Irish Republican News · November 11, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: The Jeanie Johnston - a potted history
The Jeanie Johnston - a potted history
A replica famine ship commemorating the plight of Irish emigrants has returning to Kerry after a ten-month journey to North America.

The Jeanie Johnston, which has sailed more than 12,000 miles since leaving County Kerry last February, has received tens of thousands of visitors in more than 20 American ports.

The following is a brief history of the ship and the times in which it sailed. ----- EXTENDED BODY:

The remarkable story of the Jeanie Johnston is set against the backdrop of life in Ireland in the 1800s and, particularly, the devastation of the Great Famine or Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor in Irish).

The population of Ireland grew enormously in the early 19th century, at a rate unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. In just 21 years (1800-1821), it rose from 5 to 7 million, and reached 8.5 million in 1845.

Most people lived in rural areas. Dublin, the capital city, for example, had less than 3% of the population in 1845. Consequently the economic system centred on agriculture, with very little industrialisation.

Landlords, a tiny minority of the population, owned and rented the land. Those who worked the land were mostly either agricultural labourers (who rented usually less than an acre of manured ground to grow a single crop of potatoes under what became known as the `conacre' system), cottier tenants (less than five acres), or small tenant farmers (less than 20 acres).

The potato was the staple diet of the majority, particularly the poorer land users who contributed most to population growth. It was a cheap and nutritional source of food; for over three million people, all they had was the potato, with milk or buttermilk.

Potato blight: trail of devastation and death

In 1843, a new fungus disease, phytophthora infestans, was observed on the east coast of the United States and, by the summer of 1845, it had spread to Europe. In September 1845, it struck up to half the potato crop in Ireland, reducing it to a state of rottenness. This blight was to leave a trail of devastation and death throughout the land in the years that followed.

The Irish potato crop failure of 1846 was unprecedented in the history of modern Europe and the hard winter of 1846/47 took a terrible toll on the population.

Starvation, malnutrition and diseases such as typhus, relapsing or yellow fever, jaundice, scurvy and dysentery became widespread. Epidemic conditions were created in the workhouses designed to cater for the poor, which were completely overcrowded. Many impoverished tenants were evicted from their homes by landlords.

The initial response of Sir Robert Peel's Tory government in 1845 was effective in providing food for the hungry. A change of government in 1846 brought the Whigs to power and they were against any interference with market forces. The government's rigid adherence to the concept of free trade ultimately led to a lack of political will to do more for the starving masses in Ireland. As one of the richest nations in the world at the time, the measures taken by the government to alleviate the disaster were inadequate and ineffective, and in many cases increased the suffering and desperation of the people.

While the worst of the Famine was over by 1850, its effects were devastating. It is estimated that over one million died and another million or more emigrated. Irish communities at home and abroad were deeply scarred for generations.

Exodus from Ireland - to a New World

Faced with the spectre of disease, starvation, eviction and death, many people were forced to leave their native shore.

The desolation and misery that swept Ireland in the wake of the Famine led to a dramatic upsurge in emigration, particularly to the `New World' of North America but also to countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Faced with the spectre of disease, starvation, eviction and death, many people were forced to leave their native shore and, as the only means of doing so was by sea, many ships like the Jeanie Johnston were pressed into service to take them to their destination.

Emigration had, of course, been a feature of Irish life well before the Famine but the decision to leave then was, generally, a considered one. Now, the country's tragic circumstances forced an estimated two million people to flee and seek a new beginning during the period, 1845-1855. This represented a quarter of the total population -- an unprecedented mass exodus in the history of international migration.

The majority of those leaving Ireland in the wake of the Famine looked to North America as the land of hope. That continent's expanding industrial economy was an important factor in this decision.

Another contributory factor was the high level of pre-paid passages. Many emigrants who had arrived in the US or Canada sent money home for the fares to other family members. The impact of `chain emigration' can be gauged from the fact that approximately one million pounds was sent back in small amounts to Ireland in 1850 alone. Some commentators claim that up to 75% of emigration in 1848, for instance, was paid for by money from America.

The Famine greatly influenced Irish emigration trends. Whereas males dominated early 19th century departures, family groups were most common from 1845 to 1850. In the years that followed, the emigrant was more likely to be single and travelling alone -- usually the young and unskilled sons and daughters of farmers and labourers.

Emigration affected every strand of society

While it is accepted that the poorer cottiers and labourers, and their families, figured most prominently in post-Famine emigration, those that left were drawn from almost every social class and practically every household.

There were limited examples of `assisted emigration'. Small numbers of the poor in workhouses and orphaned children were given assistance to leave by the Government under the Poor Law system. Some landlords also provided money for assisted emigration schemes. In most cases, this was a financial move on their part to clear their estates of unprofitable tenants, who were given a choice of eviction or emigration.

