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Reliving Ireland's voyages of hope

By Donovan Slack, Globe Correspondent, 7/23/2003

Some say it's the way she cuts through high seas in gale-force winds, spilling nary a drop of tea. Others say it's the stubbornness of her supporters, who sank about $25 million into a ship some say is worth only $3 million. Either way, the Jeanie Johnston has captured hearts and minds across Ireland and in Boston, where the replica of a 19th-century Irish emigrant barque is due to arrive Thursday.

''It's kind of like the Big Dig in Boston -- that's the Jeanie Johnston in Ireland,'' said Victoria Breglio, a planner with Conventures, the Boston company arranging the ship's reception here. ''Everyone knows the ship.''

Between 1848 and 1855, the original Jeanie Johnston carried 2,500 emigrants during 16 voyages from Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland, to Quebec, Baltimore, and New York City. Many were fleeing the Great Famine at home.

Passengers were crammed four and five to a bunk, rations often consisted of rice cakes ridden with weevils, and fresh air was a rare commodity.

Still, the Jeanie Johnston never lost a life.

''It wasn't a typical vessel,'' said Boston College historian Thomas H. O'Connor.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., cannons will sound, a Boston Fire Department boat will spray plumes in the harbor, and Irish dancers will high-step on Rowes Wharf as the barque reaches the harbor. Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, and Irish Consul General Isolde Moylan all will be there to greet her.

In Boston, a heavily Irish-American city, some are already aware of the story of the Jeanie Johnston. At The Jeanie Johnston pub in Jamaica Plain, patrons plan to celebrate, and co-owner Hank Kirchner plans to invite the crew and offer drink specials to regulars, who already can build their own Jeanie Johnston -- burger, that is.

''A lot of people have been asking when it's coming in,'' Kirchner said.

The ship will be open to the public at Rowes Wharf from Friday through Tuesday. Then it will move to Fan Pier, where it will stay until Aug. 3.

''The main goal is to let people touch history, let them remember their ancestors and how they got here,'' said Denis Reen, chief of the Jeanie Johnston Company.

A project nearly 10 years in the making, the modern-day Jeanie Johnston overcame enormous obstacles to get to the New World. It began as a Kerry County Council initiative to recreate the ship by 1997, to mark the 150th anniversary of what the Irish call ''Black '47,'' the year of the great potato famine. But funding problems slowed the project, and when designers realized the ship would require engines, sewage treatment mechanisms, and air conditioning to be seaworthy under current laws, the costs grew still more.

The Irish government halted funding in 2002, when it was discovered the project was almost $17 million over budget. Still, determined organizers in Ireland carried on with plans to launch the Jeanie Johnston on its historic voyage to America. The square-sterned, three-masted barque finally sailed in February. It has been working its way up the Atlantic Coast from Florida, where it first made landfall in April. Thousands have visited in each city, paying $7 per head for adults and $4 for children.

''What has struck me most about this whole thing is the emotion of people who see it and how they get emotionally involved with it,'' Reem said. ''The question I hear most is, `How did 250 people sail across the Atlantic in a ship that size?''

The lower decks convert into a museum while in port, with figurines showing how people lived during the famine voyages. Four passengers often slept together in a tiny bunk. The ship usually sailed in the summer, when the heat was stifling below deck. The average journey lasted 47 days. Toilets were unheard of, and those with chamber pots were considered lucky.

For Tom McCarthy, who captained the Jeanie Johnston across the Atlantic and who will guide her into port tomorrow, the vessel -- not just the memories she evokes -- is magical. About 250 miles off the Iberian Peninsula, the 550-ton ship hit high seas and sustained winds of about 40 miles an hour.

''She's amazing,'' he said over a satellite telephone yesterday. ''We snogged her down, and she took it for two full days. It was grand!''

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com

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