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The Jeanie Johnston: The Legendary Irish Famine Ship

For St. Patrick’s Day, the story of the legendary tall-masted ship – the Jeanie Johnston – that brought thousands of Irish from famine to America.

Replica of the Jeannie Johnston (Kathryn Miles)

Replica of the Jeannie Johnston (Kathryn Miles)

For many Irish-Americans, the story of emigration to this country begins in near-panic and desperation.  In 1845, a terrible blight hit Ireland’s great staple food, the potato.  Governments fumbled, and famine followed.

A wave of Irish men, women and children looked across the Atlantic to flee, to survive.  Many of the ships that carried them were infamous.  “Coffin ships,” they were called, with mortality rates up to 70 percent on the voyage.

One of those tall-masted ships seemed charmed.  A miracle.  Deathless.

This hour, On Point:  before St. Patrick’s Day, the tale of the Jeanie Johnston.

-Tom Ashbrook


Kathryn Miles, author of “All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanine Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Herald (Ireland) “On a chilly, overcast morning in early March, the Jeanie Johnston, with her proud, high masts and string of lights along her deck, is a very pleasing sight. Surrounded on all sides by modern, glass-fronted office blocks, the old-fashioned ship looks gallant and defiant. She speaks of another time.”

BBC News “A variety of potato at the heart of the Irish famine is making a return to cooking pots after almost 170 years. The Irish Lumper potato has been cultivated once more by County Antrim farmer Michael McKillop who has a keen interest in history.”

Excerpt: “All Standing” by Kathryn Miles


The Jeanie Johnston’s Journeys

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  • creaker

    “poorly treated” – that also describes how conditions were for them after they got off the boat, and many years after.

  • John Shannon

    Tom, it wasn’t a Famine, but a failure of just ONE crop

    • donniethebrasco

      It was actually excessive taxation by the Brits.

    • adks12020

      Sorry but it’s referred to as the potato famine for a reason. The Irish depended very heavily on potatoes and that crop failed resulting in famine.

      • John Shannon

        My point is that there was plenty of other crops growing quite well in Ireland at the time.  Food that the Irish were denied access to.

    • EShannonLawrence

      John- off topic, but I’m also a Shannon.

  • Scott B

    Slave owners in the south would use Irish workers for the most hazardous jobs because their slaves were worth money, and they had cost them something; whereas the Irish were considered to be “worthless”. 

  • http://twitter.com/JenSacco54 Jennifer Sacco

    Hi Tom-  Please let listeners know about the brand new “Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum” at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT.  It is a beautiful facility with a wonderfully in-depth collection of artwork and documents related to the Great Hunger.
    3011 Whitney AvenueHamden, CT 06518
    phone. 203-582-6500email. IGHM@quinnipiac.eduwww.facebook.com/IrelandsGreatHungerMuseum

    Located in Hamden, CT90 min from NYC2 hrs from Boston

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      Thank you, Jennifer….will check it out!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1562748325 Nancy Dunne

       There is also a very interesting memorial in New York City. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Hunger_Memorial

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    We’re getting to the monoculture issue w.r.t. Ireland’s potato famine, the lumper: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/agriculture_02

  • Scott B

    Comedian  Kevin Meany had a wicked bit about the potato famines, where the Irish were offered corn, beans, tomatoes, peanuts, insert-vegetable-here, and they refused because they weren’t potatoes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.a.demers.3 Mark A Demers

    My daughter (twelve yrs. old at the time) was a paper carrier for the Barre (VT) Times Argus.  She entered a contest to win a trip to Ireland.  She began her essay with the following true words:
    “Once there was a man who sailed to Montreal from Ireland.  He walked to Hinesburg, VT, where he found work.  He saved money, and when had had enough he sent back to Ireland for his wife and children.  They set sail for Montreal, and the man walked from Hinesburg back to Montreal to meet their ship.  They never arrived, and their ship was presumed lost at sea.
    That man was my great, great, great, grandfather.”

    That opening of her essay won her the trip – she is of Flanagan, Hanley, McKenzie stock.

    • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix

       I wonder if we’re related. Also Irish-immigrants who settled in French-Canada/Vermont. I wish I knew as much about my family history, even though I’m sure it would reveal similarly sad stories.

      Great story about your daughter.

  • monicaroland

    Fantastic show!  I don’t know which ship carried James McMahon over here in 1848, but he survived and made his way to Minnesota.  He married and his line continued to my grandfather James McMahon, who married Nora Agnes Flanigan and produced my mother, Lois Sophia McMahon Nollet.  I must buy this book.

  • Nic B

    Potato blight properly called as Phytophthora is not a fungus, please correct this error. It is an oomycete about as related to the fungi as a bicycle is to a seal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix

    No idea which ship my relatives came over on, but we have the brass candlesticks my great grandmother brought over. She sewed them into the ticking of her bedding to keep them safe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      So glad to hear that this particular detail was recalled and passed down through your family….fantastic.

  • Scott B

    The last caller refers to the Irish being tenant farmers, as if they had any kind of choice. If I remember my history lessons, the Irish were often not allowed to own land, and had to “rent”, which was basically serfdom.

    • Namenomnomnom

      You misunderstood. The caller made it clear that the Irish were farming the Irish land at the whim of the landlords by using the technical term “tenant farmers at will”. The term does not indicate that the tenants freely chose this status. Quite the contrary.

      • Scott B

         I didn’t misunderstand. That fact the Irish weren’t allowed to own the land that was omitted in the on air discussion, though I don’t think intentionally.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

    Here’s the direct link for the current ship (replica): http://www.jeaniejohnston.ie/

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      “The original Jeanie Johnston was built in 1847 on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City, Canada.”  I find it sublimely reassuring that ‘my’ French ancestors likely built the ship that saved ‘my’ Irish ancestors….any experienced genealogist knows that we’re pretty much all related….

  • DrewInGeorgia

    GREAT show OP!!! I’ve been busy and don’t really have time to comment other than this but I am truly grateful for being able to listen to such an insightful discussion. I wish I could afford the book.

    Thank you Kathryn Miles, thank you On Point!

    • JGC

      Ask your local library if they can get a copy.  If they do not have the budget to grant your request, I will gladly get a copy and donate it to your library so you and your neighbors can enjoy. (I would just need to know the name and town of the library you would want it to go to, and then I am sure I could take it from there.)

      • DrewInGeorgia

        Thanks so much, your offer is greatly appreciated. I would take you up on it but the closest library is about twenty miles from me and I don’t get over there very often. Getting them back on time is a BIG problem for me. Thanks again though, your kindness made my night!


  • Cashel99

    All four sets of my Great Grand Parents arrive to Canada and The United States Safely,One being Scotch Irish Protestant,all others Catholic.
    Families O’Connell,O’Neil,Hickey,Herron,Sullivan and Quinn!
    A paris priest  in Cleveland made sure to tell my relatives how lucky we were because of are ancestors survival.
     One point I wanted to make is:only one type of potato was the major crop,so it was easy to rot.
    Secondly…..why did no one think of the ocean for food???

  • Carlotta Tyler

    The famine’s impact was felt for decades after the 1840′s.My grandmother, Honora Daly, came to Boston, alone at six years of age in 1881 on Little Egypt.  The fare was $125 paid for by selling the slate off the roof of their home. Her father, thoroughbred horse trainer, was killed in a fall off a horse. Unable to have a bank account, fish in their streams or hunt a rabbit in the woods, Michael Daly put the money he was paid for this highly valued skill into the slate roof. Her mother was left with 4 children, two newborns.  She sent the eldest, Agnes, first into indentured servitude in Boston, which she bought herself out of at 19 years.  The next year she sent Honora over in the care of a woman with 7 children who cooked for her on the voyage.  Think of this child who was taken from her mother at such a young age to live with a 67 year old great-aunt she had never met.  She never lost her dislike of “Black & Tans”.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      unable to “fish in their streams or hunt a rabbit in the woods”…The Hunger Games indeed.  Hopefully history will not repeat…but we know how that goes, and there is very little non corporate-owned or state-owned land available to all….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1018402166 Nancy Gavin Koester

    My family traveled from Co. Limerick to Quebec, in 1883 on the Havorian. Left Galway May, arrived Quebec 30 June 1883. Traveled to Bridgeport, Ct before settling in buffalo. This ship was a lumber ship which hauled lumber from Canada to Europe, and then was cheap passage for the Irish to America. Shorter trip that to NY also. 

