Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 10:33 UK

Flashback to the time of famine

Freya McClements
BBC News

Replica famine ship the Jeanie Johnston
The Jeanie Johnston at the quay in Derry

A famine ship sails slowly down the Foyle, watched by crowds on the quay.

No, not a scene from the 1840s, but an unexpected visit from a modern-day replica, the Jeanie Johnston.

The wooden sailing ship made an unexpected stop-off in Londonderry on Monday after it was unable to get into port at Rathmullan in County Donegal.

Captain Dermot Kavanagh explained that the original ship ferried emigrants across the Atlantic between 1848 and 1855.

"The original was built in 1847 in Quebec, but this one was built about five years ago in Kerry," he said.

"In the 1840s it would have carried maybe 200 emigrants on each journey - these would have been whole families, and people in very poor circumstances.

"The bunks would have been very close together - they would really be packed in like sardines - and if the weather was right they would take turns coming on deck and getting some fresh air.

"As you can imagine, it could get pretty fetid down there," he said.

Bo'sun Daithi Dempsey and Captain Dermot Kavanagh
Bo'sun Daithi Dempsey and Captain Dermot Kavanagh

He explained that the emigrants on the Jeanie Johnston were luckier than most.

"The emigrants that came onto this ship were fed, because that was included in their deal.

"No-one ever died on this ship - in fact it's actually plus one, because one woman had a child on board, which is unique I imagine."

Sixteen trainees now sleep where 60 emigrants were once packed end to end.

"We're also a said training ship," said Dermot, "and the trainees get a feel of what a famine ship was like and also the feel of a sailing ship.

"They participate in everything, even going up the mast.

"It's a great opportunity, and anyone who has taken part has always been very happy with it," he said.

Rebecca Doherty
Rebecca Doherty who was one of the many visitors to the Jeanie Johnston

Bo'sun Daithi Dempsey explained that the ship has 18 sails, and the crew try to proceed under full sail as often as they can.

"We're one of very few actual wooden sailing ships. Many of them now have steel hulls which are very efficient, but this is one of very few such ships left.

"We've just come from Galway, and on Wednesday we'll head for Larne and then onto Dublin on our tour of Ireland.

"Later this year we'll head for Spain, and then back to Kerry," he said.

"Working on a famine ship - it is something different.

"I suppose people think it's just a fad or something, and I'll go and get a real job one day, but no, this is it," said Daithi.

The many families who turned out to see the Jeanie Johnston at Queen's Quay in Derry were equally entranced by the ship.

For nine-year-old Rebecca Doherty, having a go at steering the ship was the highlight of her visit.

"I think it was absolutely brilliant.

"I think the wheel up on the very back was the best bit, because I got to turn it around.

"I was a bit afraid it would actually turn the ship away but it was anchored down.

"I don't think I would have liked going to America with my family - I think it would have been really scary," she said.

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