Turtle Bunbury

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The following is an extract from 'Dublin Docklands - An Urban Voyageby Turtle Bunbury, published in 2009.

Jeanie Johnston


Anyone who has read Joseph O’Connor’s masterpiece ‘Star of the Sea’ should take a stroll along the decks of the Jeanie Johnston. This exceptionally handsome three-masted barque is a replica of a 19th century Irish emigrant ship, built as a Millennium Project in 2000. With its home berth at Dublin City Moorings, the Jeanie Johnston is already one of the landmarks of the Dublin Docklands. She is also one of the best known sail training ships in Europe.

The original Jeanie Johnston was built in 1847 on the banks of the St Lawrence River in Quebec City, Canada. Its architect was the Scottish-born shipbuilder and master craftsman John Munn.(1) This was one of the last ships of its kind. Within a few short years the world’s shipbuilders, Munn included, had turned to steamship. The 408-ton cargo ship was purchased in Liverpool by John Donovan & Sons of Tralee, Co. Kerry. They ran a successful trade bringing emigrants from Ireland to North America, and returning with timber bound for the ports of Europe.

By 1848, famine was terrorising Ireland. On April 24th of that year, the Jeanie Johnston made her maiden emigrant voyage from Blennerville, Co. Kerry to Quebec, with 193 emigrants on board. Over the next seven years, she made 16 voyages to North America, sailing to Quebec, Baltimore, and New York, and delivering upwards of 2500 Irish emigrants safely to the New World. The fare to Quebec on the Jeanie Johnston was £3.10, which represented close to half a year's wages for an Irish labourer at the time. The average length of the transatlantic journey was 47 days, or seven weeks. On one trip from Tralee to Quebec in April 1852 she carried a incredible 254 passengers. To put this in perspective, the replica ship now has a day cruise maximum capacity of 60. Generally, a whole family would share a single 6 foot square berth. Those travelling alone shared with three others, often total strangers, and sometimes not even of the same sex. Quarters were cramped with berths lining both walls, and a narrow table in the walkway between. Passengers lived on their own limited food supplies, provide their own utensils and cooked for themselves. Toilets were practically non-existent.

Despite these arduous conditions and the long voyage, no life was ever lost on board the Jeanie Johnston. This remarkable feat is generally attributed to the ship’s wise captain, Castletownsend-born James Attridge, and its qualified doctor, Richard Blennerhassett. There was also a fiddler or two to keep the spirits up.

In 1855, the ship was sold to William Johnson of North Shields in England. In 1858, en route to Quebec from Hull with a cargo of timber, she became waterlogged. The crew climbed into the rigging, and after nine days clinging to the slowly-sinking ship, they were rescued by a Dutch ship, the Sophie Elizabeth. Even in her loss, she maintained her perfect safety record.

As the 150th anniversary of the Famine approached in the 1990s, there was a growing demand across Ireland to know more about this ‘visitation of God’ that wreaked such chaos on the land. The building of the Jeanie Johnston replica at Blennerville was part of that process. The wooden ship was designed by Fred Walker, former Chief Naval Architect with the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. The recreation project was modelled closely on that of the 17th century Dutch East India merchant ship, the Batavia. Work began in 1993 with in-depth research based on a Lloyd’s survey of the ship from 1847. It culminated in the completion of the vessel in 2002. An international team of young people, linking Ireland North and South, the United States, Canada and other countries, built the replica under the supervision of experienced shipwrights.

The ship is built with larch planks on oak frames. To comply with current international maritime regulations, some concessions to modernity had to be made. She has two Caterpillar main engines, two Caterpillar generators, and an emergency generator located above the waterline in the forward deckhouse. She is fully compliant to the highest standards of modern ocean-going passenger ships, with steel water-tight bulkheads, down-flooding valves, and fire-fighting equipment.

In 2002 the Jeanie Johnston sailed across the Atlantic from Fenit, Co. Kerry, to Canada and the USA, stopping at over 20 ports along the way. She has had a busy time ever since, not least when Riverdance came to stomp upon its decks. In 2005, Captain Michael Coleman sailed her in the Tall Ships Race. She was purchased by the Docklands Authority in 2006 and currently operates as a Class A sail training ship. But you can board her anytime, perhaps to learn more from the Famine History Museum, or enjoy some corporate entertainment, or maybe to head out on a 6-hour day trip around Dublin Bay.


1. John Munn, the Scottish lumber magnate who built the original Jeanie Johnston in Quebec, is not to be confused with his contemporary John Munn, the father of Jessie Kelly Munn, who married Captain Robert Charles Halpin, the Master Mariner best known for laying the transatlantic telegraph cable from Valentia Island in County Kerry to Newfoundland. Captain Halpin was also a cousin of the legendary George Halpin’s - father and son – who built so much of the Dublin docklands. A contemporary newspaper account of the Halpin-Munn wedding read as follows:

‘Harbour Grace Standard, 8 Nov. 1873: On the 14th ult., at Christ Church, Southport, by the Rev. H. Brownrigg, assisted by Rev. Dr. Clarke, Robert Charles Halpin, Commander of the S.S. Great Eastern, to Jessie, youngest daughter of the Hon. John Munn of Harbor Grace, Newfoundland.’

‘The Life of Captain Robert Halpin
’ by Jim Rees also contains the following extract under the heading ‘A Fashionable Marriage’:

"A very fine specimen of the British sailor has married Jessie Munn, youngest daughter of the Hon. John Munn, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, a member of the Legislative Assembly for that place and proprietor of one of the largest whale & seal fisheries in the world. The marriage was solemnised at Christchurch, Southport under Rev BROWNRIGG of WICKLOW, assisted by Rev. Clarke. Bridesmaids were sisters of the bride and Miss Halpin. Best man was Edmund DICKENS, nephew of Charles Dickens, Captain W. E. Welch and Captain W. H. Thompson. A great crowd of eager onlookers assembled both within and without the church ... At the Breakfast in Victoria Hotel, John Munn occupied the head of the table with Rev. Brownrigg sitting opposite".

At the time of the wedding, John Munn employed over 8000 Canadians in his business. Captain Halpin was then living at 'Briton House' Beckenham, Kent, where they settled before returning to Wicklow. The births of their three daughters were registered at Beckenham.

John Munn was a Scot who, according to Brendan Dinneen, ‘had a lumber and a business in Quebec where he used modern-day “vertical integration” to build timber ships, stuff them with Canadian timber, shipped them to Liverpool, sold the timber, got Lloyds to certify the ship and sold the ship.’

With thanks to Bill Wesbter and Brendan Dinneen.



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