The mass migration of the Irish in the 1840s marks the first great movement of people from Europe to the United States in the 19th century. Together with the Germans, the Irish made up over 70% of total immigration to the US between 1841 and 1860.

From the 1880s, however, many left Italy, Greece, Poland and other southern and eastern European countries for the ?'ew world'. The Irish exodus differed significantly in one respect from the rest of Europe: single women contributed heavily to Irish emigration numbers while, in contrast, women were not encouraged to emigrate alone elsewhere.

An incredible history

The story of the Jeanie Johnston is the story of one of the most momentous periods in Irish history -- the era of the Great Famine that swept the country in the middle of the 19th century.

It is also a tale of great humanity, remarkable courage and pioneering spirit on the part of Irish people fleeing the dreaded famine, which decimated the population of Ireland in a few short years.

It can be truly said that the Jeanie Johnston -- and the many similar emigrant ships of the 19th century which it eloquently represents -- paved the way for Irish people to play a leading and distinguished role all over the world in the intervening years.

Stark choice -- emigrate or starve

When disease hit the potato crop -- the staple diet of the Irish people -- during consecutive seasons from 1845 to 1848, disaster struck. Every family in the country was touched in one way or another.

For many people, it came down to a stark choice between risking the fearful transatlantic voyage on an emigrant ship or remaining in Ireland to starve.

This is where the famed Jeanie Johnston entered the picture to dramatic effect. A square-sterned, three-masted barque, constructed of Quebec oak and pine, the 408 tonne ship was built in Quebec, Canada by noted Scottish-born shipbuilder, John Munn in 1847.

A year later, the prominent Tralee, Co. Kerry hardware merchant, Nicholas Donovan, purchased the ship in Liverpool and originally intended to use it on the North Atlantic route as a cargo vessel.

New beginning for over 2,500 people

The dire circumstances of the starving Irish soon altered his plans and the ship made its maiden voyage to Quebec on April 24, 1848, with 193 emigrants on board who were searching for a new life as the effects of the Famine ravaged the land.

Over the next seven years, the sturdy wooden sailing vessel made 16 heroic voyages in all to North America, sailing to Quebec, Baltimore and New York. From 1848 -- 1855, the ship carried over 2,500 Irish people across the Atlantic on the first step in a brave new adventure.

In the process, the Jeanie Johnston accomplished a remarkable feat. Under the direction of its kind-hearted owner, Nicholas Donovan, its caring captain, Captain James Attridge and a highly experienced resident medical doctor, Dr. Richard Blennerhassett, no lives were lost on board.

Few comforts on hazardous journey

The Jeanie Johnston boasted just a single main deck and a poop deck, housing its travellers in very cramped bunks. It offered few comforts on the hazardous journey, which usually lasted about two months, but it was also far removed from the infamous `coffin ships' most notably associated with the thousands of emigrants who perished on the transatlantic voyages in 1847.

The emigrants on the Jeanie Johnston were berthed below deck in the steerage area, where temporary accommodation was rigged up for them, and they were expected to provide their own bedding. They were pressed tightly together in tiny spaces ? four to a six foot-square bunk, with two children counting as one adult! It is difficult to visualise that, on one trip, the stalwart ship carried a total of 254 passengers.

Can?t you imagine the turmoil and confusion as frightened people, who perhaps had walked for miles from neighbouring counties beforehand to catch the emigrant ship at Tralee, were thrown together in strange surroundings on the high seas ? with very poor lighting and ventilation -- to face a highly uncertain future?

On the way, they would experience many variations in weather ? sailings were usually in April (when it was cooler) and in the warmer August when the ship, however, may have been caught up in a hurricane.

While families were kept together, where possible, and separate bunks were generally arranged for single men and women, the laws of the time did not even stipulate the segregation of the sexes.

The makeshift quarters used by the emigrants were removed when the emigrants disembarked in North America, enabling the ship to perform its secondary role of transporting vital supplies of food and timber back to Ireland on its return journey.

Who were these brave Irish people who paid the fare of #3.10 shillings to make the heroic journey to the ?New World?? Although the passenger lists to Quebec remain undiscovered, a complete list for the voyage to Baltimore offers some clues to the profile of those on board the voyages. Farmers and labourers figure prominently, and many were family groups. The largest group, however, were single women, the majority between the ages of 16 and 30.

Unusual passenger!

One unexpected passenger joined the Jeanie Johnston in 1848. The story of how a baby boy was born on board the day before the ship's maiden voyage began from Tralee perhaps encapsulates the emigrant vessel's heartening story generally. To mark the unusual surroundings of his birth, which was assisted by Dr. Blennerhassett, the parents -- Daniel and Margaret Ryal from Tralee -- named the child after both the ship's owner and the ship. Consequently Nicholas Johnston Ryal was proudly added to the passenger list!

