Jeanie Johnston - Replica Irish Famine Ship

Ten years after the completion of the ‘new’ Jeanie Johnston, controversy continues to surround the replica ship.

Jeanie Johnston Sailing
The 'new' Jeanie Johnston, seen sailing before it lost its Coast Guard certification.

The original Jeanie Johnston sailed for ten years before sinking in the wake of a storm in 1858. A replica of the three-masted barque, completed in 2002, remained seaworthy only about half as long before being converted into a floating museum — a tourist attraction now known as the Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship & Famine Museum. But before the Jeanie Johnston lost her Coast Guard certification to carry passengers underway, Kathryn Miles — author of “All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship” (Free Press) — had the opportunity to serve as an apprentice crew member. In the following interview, Miles discusses the issues that have made the Jeanie Johnston so controversial, as well as what it was like to be aboard the replica ship during a fierce storm in the Irish Sea.

Tell me about the replica Jeanie Johnston.

The new Jeanie Johnston is both a failure and a success and it’s an incredible controversy over in Ireland. A lot of Irish people are not very happy about the ship. The idea to create it came about just before the millennium. Peace talks between Northern Ireland and the Republic had gone well and so Ireland was looking for a way to commemorate its heritage and also this newfound peace. So it decided to recreate a famine ship. The Jeanie Johnston was selected, both because of its record for success and because there was a very extensive survey of the original. It became this wonderful cooperative venture that brought shipwrights and carpenters from Northern Ireland into the Republic and also brought workers over from the U.S.

What makes it so controversial?

The controversy began when the Coast Guard required changes to the original blueprints to make it seaworthy based on our twenty-first century definition of seaworthiness. So people who feel strongly about Tall Ship history feel angered that liberties were taken in terms of the design.

But the stronger controversy occurred because the ship was grossly over budget. It ended up costing approximately $30 million — way too much money. A lot of people in Ireland grew angry about the amount of money that was spent on the ship.

To further complicate the issue, the Jeanie Johnston has lost its Coast Guard certification to carry passengers underway, which is also a sore subject for a lot of people. So it is currently docked in Dublin, and serves as a floating museum that tourists can visit. But while it is a successful tourist attraction, a lot of people want to see it do what it was built to do, which is to sail. For that to happen it needs financial supporters. The HMS Bounty [a replica ship that sank off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012] was very similar in some ways — an underfunded ship that was trying to make a go of it. It needs a huge injection of cash every year to keep it seaworthy and up to Coast Guard certification. And Ireland doesn’t have an answer.

I understand you served as apprentice crew aboard the Jeanie Johnston. What was that like?

Intense. I joined the ship in Dublin and the first thing we had to do was to take a safety test. That included climbing to the top of the masts and then going out to the far spars and showing that you could furl and unfurl sails. It’s definitely not for anyone who has vertigo. And fairly soon after we got underway we encountered a major storm, which was a really vivid experience in terms of understanding what it would have been like to sail on the original Jeanie Johnston. There was a lot of seasickness on board — and a lot of noise. While below deck you would feel this awful corkscrewing motion that a flat bottomed ship makes and also hear the creaking and screaming and shudders of the ship. Even as someone who has sailed on tall ships before I don’t think I was prepared for how vivid and intense the experience would be.

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The Jeanie Johnston