Jeanie Johnston will not come to Trenton. She

did not come three years ago, and she will not come this year. Probably

not ever.

But for those who have been anxiously waiting the long-delayed appearance

of that replica of a 19th century Irish immigrant ship, there is good

news. She just completed a nine-day stay in Philadelphia, and she

is currently in Burlington City, her only New Jersey stop, through

this Wednesday, June 25. From there she will berth in Bristol, Pennsylvania,

from June 26 to June 30. After that, she sets sail for New York, where

she can be visited from Friday, July 4, to Sunday, July 13.

What is the Jeanie Johnston? And what has she got against Trenton?

Therein lies a tale.

To get the whole story, we have to go back to the mid-19th century.

The period from 1845 to 1848 is known in Ireland as "The Great

Hunger." The blighting and failure of the potato crop — Ireland’s

chief source of food and revenue — led to the death of an estimated

1 million people from starvation and disease. Another 2.6 million

Irish men and women fled the country between 1846 and 1850. The year

1847, or "Black 47" as it is remembered, was the height of

the famine. In 10 years, nearly 30 percent of the population was gone

from Ireland.

It was a calamity with implications that reached far beyond the years.

It is only in the last decade of economic prosperity that Ireland

has actually had more immigrants than emigrants. The anger directed

at the British government and English landlords, who either evicted

their tenants, or stood by and did nothing, has not yet abated. And

the Great Hunger is the primary reason that over 40 million Americans

claim Irish heritage.

For those who decided to leave, trouble was just beginning. The ships

that took the emigrants across the water to the west were never built

for passengers. They were, for the most part, cargo ships, small and

unsafe, owned by people who saw easy money in the misfortunes of others.

Passengers were housed in holds without toilets, food, or ventilation.

Between 400 and 1,000 bodies would be crammed into a space about 75-feet

long and 25-feet wide. This was for a voyage of anywhere from 50 days

to three months. Disease and malnutrition were rampant. Under such

conditions, death was a frequent visitor. In "The Story of the

Irish Race," Seumas MacManus writes, "Of a certain 90,000

only, of the emigrants to Canada in ’47, of which accurate record

was kept, it is recorded that 6,100 died on the voyage; 4,100 died

on arrival, 5,200 died in hospitals, and 1,900 soon died in the towns

to which they repaired."

The historian lists some of the ships: "The Larch, carrying 440

passengers, had 108 deaths; the Queen, carrying 493 passengers, had

137 deaths; the Avon, carrying 552 passengers, had 236 deaths, the

Virginius, carrying 476 passengers, had 267 deaths."

The records indicate that one unnamed ship carrying

600 emigrants had less than 100 survivors. This is the reason that

the vessels transporting the Irish to North America became known as

"coffin ships."

In the midst of all the death and suffering, however, one vessel stood

out as a paragon. Her name was the Jeanie Johnston. She was a square-sterned,

three-masted barque, made of oak and pine. She weighed 408 tons, and

she was built in Quebec in 1847 by a noted shipbuilder, John Munn.

A merchant in County Kerry, Ireland, purchased the ship a year later,

and on April 24, 1848, from Tralee on the west coast of Ireland, she

made her maiden voyage to Quebec, with 193 Irish men, women, and children

on board, all seeking a new life. They paid a fare of 3 pounds 10

shillings — about $4.50 or close to half a year’s wages for an

Irish laborer.

From 1848 to 1855, the ship made 16 voyages across the treacherous

Atlantic to Quebec, Baltimore, and New York. Over 2,500 people made

the trip in that time. And every one of them landed safely. The Jeanie

Johnston never lost a passenger — an almost-unheard of accomplishment

for that time and place.

In 1856 she was sold as a cargo ship to a British merchant. Two years

after that, on a voyage from Quebec to England, she become waterlogged

and began to sink. Nine days later, the Jeanie Johnston sank beneath

the waves. But she remained true to her reputation: all the crew survived,

rescued by a Dutch brig.

