Jeanie Johnston: The Legendary Irish Famine Ship

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Iimage002(3)n All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship (Free Press, 2013), Kathryn Miles recounts the dramatic tale of a legendary ship, the Jeanie Johnston, that ran between Ireland and North America during the height of the Irish famine. During this time, the people of Ireland emigrated to North America in search of job opportunities and a better life, crowding onto aptly named “coffin ships,” whose gruesome conditions rivaled those of slave transports.

But unlike every other coffin ship, the Jeanie Johnston never lost a passenger. While over 100,000 people died aboard other coffin ships, the combined efforts of the Jeanine Johnston’s crew allowed thousands of individuals to find safety and fortune throughout the United States and Canada.

Ultimately, what these men—and their ship—accomplished over the course of their eleven voyages to North America was the stuff of legend. So much so, in fact, that when Ireland decided to recreate one of these infamous coffin ships to commemorate the new millennium, it settled upon the Jeanie Johnston. Over the course of four years and at a cost of over £20 million, carpenters and shipwrights from across Europe and North America painstakingly brought the Jeanie back to life. Her recreation—one of the world’s most well- known (and controversial) tall ships—is now based in Dublin and brings the famine to light for thousands of visitors and tourists every year.

All Standing follows the life of Nicholas Reilly, the baby boy born on the ship’s maiden voyage, his fellow passengers, and the crew members who transported them to safety. Using newspaper accounts, archival documents, and her own experience sailing as an apprentice aboard the recently recreated Jeanie Johnston, Miles tells the story of these remarkable people and the revolutionary milieu in which they set sail.

The tale of each individual is extraordinary in and of itself; read collectively, however, their stories paint a unique portrait. Against the backdrop of one of history’s greatest atrocities, Miles weaves an intimate narrative of the immigrant experience, while chronicling how one Irish family found a place for itself in the United States.

Kathryn Miles is a professor of environmental writing at Unity College. She is the author of Adventures With Ari and dozens of articles. She lives – and sails – in Belfast, Maine.

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