'Famine ship' replica bound for America from Ireland

Thursday, February 13, 2003

DUBLIN, Ireland -- 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 living monument to Ireland's greatest disaster, the potato famine of 1845-52, when an estimated 1 million 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 -- some 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 out across the Atlantic.

'It's definitely going'

"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 the 61-year-old Reen. "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 Johnson will be a hit when it tours U.S. 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."

"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," O'Dowd added.

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.

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 and New York around the Fourth of July.

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