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Replica of famine ship to set sail

By Kevin Smith, Reuters, 1/14/2003

UBLIN - After delays, budget overruns, and political storms, Ireland's Jeanie Johnston, a replica famine ship, will set sail this week to retrace its namesake's route across the Atlantic.

The original Jeanie Johnston, a three-masted bark built in Quebec, helped thousands of Irish emigrants flee to North America during the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s and, unlike the infamous "coffin ships" of the time, never lost a passenger to disease or to the sea.

The crew of the replica vessel said yesterday that, weather permitting, the ship would leave Dublin today and that it was expected to reach North America by mid-April and carry out a six-month tour of eastern US and Canadian ports, including Boston.

"The ship has proved itself very well," First Mate Rob Matthews said. "The department of marine were here last week and left satisfied, so we're all rubber-stamped and ready to go."

Along with a crew of 11, around 30 people will make the trip, paying up to $10,540 each, he said.

More than 40 million people in the United States claim Irish heritage. Hundreds of thousands of Irish emigrated to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s after the country's potato crop was ravaged by blight. More than 1 million people in Ireland died of starvation.

At anchor on Dublin's River Liffey, the 150-foot-long, 540-ton vessel is an impressive sight, but reaching the eve of its maiden voyage has not come easily.

Flagged as an emblem for a new Ireland during the country's "Celtic Tiger" economic boom, the $15 million Jeanie Johnston project, begun in 1998, ran nearly four times over budget and missed its deadline by two years.

Matthews shrugged off the controversy. "She's a beautiful ship and will be a wonderful ambassador for Ireland as she sails around the world," he said.

The ship now sleeps 40 people in relative comfort, but during the famine the Jeanie Johnston carried more than 250 desperate passengers on each of its 16 transatlantic voyages.

Some idea of what they endured can be gleaned from the replica ship's museum section, which recreates with life-size wax models the conditions aboard the vessel in the 19th century, when families of five would sleep in a single bunk with little access to basic amenities.

Matthews said the ship could draw income through paying passengers, visitors to its museum, and from hiring itself for corporate functions.

The Jeanie Johnston will stop at Belfast in Northern Ireland, Waterford in southern Ireland, and Tenerife in the Canary Islands before making its five-week Atlantic crossing.

The tour program has not yet been finalized, but ports of call are likely to include Boston, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Quebec, and Montreal.



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