Picturing the glory days of the Jeanie Johnston

Initially planned as a multimillion euro tourist attraction in Kerry, the tall ship the Jeanie Johnston now lies permanently berthed in Dublin.

The chequered history of the replica famine ship is captured in a new book.

The ship has a resonance with a tragic time when hunger, disease and death stalked the land. It is sad, too, that this tall ship is no longer seaworthy.

Built in Blennerville, outside Tralee, and launched in 2000, the ship is modelled on the original Jeanie Johnston, which was constructed in Quebec in 1847. During the late 19th century, it made 16 voyages from Tralee, transporting over 2,500 emigrants to the US and Canada.

It has been described as one of the most visible icons of the Great Famine.

The vessel, now a permanent fixture on the Liffey, is the subject of a new book of photographs by Liverpool-born Michael English. He sailed on her in 2005.

Between 2002 and 2008, the ship sailed around Ireland, to Britain, France, Spain, the US and Canada.

The book will be valued for its superb images, in colour and monochrome, and also for written contributions from Helen O’Carroll, original researcher for the project, Fred Walker, the ship’s architect, and Michael Coleman, who captained her.

The vessel was purchased in late 1847 by the merchant O’Donovan family, in Tralee, who combined Victorian philanthropy with a keen business sense, according to Ms O’Carroll.

They were importing timber and buying a ship of their own made sense, sending emigrants on the outward journey and returning with a full cargo of timber, she writes.

“Bewildering and chaotic for people unused to ships and the sea, the embarkation process was just the first of many challenges in the journey across the Atlantic,” Ms O’Carroll notes.

The word “challenge” is also apt in relation to the modern Jeanie Johnston, which has been bedevilled by difficulties, not least a major over-run on the original cost estimate.

The project cost €14m and the ship was eventually sold to the Dublin Docklands Authority for €2.75m. Local authorities in Kerry put €4m into the ship and are still repaying loans.

The Jeanie Johnston is now a moored, floating museum at Dublin’s Custom House Quay.

* Jeanie Johnston — Sailing the Irish Famine Tall Ship by Michael English is published by The Collins Press, €29.99.

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