  • debhulbh

    I wanted to mention those who helped the Irish called ‘Friends of the Irish’, Catherine mentioned the Quakers who set up soup kitchens etc, one group that stands out for me as an Irish immigrant here in U.S. is the Choctaw nation sent a donation of $170 in ‘Black’47′. Moved by accounts, first thru letters, newspapers accounts and later from refugees  (some who may have arrived aboard the Jeannie Johnston).
    Ties into our own history here.The humanity of the Choctaw across an ocean (yet our English neighbors stood by and exclaimed it an act of God, to rid the world of surplus).
    “What made the Choctaw donation so extraordinary was the tribe’s recent history. Only 16 years before, President Andrew Jackson (whose parents emigrated from Antrim) seized the fertile lands of the so-called five civilized tribes (YES THEY WERE INDEED CIVILIZED)and forced them to undertake a harrowing 500-mile trek to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears. Of the 21,000 Choctaws who started the journey, more than half perished from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. This despite the fact that during the War of 1812 the Choctaws had been allies of then General Jackson in his campaign against the British in New Orleans.”Perhaps their sympathy stemmed from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. Certainly contemporary Choctaw see it that way. They note that both groups were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression (most notably language) and we can further tie it today to Tibet, another country China oppressing, invading, usurping, language/cultural suppression and it continues……
    A Choctaw delegation visited Ireland (1990) by invitation to walk with their brothers what was called the Trail of Tears, President Robinson was named a Chief of the Choctaw Nation in recognition of…… the ties that bind. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      As did the Ottomon Empire…Google it and you will get many hits.  Here’s one: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=a73_1348050425

      • debhulbh

        Yes, did know some of this, thank you for the link. Shona La Padraig

    • Andrea Doremus

      Simply amazing. Thank you.

  • slfer

    Its important! to emphasize that the Irish grew many many other kinds of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and meats, not just potatoes.  The British claimed ‘Ownership’ of ALL these crops, which were kept under armed guards before being sent to markets in England, Europe and beyond. The crops grown in Ireland were essentially stolen from the Irish farmers.  Even a small portion of food grown could have easily saved the Irish people from starvation, but the British crown and middle men decided their very large profits were more important. Hence, recently Tony Blair made a formal apology on behalf of England to the Irish for what really should be called a genocide, not a famine, as it was entirely  preventable. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000605091422 Maureen Roy

      It was clearly genocide – not even thinly veiled.  Population was reduced by 20-25%.  Mission accomplished by the powers that be of the time…..

  • hoopiepike

    Message for Maureen Roy:

    Your commentary is fabulous. Many thanks. Please send me your email as I have an invitation that may interest you.
    Tom Blinkhorn
    Dartmouth college
    Hanover, NH

  • patsy821

    How can I hear this again???

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1562748325 Nancy Dunne

      There is a link at the top of this page (red circle with white arrow within)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/UBF5F7KFV6OJYND5ZSBYX2LAQE Pamela Bunting Lewis

    My ancestors came to America on board one of the 16 voyages from Ireland into Baltimore Harbor in Maryland. Many settled in Delaware and a few in Maryland. Pamela Bunting Lewis  Baker, Johnston’s and Bilsons by birth.  March 16th, 2013.

  • Andrea Doremus

    I teach this time period for high school US History, and I think of myself as a somewhat conscious and educated person. Until I heard this piece on Friday, I had NO idea about the famine ships, and much of the other history that went with them. I realize now how much more I need to learn, especially living in Boston. Thank you.

  • Susan Cohen

    Fabulous interview!  My favorite so far this year.

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