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Native Irish celebrating will to survive

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 6/21/1998

RALEE, Ireland -- Like the Phoenix, the Jeanie Johnston is rising again, here in drydock under the majestic shadows of the Slieve Mish Mountains in County Kerry.

On the other side of the island, in New Ross, shipwrights are painstakingly building a replica of the Dunbrody, which like the Jeanie Johnston ferried thousands of Irish emigrants to North America a century and a half ago.

When completed, the two tall ships are expected to become major tourist attractions in their native ports after sailing to the United States and Canada over the next two years.

But at a different level, the multimillion-dollar projects are tangible evidence that the Irish are embracing a chapter of their history that until recently had been too painful to consider: the famine that killed more than 1 million people and forced 2 million more to emigrate.

If the potato blight and resulting famine 150 years ago exemplified the helplessness of the poor, peasant country that Ireland was, the national embrace of famine history underscores the prosperous, confident country that Ireland has become.

For more than a century, the famine was a source of shame and anger -- shame that so much of Ireland was too poor and ignorant to do anything but die or emigrate, anger that Britain allowed the famine to decimate its closest colony.

But today, a year after the British prime minister apologized for the heartlessness of his country's 19th-century government, the native Irish are looking back less in anger and more in awe at the catastrophe that shaped their history and that of many other parts of the world. Rather than be ashamed of the poverty and suffering of their forebears, the Irish are celebrating their will and ability to survive and prosper.

Nowhere is this new attitude more in evidence than at the drydocks where the 176-foot Dunbrody and the 150-foot Jeanie Johnston are being recreated by shipwrights from Ireland, continental Europe, and the United States. The ships will be floating museums, with interactive displays and archives making it possible for some of the 70 million in the Irish diaspora to learn when their relatives emigrated.

Not long ago, the idea of using the famine to attract visitors would have been considered either unseemly or unflattering to Ireland's image.

Standing in a bustling boatyard that had been closed for 17 years, Sean Reidy, project manager for the Dunbrody, says that the new-found willingness to "celebrate" the famine is indicative of how much Ireland has changed.

"I think this project is an example of the political and economic maturity that has occurred in Ireland," said Reidy. "It's about confidence, really. Ireland has dealt with the famine in a very mature way. When the Dunbrody sails to the American and Canadian cities with famine memorials, it will be with a sense of celebration."

As Reidy explains it, the move to celebrate the lives of those forced to flee the famine is more in keeping with the Irish character.

"When someone emigrated, they held what they called an American wake," he said. "The attitude was, `We'll never see you again, but let's have a drink and a song and celebrate your new life.' It was a tribute to both those who left and those who stayed."

New Ross was the port where the ancestors of the most famous Irish-American family, the Kennedys, fled the famine for Boston. The Dunbrody project was initiated by the John F. Kennedy Trust, which promotes economic development in the New Ross area.

The revisionism taking place in famine history de-emphasizes the British role and instead highlights the courage and determination of the exiled.

Kevin Whelan, an Irish historian who is considered the country's foremost authority on the famine, said that while emigrant vessels were commonly known as "coffin ships," about 97 percent of those who embarked on the trans-Atlantic voyages survived -- a remarkable figure given their weakened health and the grueling trip in unsanitary conditions that took up to seven weeks.

Instead of coffin ships, Whelan said the vessels were "cradles of opportunity."

John Griffin, who heads the $6.5 million Jeanie Johnston project, said the ability of those fleeing the famine to remake their lives is "an inspiring story that we ignored for too long."

Besides raising consciousness about the famine, the Jeanie Johnston project is also being used to foster better relations between Protestants from Northern Ireland who consider themselves British and Irish Catholics from various parts of the island.

John McQuillan, training coordinator for the Jeanie Johnston, is a Belfast man who last year ran as a candidate for a party that is the political wing of a loyalist paramilitary group in Northern Ireland.

"This is a cross-border, cross-community training initiative," said McQuillan. "The aim is to enhance their skills so they can get a job. I think you'll see some real bonds and friendships develop."

The original Jeanie Johnston was built by an Ulster Protestant and at least 10 of the 17 crew members were Ulster Protestants.

"The remarkable thing about the Jeanie Johnston is it never lost a passenger. That was extraordinary, and it shows its captain and its crew were very decent people," said Griffin.

Next year, 150 years after Patrick Kennedy left New Ross for Boston, his great-grandson, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, is scheduled to sail the Dunbrody into Boston Harbor on its maiden voyage, on May 29, the birthday of President Kennedy.

The following year, the Jeanie Johnston will sail into Boston to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the famine.

Reidy and Griffin said they hope their endeavors will sensitize people to the human cost of famine in underdeveloped countries today.

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