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Irish 'famine ship' ready to sail to US

By Shawn Pogatchnik, Associated Press, 2/13/2003

UBLIN - Rarely has a ship been bailed out so often before leaving port. Now, after three years and many millions, the Jeanie Johnston is finally ready to set sail to the New World this Sunday.

Jeanie, a painstakingly crafted oak-and-pine replica of a 19th-century "famine ship," was dreamed up a decade ago as a monument to Ireland's greatest disaster, the potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, when an estimated 1 million people died and 2 million emigrated.

Instead, the Jeanie became a byword for disaster. Supposed to tour ports in the eastern United States and Canada in 2000, the vessel spent the past three years moored to a dock at County Kerry, part of the time impounded for unpaid debts.

While the ship's Quebec-built namesake claimed never to have lost one of its 2,500 passengers during more than a dozen profitable crossings from 1848 to 1855, the modern Jeanie has destroyed reputations and cost about $17 million -- about three times the original estimate.

But against the odds the ship was saved when the Kerry Group, Ireland's food-processing giant, offered investment and judges approved a bankruptcy deal. That cleared the way for Jeanie to complete sea trials and head across the Atlantic.

"It's definitely going. Nothing but the weather can stop us now," said Denis Reen, chief executive of the Jeanie Johnston Co. "It was definitely a bit of a mess, but happily the mess is behind us now, and we have a superb vessel and a happy crew," said Reen, 61. "There are people haunted by the whole thing. It has been traumatic to see the project almost disintegrate."

The ship's enthusiasts predict that, with a youthful crew featuring Irish Catholics and British Protestants from Northern Ireland, the Jeanie Johnston will be a hit when it tours US and Canadian cities from April to October.

Niall O'Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, predicted it "will become the greatest Irish-American tourist attraction ever built."

"You simply cannot board this ship without the ghosts of your past and ancestors becoming vividly alive," he wrote after sailing aboard Jeanie from Dublin and Belfast last month. "We should be grateful it was built. Compared to green beer, tooraloora songs, and 40 shades of green, it is as authentic a vision of old Ireland as exists."

The 123-foot ship, boasting three masts and a facade of oak and pine, is not an exact reproduction. Indeed, that was part of the problem: Modern maritime law decreed that it couldn't be. In came a steel frame, engines, desalination units, sewage treatment, even air conditioners.

The original Jeanie was luxurious by famine standards, with a fare considered prohibitively expensive at 3 shillings and 10 pence, and its own doctor. Most vessels ferrying refugees across the Atlantic in the 19th century had such poor sanitation, water, and food that they were known as "coffin ships" because so many people died during the crossing.

Today's passengers -- whose tickets cost between $2,700 and $11,000 -- travel in the lap of luxury. There will be a maximum of 29 passengers, compared to 254 on the original ship.

Reen is keeping the ship's movements flexible. The first confirmed ports of call are West Palm Beach, Fla., about April 17, followed by Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., with about 20 more stops to follow.

Key targets are Philadelphia in June, New York around the Fourth of July, Boston later that month, then to Quebec and back home to Ireland.

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