The Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship Museum at Custom House Quay Dublin

“One hundred and sixty years ago, we were a broken land,
Phytophthora, phytophthora, phytophthora infestans…”

I just made those lines up, but phytophthora infestans is the name for the potato blight that wreaked havoc across the island of Ireland in the late 1840s. Given that the potato was the staple of the Irish peasant’s diet, the result was starvation and disease resulting in death for at least a million people. I’ve read somewhere that the kind of spud farmed in Ireland at the time was one of the most nutritious: Today’s taters won’t come close. It meant that the rural Irish diet was said to be better than that of the typical European city dweller’s, even though that diet was far more varied. There are gardeners today planting seeds of this type of potato in allotments, but you won’t find it in the supermarket or the fruit & veg store.

Anyhoo, the Jeanie Johnston Famine Ship is a replica of a cargo vessel that delivered the Irish trans-Atlantic from their broken land to North America. The vessels transporting their human freight earned the nickname “coffin ships”. There was a lot of disease and death on the overcrowded ocean crossers, but – as you will learn on a tour of the museum ship on Custom House Quay – the original Jeanie Johnston had an unblemished record, with no deaths onboard either during or after the Famine. She had a competent doctor about whom you’ll learn quite a bit, and the ship’s captain was an aberration at the time: A humanitarian who encouraged his steerage class passengers to – among other things – leave the hellishly overcrowded hold and get a bit of fresh air every day.

On the tour, you get an idea of the cramped conditions on many of these ships a century and a half ago. It’s an interesting hour or so, and there’s plenty of detail specific to the Jeanie Johnston you’re unlikely to glean from the history books. So check it out!