Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship

Get a first-hand look at what Irish emigration was really like aboard the Jeanie Johnston Tall Ship & Famine Museum

This ship is not the the original Jennie Johnston. That ship sank in 1858 while carrying a cargo of timber.

This is a replica of that 19th-century, square-rig sailing barque, built in 1998–2002—well, not a faithful replica; the closest they could come to original blueprints was to adapt the plans of a Dutch ship of the same type and era, plus to be a licensed sea-going vessel she had to adhere to modern safety protocols (there are actually two engines hidden on-board).

This Jennie Johnston is quite seaworthy, and made its maiden voyage in 2003 from Tralee to Québec, where its original namesake was built in 1847, surviving Force 10 storms both ways.

Though the replica hasn’t sailed since 2009, it is now moored on the north banks of the River Liffey and serving as a museum called the Jennie Johnston Famine Ship.

The Great Famine

Between 1841 and 1851, Ireland’s population plummeted from more than 8 million to around 6.5 million.

Census figures of the era are notoriously unreliable, but most scholars agree that Ireland lost somewhere between 20 and 25% of its population—in some rural counties, more than 30%.

Those are Black Death numbers, people.

Thankfully, though, this time it wasn’t all to the grave.

Yes, Ireland lost about a million people to the Potato Blight in those years. We’re not going down the rabbit hole of the Great Irish Potato Famine here, with all its vast socio-economic causes and effects, but here’s a brief summary:

Absentee landlords enforcing a cash-crop system meant the vast majority of Irish farmers in the 17th to 19th centuries existed as little better than medieval peasants, forced to subsist on the output of tiny kitchen gardens.

Increasingly, this subsistence was based around a single crop—the potato—and, most problematically, a single potato varietal—the hardy Irish Lumper, which flourished even in poor soil.

It became nearly the only real food consumed by tenant farmers. It provided nourishment, of a kind, but when eaten by itself the potato had to be ingested in stupefying numbers: In a single day, a man would eat 60 potatoes, a woman 40, and a child 25. It was also the mainstay for livestock fodder.

So when a nasty little fungus that targeted the Irish Lumper called Phytophthora infestans—which apparently originated in Mexico and made its way to Europe, ironically enough, via North America—hit the Old World, it was devastating.

In 1845, the Irish lost half of their potato crop.

In 1846, it was three quarters.

By 1847—the year known as “Black ‘47”—it was nearly impossible to find potato seeds to plant to replace your own rotted beds.

More than million Irish starved or, weakened by chronic hunger, succumbed to diseases.

But another million to 1.5 million emigrated, many to the U.K. or Australia, but untold numbers sailed “The Atlantic Promise” to North America.

Many did not make it.

In 1847 alone, some 50,000 people died en route aboard ship or on quarantine islands off the U.S. coast.

On many sailings, the death toll was as might as 30%. The led to the nickname “coffin ships” for those emigrant boats.

But not the Jennie Johnston. Read on.


In the Famine Years, Atlantic passage aboard a ship like the Jennie Johnston cost £3 10s—the equivalent of about $5.50—which was half a year’s wages for a farmer or laborer, wages they could ill afford to save.

The fee, therefore, was most often paid by family already in America, by landlords seeking to evict penniless tenants, occasionally by workhouse charities, or—rather more alarmingly—as part of a contract for indentured servitude.

The Jennie Johnston was capable of carrying up to 254 passengers and a crew of 17. I say “capable of” because she could, and did—though she was actually only licensed to carry 40, including crew. You can imagine how cramped life was on board.

In 16 crossings made between 1848 and 1855, she carried more than 2,500 souls to the New World—every single of whom made it there alive—thanks in no small part to the fact that Captain James Armitage employed a ship’s doctor.

Even when she sank in 1858, all hands were rescued; she went down with her perfect safety record intact.

In fact, she managed to come out with a better-than perfect record, since a boy was born on board, on Easter Sunday, as she set off on her maiden voyage. His parents named him Nicholas Johnston Reilly—after the ship’s owner and the ship itself—but for the rest of his life, he would proudly say his real full name was Richard James Thomas William John Gabriel Carls Michael John Alexander Trabaret Archibald Cornelius Hugh Arthur Edward Johnston Reilly—after every member of the crew, and the ship, that got him and his parents to the New World.

Nicholas became a bartender in Minnesota. As of 2014, his great-granddaughter, Meghan O’Reilly Fiero, was a Content Editor at Scholastic living in Connecticut with her daughter, Becky Fiero.

The Irish effect in America

The Great Irish Potato Famine wrought changes not only on Ireland, but across the New World as well.

At the turn of the 19th century, the population United States was of overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and German descent (with a smattering of Dutch, Scandic, and, of course, slaves and freedmen of African origin).

By 1850, there were 800,000 people living in New York City—300,000 of whom were Irish.

Within half a decade, the Irish suddenly made up one-quarter of the population in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, forever changing the face of America and kicking off a tidal wave of immigration—Italian, Eastern European, Jewish, and others—that would truly earn the country its melting pot moniker.

The Irish arrived largely penniless; Within 100 years, their descendants were producing presidents.

Now everybody knows John Fitzgerald Kennedy was of Irish descent. (At the height of the famine, around 1849, his mother’s grandfather, Thomas Fitzgerald, emigrated from Co. Limerick at roughly the same time his father’s grandfather, Patrick Kennedy, emigrated from New Ross, Co. Wexford.)

But did you know that every president since Kennedy (except Gerald Ford) was at least in part of Irish descent? Reagan, obviously. Clinton, a bit theoretically. Both Bushes are descendents of Strongbow (whose daughter—fun fact!—founded New Ross, the ancestral home of the Kennedys).

Obama—famously the son of an immigrant on his father's side—on his mother's side had a great-great-great grandfather named Fulmuth Kearney, the son of a shoemaker in Moneygall, Co. Offaly, who, at the age of 18, emigrated to America in 1850 and eventually settled in Ohio.



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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in February 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.