For many Irish people in the mid-19th century, it was a stark choice between risking the fearful transatlantic voyage on an emigrant ship or remaining in Ireland to starve.

Limited provisions The passengers on board had to make do with very limited food provisions during their treacherous journey. They were expected to bring some food on board with them ? that's if they could afford it, of course -- and this was not likely to last too long into the voyage, with the sweltering heat and crowded conditions.

All were also required to provide their own cooking utensils and to cook for themselves. This meant queuing up for a turn on the only stove which was located on the main deck. The main meal of the day could be at six o?clock in the morning or six at night. If the weather was bad, or there was overcrowding, the family would go hungry that day or be reduced to eating raw flour or meal.

An indication of the meagre provisions received by the emigrants on board can be gauged from the shipping legislation of the time, which calculated the following amounts should be given on a weekly basis to passengers: 21 quarts water; 21/2lbs bread or biscuit; 1lb flour; 5lbs oatmeal; 2lbs rice; 2ozs tea, 1/2lb sugar and 1/2lb molasses.

Toilets were practically non-existent on mid-19th century emigrant ships like the Jeanie Johnston. If they were lucky to have them, people resorted to chamber pots or, more often, shared buckets below deck, which they had to then empty overboard up on deck! The stench from these buckets and from the seasick poor souls can only be imagined.

A well run ship with an enviable record

Despite these extremely cramped and primitive conditions by today's standards, the Jeanie Johnston was a well run and humanely operated ship which cared as best it could, in most difficult circumstances, for the fleeing emigrants.

Its enviable record (in the context of 19th century transatlantic voyages) of not having lost a single life to either disease or illness at sea was largely due to the great efforts of Dr. Richard Blennerhassett, supported by the humanitarian attitude of the ship's master, Captain James Attridge.

The doctor would ensure that hatches were open every day when possible, that the bedding was aired, the accommodation below deck was kept as clean as possible and that everyone would be encouraged to take a walk on the deck each day unless the weather was too rough.

In this regard, the Jeanie Johnston differed from many other ships of the time in that it employed a highly reputable and experienced doctor. In their frequent letters of appreciation to Captain Attridge following their voyage, the passengers also singled out Blennerhassett for praise.

It is also noteworthy that, even when the ship met its final end, no lives were lost. In 1856, she was sold as a cargo ship to William Johnson of North Shields in England and, two years later when en route from Quebec to Hull with timber, she ran into trouble in mid-Atlantic. Overloaded and waterlogged she sank, but not before all aboard were rescued by a passing Dutch ship, the Sophie Elizabeth -- preserving her unblemished safety record.

Brave crew

Life on board a 19th century emigrant ship was also arduous for the 17-man crew who had to, first, maintain some order as the confused emigrants arrived on board, many with not much more than the clothes they wore. It was a difficult and emotional time, with perhaps families becoming separated from each other and, on shore, loved ones wailing and shouting as their relatives prepared to leave them forever.

The crew had to take it in their turn to man the four-hour watch from the poop deck, keeping the ship on a steady course and watching for other vessels. They steered with the aid of a magnetic compass located immediately in front of the ship's wheel, and it took two men to hold the wheel together in bad weather.

Crew members came from all over Ireland (including ten from Northern Ireland on different voyages), the UK, Continental Europe, Canada, the US and South America.

The captain, meanwhile, plotted the ship's position in the Chart Room, using the sextant and chronometer as the primary instruments of navigation.

Nicholas Donovan - Proud owner

Born in 1815, Nicholas Donovan was the largest importer of timber in Kerry who also dealt in coal, iron and slate, and had extensive flour and saw mills. In 1841, he married Katherine Murphy who was the sister of James J. Murphy, the founder of the Cork brewery. He died in 1877.

Experienced captain

Capt. James Attridge (1805 -- 1885) was the ship's master until the Donovans sold it in 1855. From Castletownsend, Co. Cork, he had been a captain from the age of 23 and had first gone to sea as a 15-year old in 1820.

A caring doctor

Son of a well-known Dublin and Tralee physician, Richard Blennerhassett was a graduate of Edinburgh University, then one of the most prestigious medical colleges in Britain and Ireland.

After qualifying in 1845, Dr. Blennerhassett served as a ship's doctor on the Bassora Merchant on a journey to Calcutta. Although he would have had a whole range of careers open to him, he decided to concentrate on caring for passengers on the high seas by joining the Jeanie Johnston.

Tragically, Dr. Blennerhassett later contracted cholera on board another emigrant ship, the Ben Nevis, that sailed from Liverpool and he died at the age of 36 in 1854.

Jeanie Johnston - dawning of a new era

The Jeanie Johnston opened up a new world for the Irish emigrants, in the midst of despair and poverty -- and Irish people have followed in their pioneering footsteps with distinction and glory all over the world ever since.

© 2003 Irish Republican News