From Irish famine to Maryland shore

Memorial: A Baltimore man helps build a replica of the sailing ships that carried impoverished Irish families to America.

August 16, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

BLENNERVILLE, Ireland -- Winter days are dark and cold on the rugged west coast of Ireland. And in summer, the rain and wind off Tralee Bay can make the shipyard at Blennerville a chill and dreary place to work.

But this is where Baltimore shipwright Rodney Goode arrived in July 1998, eager to lend a hand -- despite low wages and old tools -- with the construction of the Jeanie Johnston, a replica of an 1847 "famine ship" being built near Tralee, in County Kerry.

The new Jeanie Johnston will celebrate perhaps the most famous and reliable of the sailing ships that carried Irish families to Baltimore and other ports during the potato famine of the mid-19th century.

It was not gray Irish weather they fled, but starvation, disease and economic oppression.

The 130-foot, three-masted bark is to visit Baltimore and 19 other U.S. and Canadian ports next summer as part of its "Millennium Voyage."

Goode, 33, whose home is in Fells Point, was helping to restore the 1854 warship Constellation in Baltimore last year when he heard that the Jeanie Johnston was hiring foreign shipwrights. Too few Irish skilled in traditional shipbuilding could be found to work on the project.

"The Constellation wasn't finished, but [the Jeanie Johnston project] needed people here right away," he said.

He had tried bricklaying, drywall work and furniture-making before signing on with the Constellation, said Goode's mother, Pat Keller of Brooklyn Park. "He was always good with his hands."

Keller said she never expected that Goode's work would take him so far away. But the history of the Jeanie Johnston is about leaving, and Keller has not seen her son since.

In Blennerville, Goode and Jesse Lebovics, a Constellation shipwright from Philadelphia, joined two Danes, a New Zealander, a Swiss, three British subjects, a Canadian and eight or nine Irishmen.

"Schooner trash," Goode laughed. "They just hop from boat to boat. We all sent out resumes."

Goode looks the part, standing beneath the ship's massive honey-colored ribs, dressed in heavy bib overalls, T-shirt and hard hat. Strong and compact, he has colorful dragon tattoos on his arm and a bluebird on his neck. And he knows his way around a shipyard.

"I've never lived in Europe, so this is all new to me," Goode said, shaking his head. "I can't tell you how different it is from home.

"In the first two months I was here, we only saw two days when it didn't rain." When winter came to this northern latitude, and the sun disappeared for 17 hours a day, "I just sunk into a depression. If it wasn't for the project, I wouldn't have stayed."

He complains about the old tools and short supplies. He grouses good-naturedly about Irish bureaucracy and the Kerry accent: The Kerrymen's patter gets faster and less intelligible the farther one ventures down the rocky Dingle peninsula, until it switches from English to Gaelic.

"The people here are genuinely nice," he said. "I certainly know my share of the pubs." He discovered, as visitors do, that pub life in Ireland has little in common with the bar scene in Fells Point.

His wages are modest. "Compared to the average person here, we make a decent wage [about $416 a week]. But it's still not enough," Goode said.

He expects more overtime as the April deadline nears. But the shipyard has told him it will withhold part of the extra wages until the ship is done. That worries him: "I've never known a project like this to have a surplus."

The $6.5 million endeavor is a job-training and economic development effort supported by Irish national and local governments, the European Union, and corporate and private donations from Ireland and North America.

Goode figures the ship is six months behind schedule. Government bureaucracy, and an obligation to provide training to Irish youths, have slowed the shipwrights' work.

On a recent blustery summer day, the ship was mostly all keel and ribs, high and dry beneath a corrugated steel shed on the south bank of Tralee Bay.

Shipwrights were busy "fairing the frames" -- planing the Irish oak ribs so that the hull planks would fit snugly against them. The oak was freshly cut, rather than seasoned, Goode said.

"The prevailing wind causes them to dry in a peculiar way," he said, twisting and warping out of position. "It has really been a big headache."

Delays in the delivery of Austrian fir for the hull planking caused more problems, said project supervisor Fiona Conaty. "Now that we've got it, all we need to do is put it on." She said the yard will hire more shipwrights and schedule overtime to meet the launch date.

The finished ship will commemorate the 1 million men, women and children who left Ireland during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Many of them sailed away -- or were shipped out by landlords eager to be rid of them -- on any ship that would float, and some that wouldn't.

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