Just as they have never forgotten any of their great wrongs, the Irish

and Irish-Americans have never forgotten the heroic tale of the Jeanie

Johnston. When the 150th anniversary of her maiden voyage grew near,

the Jeanie Johnston Memorial Committee was formed to commission and

build a full-size replica that would sail the same path from Ireland

to America.

Now the Dail allowed three million

To see her strong and sound

The U.S. gave a trillion

And the Scots they gave a pound

Oh, they launched her out from Kerry

In a gentle morning rain

They hoped to sail to Derry

But she came back again.

Actually, the $6.5 million memorial project was funded

by a lot of different sources. The Irish government, the European

Union, the Canadian Department of Heritage, and many private sources

came across with pounds, dollars, and euros. In the United States,

the Ancient Order of Hibernians was one of the largest and most enthusiastic

of backers.

"We were asked to get involved four years ago," says Jim P’Simer,

a coordinator for the Trenton branch of the Hibernians. "We did

a lot of fund-raising. We got matching funds — some as great as

four times our amount. We ran a lot of beef-and-brews. People wrote

a lot of checks, some little, some large. We raised over $23,000.

With matching funds, we were responsible for a total of about $75,000."

Fred M. Walker, the Chief Naval Architect at the National Maritime

Museum in Greenwich, England, designed the replica ship. At Blennerville,

one mile west of Tralee, a shipyard was laid out for the sole purpose

of building the new Jeanie Johnston. In January, 1998, young people

from both the Republic of Ireland and the North worked under the supervision

of experienced shipwrights to build the 148-foot, 510-ton, three-masted

barque, with four-square sails, mast, and single topsails. The keel

and frames are made of Irish oak, the decks of Douglas fir, and the

planking is larch. Concessions to modern technology and modern safety

had to be made — communication equipment, steel bulkheads, and

concealed diesel engines. Master shipwright Michael O’Boyle from County

Donegal oversaw the shipyard work.

The project was designed to be completed in early 2000 and she was

to set sail from Tralee in the spring of that year to begin a 30-city

tour of the United States. Late June 2000 was her estimated landing

in Trenton, followed by her appearance in New York harbor during Operation

Sail on July 4, 2000.

O’Boyle’s men worked day and night,

Never stopping to get pissed

To make sure she would float aright

In that bloody Irish mist

But a touring troupe of Riverdance

Broke through the oak deck floor

I’m sorry, men, there’s every chance

We’ll have to start once more.

Well, that’s the song. But that’s not exactly what happened.

What did happen remains somewhat of a mystery. The new Jeanie Johnston

was, in fact, launched from her shipyard in May, 2000, complete with

a christening by the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. Yet she

never got much further from the slip when a maritime technical expert

reported that her systems, training, and other fit-outs were not ready.

That was only the tip of the iceberg. Costs had mysteriously escalated

to about $17 million, almost four times the original estimate. Accusations

of mismanagement and legal disputes ran rampant. Creditors stepped

in to halt the project and impound the ship. In summer 2001, it was

announced, amid massive resignations from the board of directors,

that the commemorative sail to North America had been abandoned altogether.

The Americans all wait in vain

Dressed in their Sunday best

On a rocky point in Portland, Maine

There’s a lookout in a nest

He doesn’t stop to eat or drink

For fear he’ll miss the sight

The crowd calls to him "Do you think

There’s any hope tonight?"

Since public funds were involved, Frank Fahey, Irish Minister

for the Marine, called for "a constructive review of the project."

In November, 2002, an investigation was instigated. In Trenton Jim

P’Simer summed up the American point of view: "I don’t know what

happened. All I know is in Ireland, a lot of good people were trying

to do a good thing."

Now Fahey cries for a nation

With tears and trembling lip

He launches an investigation

"Why can’t we launch a ship?"

