Famine ship revives transatlantic links


The arrival of the replica ship the Jeanie Johnston in the US this week will be an emotional time for those whose relatives sailed on the original vessel during Famine times. Anne Lucey reports

The emotion on the quayside in February as the Jeanie Johnston left Fenit, Co Kerry, for North America as she might have left 150 years ago was palpable.

Despite the biting Siberian wind and all the tribulations associated with the creation of the replica Famine ship, there is just something about the Jeanie Johnston.

And her first few hours on the voyage were not without drama. "After several fruitless tries . . . there was some thought we might go into the shelter of Dingle Harbour. But the wind was now Force 11, and the captain couldn't see getting into a small harbour where he'd sacrifice manoeuvrability . . . The ship ploughed through the afternoon and night, under bare poles, straight into the teeth of a Force 9 gale . . . "

The description is from the journal of passenger Tom Kindre. He is on board the Jeanie Johnston, and his account may be read on the Internet. He is an auxiliary with the US Coast Guard.

With slight editing, the journal might well be that of one of the 200 passengers and 17 crew on the ship in the 1840s.

When it comes to the Jeanie Johnston, there is plenty of opportunity for disorientation between the then and the now. Prof John Kudlik, a lecturer in medieval history in Pittsburgh, calls it "divine synchronicity".

In 1849, during the darkest era of the Famine ships, Prof Kudlik's great-grandfather, Daniel Dowd, left Castlemaine, Co Kerry, on board the first Jeanie Johnston, bound for Baltimore in the US. Daniel brought with him his second wife, Margaret, and their infant daughter. Four sons from his first marriage followed shortly, probably also on board the same vessel during her twice-yearly runs to Canada and the United States. Among them was John, the eldest, and Prof Kudlik's direct ancestor.

The Jeanie Johnston never lost a passenger during her 16 voyages, mostly to Quebec. There were sound economic reasons for this, explains Ms Helen O'Carroll, curator of Kerry County Museum and a researcher on the project.

Most of the ship's passengers were drawn from a small area in the vicinity of Tralee. Passengers who got to the other side would print a letter to the captain thanking him in local newspapers, a form of advertising which would be reprinted in the Kerry newspapers of the time, she said.

Family lore alerted John Kudlik to the Jeanie Johnston. The name of the ship on which his Irish ancestor travelled to the US was preserved in the family. As a teenager with a growing interest in his roots, he searched the records office in Washington.

Daniel Dowd was listed as a milkman and owner of several properties in the city. By the time he died in 1869, just 20 years after arriving in the US from Kerry, Daniel was a prosperous man. He had bought a farm in Montgomery County, Maryland, and 150 acres from which he supplied milk to Washington.

"The reason he selected the farm was because it was next to a canal," Prof Kudlik said. Canals would have been familiar from Tralee, whose economy also depended on them. The land has been developed now, but the fine old stone house stands and is occupied.

The connections with Ireland were strong and direct for the first generation. Prof Kudlik's great-great-grandmother, Johanna Cronin, had come over from Tralee, probably from Ballymacelligot. There are doodles by Johanna on the cover of log books, still in the family possession.

Prof Kudlik only became aware of the Jeanie Johnston Project before a visit to Ireland in 1999. That visit was to prove a revelation in other ways, too. When he and his wife, Susan Showalter, met, they were unaware of their Irish origins. It transpired that Susan's ancestors, the Babbingtons, had also travelled from Ballymacelligot.

But just months before the visit Helen O'Carroll had come across an earlier generation of Babbingtons, and these had travelled on the Jeanie Johnston to Canada. Their names on a fragment of a passenger list had only been discovered the Christmas previous to the Kudliks' visit.

With the Jeanie Johnston sailing into Baltimore this summer the circle is completed, Prof Kudlik said. "It will be like watching the reincarnation of my ancestors sailing into the harbour."

The Jeanie Johnston is due to arrive in West Palm Beach, Florida, tomorrow. Following visits to ports along the east coast south of Boston up to late July, the ship will continue to north of Boston during August and September, concluding its tour in Canada where the original Jeanie Johnston was built in 1847. It will return to Tralee in early October.