By Bob B., 16-time traveler from Braintree, MA
Given my paternal ancestry, it was only natural that my inaugural O.A.T. trip would be to Ireland. After passing the half-century mark, I sought out travel companies that fit my desire to specialize in small group active international trekking for those in my age range. Living in Massachusetts, I began my investigation of locally-based firms and discovered Overseas Adventure Travel in 1998. Upon obtaining a catalog, I found a 14-day trip to the Irish Republic, “A Taste of Ireland Walking Tour,” and quickly booked a departure for that summer.
That trip exceeded my expectations. In addition to experiencing the scenic highlights of the Emerald Isle, I became a certificate-holding “Qualified Irish Whiskey Taster” at the Jameson Irish Whiskey Heritage Centre and penned a limerick (perhaps as a result of kissing the Blarney Stone!) that won me a stuffed leprechaun doll that still resides in a place of honor in my home. The formal itinerary not only covered the scenic highlights of the country, but also included stops relating to Irish history and the migration that brought my ancestors to America.
On the tenth day of the tour, we made a special stop at Blennerville on the shores of the Bay of Tralee and home to the largest working windmill in Ireland. Also located there was the site of a project that was engaged in the building of a replica of a nineteenth-century three-masted tall ship that had ferried emigrants to America. Grand Circle Foundation, in association with the Irish-American Fund and others, was providing financial support to the effort and our group was given a private tour of the facility. The vessel under construction was a copy of the Jeanie Johnston, which had an exceptional sailing record. Ships like the Jeanie Johnston were engaged during Ireland’s An Gorta Mor (“The Great Hunger”) to transport malnourished passengers seeking salvation to the shores of North America. They were given the nickname of “coffin ships” as many were barely seaworthy and the intolerable, overcrowded conditions on board led to a high mortality rate among their sanctuary-seekers during the average 47-day crossing.
However, the Jeanie Johnston proved not to be a “coffin ship.” During its numerous Atlantic Ocean crossings, it achieved the remarkable record of never having lost a single passenger or crew member. At the height of the potato famine, the ship transported much-need food supplies back to Ireland. True to the end, when the Jeanie Johnston sank in the mid-Atlantic in 1858 while transporting timber, all aboard were saved.
An international team from Ireland, Britain, the United States, and Canada had been assembled to recreate the barque using both traditional and modern shipbuilding techniques. Upon completion, the Jeanie Johnston would embark upon a voyage to retrace the original’s transatlantic route, with ports of call that would include my Boston hometown.
Impressed by this effort to commemorate a significant piece of Irish-American heritage, I followed the project’s progress after my 1998 O.A.T. tour. You might even say that I was “Dreaming of Jeanie” all the while! Encountering difficulties along the way that delayed its completion, the Jeanie Johnston finally was ready for its maiden voyage in 2003. It arrived in Boston on July 24 and docked in Boston Harbor at a pier within walking distance of O.A.T.’s Congress Street office. Then working in the area, I had the opportunity to view the finished product. Jeanie’s prow held a wood-carved figurehead of the goddess “Éiru” from which the land of Éire derives its name. The painted sculpture featured flowing blond hair and a dress of Kerry green. I was able to board the famine ship replica to get a personal insight into the emigrant experience.
That initial trip not only inspired me to sign on for many more O.A.T. adventures and to become a member of the Sir Edmund Hillary Club many times over, but also to engage in ancestry research to further understand my Irish roots. When O.A.T. recently unveiled its new Irish Adventure trip, I promptly plotted a return to Ireland’s shores in 2018. With its emphasis on the north and Northern Ireland, the trip itinerary would bring me to the area that my ancestors once called home. Additionally, the trip provided an opportunity to learn firsthand about another unfortunate part of Irish history referred to as “The Troubles,” as would be well illustrated at stops in Derry and Belfast.
I also had an unfinished piece of “bucket list” business to accomplish—to see the Jeanie Johnston one more time. The post-trip Dublin extension provided sufficient free time for me to plan a 20th anniversary reunion celebration at its current place of residence, within walking distance from our hotel. As you traverse the Custom House Quay on the River Liffey in the Dublin Docklands section to where the ship is berthed, you will encounter the Famine Statues, a series of sculptures of emaciated men, women, and children heading to the docks with hopes of emigrating to the New World. The Jeanie Johnston lies just ahead.
Just as it was 20 years ago, the ship was surrounded by construction, only this time she was undergoing necessary repairs. Who isn’t the worse for wear after two decades? Luckily, the “non-coffin” ship remained open and I boarded for an informative 50-minute guided tour.
Upon disembarking, I had one more thing to do—walk further down the road to the Guinness Storehouse and raise a glass of its signature dark dry stout in a toast to honor the courage of my ancestors and Jeanie’s historic role in Irish-American history. Sláinte! (Cheers!)
Immerse yourself in Ireland’s history when you join O.A.T. for Irish Adventure: Belfast, Dublin & the Northwest Counties.