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Irish Emigrant Ship Sails into History - 2003-06-22

Ireland's economy is now among the strongest in the world, attracting more than 20,000 skilled workers annually to its high-tech companies. But more than 150 years ago, the opposite happened. Ireland experienced one of the worst famines in history, leading to an unprecedented exodus in the history of world migration, as millions of Irish fled to North America. To tell the story of the great famine and exodus, a recreation of one of Ireland's emigration ships is sailing along the Atlantic coast of North America and welcoming visitors on board.

The tall ship Jeanie Johnston stood out amid the pleasure boats, also docked on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. During its brief stay, the ship was open to visitors who explored the deck, and then ventured below. The dimly-lit cabin is filled with life-sized mannequins dressed as emigrants, and the sounds of their conversations.

Captain Michael Coleman explains why the 19th century Irish passengers left their homeland. "The potato crop, the staple food of the population, suffered a failure and was diseased three years in a row," he says. "It left the country in an appalling state. One million people died and two million took the immigrant ships across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, where there was hope, work and opportunity. Back in Ireland, the choice facing the population, for the people who could travel, was to emigrate or starve to death. That was the choice.

"There was no natural light, no ventilation. The hygiene and sanitation at the time was not what it is today. Showers didn't exist; water was rationed. The smell of humans living together after weeks and weeks in confinement I leave it to you to imagine. There was seasickness on board, it was leaking, there was smelly water on the bridge. It all contributed to the conditions here: pretty much a hell on earth. The consolation was that it only lasted seven weeks, and afterwards, there was a new life in America."

The recreated Jeanie Johnston ship has all the modern navigation gear, but is still mostly powered by the winds catching its sails, as in the original vessel. Captain Coleman says this allows the crew to learn about sailing. "We take all comers of course, and we've had American crews and that works very well. We have a core crew of ten professionals six paid and four volunteers. Then we take 30 trainee sailors. We train them how to sail a ship. If you look aloft you'll see the masts, over 100 feet high. And the masts are crossed with spires, and on them are square sails. They have to be worked not from the deck of the ship. You have to stand on the yards in all kinds of weather 365 days a year, in daylight and darkness, to work those sails," he says. "To go aloft in gales and storms takes a lot of courage and commitment. The youth of Ireland and the youth of America indeed have that in abundance."

Dave Nolan, an officer or "boatswain mate" on the ship, says he is enjoying his tour of the American coastal ports. "To tell you the truth I'm surprised at how warm and hospitable the people are over here. When we were in Savannah [Georgia], we were talking with a guy in a pub one evening," he says. "We were on 10 days leave and he invited us back in his house for a week in Atlanta. So we went with him and had a great time, really enjoyed it."

Another crew member of the Jeanie Johnston, Frida Bjorsell, a watch leader, says she wished she had more time at the port stops. "This is our fourth port of call and Washington city is quite impressive with all the buildings, the architecture. There are monuments in every nook and cranny you look at. We had a walk around last night and it was lovely. You could spend a good couple of days here, checking out the museums and stuff if we had the time," she says.

Brendan Dineen, an official with the company sponsoring the sailing ship, says the Jeanie Johnston even has a diplomatic mission. "The young people here this week were sent by an organization based in Derry, called Border Horizons. And it had 17 people in it: five were Unionists [Protestant], five were Nationalists [Republican Northern Ireland], and five were from the Republic of Ireland," he says. "They bring them together in groups to learn to respect each other and their [beliefs]."

Among the visitors during the ship's Washington stop was Sister Mary Turley, of the FLAX Trust in Belfast, an American-funded economic group for international development. She says she has been following the Jeanie Johnston's journey from her home in Ireland. "It's a terrific achievement to 'refurb' and put together the Jeanie Johnston again," she says. "And the whole reconciliation thing is tremendous. The International Fund for Ireland has done so much for peace in the whole of the island, Northern Ireland and the border counties. This is one aspect of the tremendous work they do bringing people together."

Among the American visitors to the tall ships was Washingtonian Michael Freeman. "My ancestors came over on a ship similar to this. I wanted to see what their passage might have been like," he says. "They sailed out of Cork. It's certainly cramped, but nothing like the slave ships if you've seen any of those drawings. They would have been much tighter, but it's still nothing you'd want to spend more than a month in. A weekend would do. To think of 200 people on this ship is hard to believe."

Mr. Freeman's son, Alex, thought about a distant relative who may have been aboard. "We think he was on a ship like this. We thought it'd be cool to see what it was like. I think it would be really hard, because there's little light and everyone seems to be sick," he says.

Although the Jeanie Johnston focuses on the Irish emigrant experience, captain Michael Coleman says virtually all Americans with immigrant ancestry can relate to the ship. "People didn't come just from Ireland. They came from the north in Norway, the south in Spain and Greece, and all over Europe on ships like this. Long before, when the slave trade was active in central Africa, the slaves came in ships not too different than this," he says. "Some say the slave ships had better conditions than those for the immigrants of northern Europe, because of the valuable 'commodity' the slaves were at that time."

Captain Michael Coleman, who leads the tall ship Jeanie Johnston, as it makes its way up the Atlantic Coast of North America explaining to visitors the Irish emigrant experience. In June, the ship stops in Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and other ports, before coming to New York City for July 4, Independence Day, and then on to Rhode Island, Boston, Massachusetts; and New Hampshire in late July and August. From there, the ship sails to Canada, and eventually back to its homeport of Kerry, Ireland, in October.