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Builder of ship replica to fold

$14m memorial of great famine is deemed unsafe

By Shawn Pogatchnik, Associated Press, 2/12/2002

UBLIN - The government said yesterday it will dissolve the bankrupt company that tried to build a seaworthy replica of a Great Famine ship that carried Irish emigrants to North America.

The new Jeanie Johnston, already nine years and $14 million in the making, remains moored at Blennerville in County Kerry, southwest Ireland, considered unsafe for a voyage to US and Canadian ports.

"The fact of the matter is that this was a group of well-meaning people who had a dream and it went entirely wrong," said Frank Fahy, minister of the marine. "It's a pity it's been such a disaster."

The vessel has been officially launched by President Mary McAleese and depicted at full sail on an Irish postage stamp, but specialists say it may never be safe to navigate the open sea, nor are there funds to hire an expert crew.

Customs officials acting on a court order seized the ship last week from Jeanie Johnston (Ireland) Co. Ltd., whose board includes Kerry business owners, tourism officials and academics -- none of whom had experience in shipbuilding.

The project was conceived before the 150th anniversary in 1995 of the start of the Great Famine, when the failure of several years' potato crops caused an estimated 1 million people to die from starvation and disease and 2 million others to emigrate. Untold thousands perished on vessels dubbed "coffin ships" because of terrible sanitation, food and water.

Irish-American groups had eagerly awaited the maiden voyage to ports along the East Coast and Great Lakes in the summer of 2000. Organizers kept postponing the date before conceding late last year it would never happen.

Fahy defended the government's infusion of more than $3.6 million to keep the project going since 2000. He said the government expected Kerry County Council to take ownership of the project and its debts.

The county and Tralee town council have pumped $4.5 million into the project, underwritten other loans and may have to refund $1.2 million to the European Union.

The ship could become a moored attraction beside the local genealogical research center.

The project was originally projected to cost $4.4 million. It received donations from an EU peace-promotion fund, the US-led International Fund for Ireland and Irish and American companies.

The Jeanie Johnston was chosen for resurrection because it had an exceptional safety record, charging a comparatively high fee for passage and keeping a doctor aboard.

Organizers said nobody died during the ship's six sailings from Blennerville to North America from 1848 to 1854, a claim that couldn't be independently verified.

The Canadian-built ship mostly sailed to Quebec City, Canada, and also ferried people to Baltimore and New York. It carried more than 200 people, low by famine ship standards.

The reconstructed vessel looks authentic on the outside and accommodates up to 40 people. A dozen wealthy Irish-Americans had booked cabin space for the maiden voyage at $15,000 each.

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