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The Jeanie Johnston and the Great Irish Famine

jeanie-johnstonThey were called “coffin ships” for a reason. The ships that carried Irish families fleeing the Great Potato Famine to Canada and the United States from 1845 to 1852 had notoriously high mortality rates. Passengers were crammed into filthy holds that were perfect breeding grounds for diseases like cholera and typhus. It’s estimated that between 1 and 1.5 million people emigrated from Ireland during those desperate years, and it was not uncommon for a coffin ship to have a mortality rate of up to 30%.

Pretty depressing, and downright wicked. So where’s the cool part, you may be asking?

The cool part is that there was one ship, the Jeanie Johnston, that had a 100% survival rate. Built in Canada in 1847, she carried up to 250 emigrants per voyage from Ireland to America, and lost not a single one to starvation or disease, or any other cause, for that matter. Her success has been attributed to her captain, James Attridge, and ship’s doctor, Richard Blennerhassett, who were fanatical about cleanliness, and made sure that passengers received decent food and medical care during the trip—a rarity on such voyages.

jeanie-johnston-(4)Although the original Jeanie Johnston did not survive the 19th century (she sank in 1858), in the 1990s, an international team decided that her story should be commemorated by creating a replica of the ship. Christened in 2000, the new Jeanie Johnston set sail in 2003 on a voyage to Canada and the United States.

Her present home is in Dublin, where I was lucky enough to visit her recently with fellow author Suzanne Strempek Shea. Our guide did a fabulous job telling of the hardships faced by Famine emigrants, and of the remarkable role the Jeanie Johnston played in history.

And, by the way, when she sank in 1858, her crew survived by clinging to the wreckage of the ship until they were rescued nine days later by the Dutch ship Sophie Elizabeth. Not a single crewman was lost; even though the ship did not survive, the Jeanie Johnston’s perfect record remained unsullied. And that’s wicked cool.

To find out more:

You can find out more on the Jeanie Johnston’s website and at Wikipedia

You can find out more about the Irish Potato Famine at:

The History Place

The BBC History Website

Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, has a website and museum devoted to The Great Hunger.

The Anne Arundel public schools’ Irish Famine website explores the period using primary sources

Eyewitness to History has a first-person account of the famine from James Mahoney, an artist who lived in Cork in 1847.

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