The inquiry took a good long time

And went through several bureaus

They reported no deliberate crime

"Next time, we’ll pay in Euros."

It seemed that the project was dead in the water, with no hope

of reprieve.

In the harbor Jeanie sits and rolls

In her confining berth

Her great-granny took 200 souls

Half-way across the earth

She landed in Quebec and then

Went on down to New York

But we’ll be lucky to get 40 men

From Kerry round to Cork.

Still, you can never underestimate the Irish when they

are trying to get out of Ireland. In the summer, 2002, the Kerry Group,

an Irish food-processing conglomerate, offered to invest in the project.

With the inflow of cash raising the ship out of bankruptcy, the Jeanie

Johnston was at last ready to go. On February 16, 2003, with a crew

of 11, and 30 passengers who paid up to $10,540 each for their passage,

the proud namesake finally set sail from Tralee on the first leg of

the 5,500-nautical-mile journey.

"It was definitely a bit of mess, but happily the mess is behind

us now, and we have a superb vessel and a happy crew," Denis Reen,

chief executive of the Jeanie Johnston Company, told the Associated


"West Palm Beach Ho!" may not have been trembling on the lips

of the passengers on the original Jeanie Johnston. But the Florida

resort was welcome sight for the crew and ride-alongs of the replica

when she landed for the first time in America on April 15.

She spent 14 days there before moving on to Savannah, Georgia, Charleston,

South Carolina, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia,

and for the moment in Burlington City. Trenton was to have been the

next port of call, but circumstances will prevent it.

Jean Shaddow, division director of natural resources for the City

of Trenton, explains: "At one time, the marine terminal bulkhead

[note: north of Waterfront Park and south of Duck Island, first right

after the tunnel going south on Route 29] was where ships used to

dock. That hasn’t happened in a long time, so it has become a park.

The 80-year-old bulkhead is not stable. It’s wooden, and it’s rotting

away. We saw that the ground was beginning to subside here and there,

and thought that something was going on, so we hired some divers to

go down. There has been an engineer’s study going on for the last

year or year-and-a-half, and we actually have a grant from the NJDOT

to do some repair work, but that hasn’t happened yet."

Since Trenton was one of the stops on the aborted 2000 voyage of the

Jeanie Johnston, why wasn’t the study done then?

"That’s actually when we started to pay attention. We hadn’t had

any ships landing in so long, and the railings needed to be modified.

Certain work needed to be done to accommodate it, and as we started

to pay attention to what was going on down there, we thought, `Oh,

wow.’ Then the first trip was canceled, and it was then we realized

we probably needed to have an engineer look at it."

It’s a little discouraging for the Trenton Hibernians, who had big

plans for the Trenton stop, but they cheerfully arranged to sponsor

the Burlington City landing instead. The ship arrived on Monday, June

23, at the Riverfront Promenade on High Street.

The Jeanie Johnston will be open to the public from 10:30 a.m. to

6 p.m. this Wednesday, June 25. Admission is $7 for adults. In New

York, the ship will be open from July 4 to July 13 from 10:30 a.m.

to 6 p.m.

Once on board, you’ll be able to tour the ship’s "museum"

section, which recreates 19th-century life on board. There will also

be an exhibit on Ireland and the Great Hunger at the docking site.

Says Jim P’Simer: "We are going to try and make it festive but

the main purpose is educational — how people got here, and why

they came, that’s important."

And both voyages of the Jeanie Johnston have been educational for

everyone involved — in a lot of ways.

Oh, what news of the Jeanie Johnston?

And does she ride today?

Or does she stand immobile

In a corner of the bay?

Are they putting her together

With sealing-wax and gum?

She’s a grand new Irish lady

But will she ever come?

Well, yes, apparently she will. Just not to Trenton.

For more information on the ship and its schedule, go to

The lyrics for "What News of the Jeanie Johnston?"

are by David McDonough and David Schofield.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments