Beach Books

Famine’s Ship of Mercy

The Beachcomber
Sep 04, 2013

Between 1845 and 1852, the Irish potato famine killed over one million people. In an attempt to escape starvation, almost a quarter of the Irish population emigrated – about two million souls – a vast number of them to North America. Whole families, many already half starved, boarded wooden sailing vessels and spent as long as two months in steerage. More than 100,000 of them would die aboard one of these “coffin ships.”

All Standing by Kathryn Miles (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 2013) is the story of the one small ship that delivered all her passengers to Canada and the United States alive and healthy. It recounts the journeys of the barque Jeanie Johnston, her heroic crew, and the immigrants who were ferried between Ireland and North America. At a time of horrific loss of life, this famous ship never lost a passenger.

Through assiduous research, the author found some descendants of a farming family from Tralee, Ireland who boarded the Jeanie Johnston on her maiden voyage. The key discovery was the name Nicholas Reilly, who was born on the ship and who forever listed his place of birth as the “Atlantic Ocean.” The reader follows the family to Quebec, Indiana (where Irish labor built the railroad) and Fergus Falls, Minnesota, where they settled. We also meet shipbuilder John Munn, Captain James Attridge and on-board Doctor Richard Blennerhassett, all exceptional men whose humane qualities are a vivid contrast to the other shippers of human cargo. The narrative jumps back and forth between the decade the Jeanie Johnson sailed (1848-1858) and the family’s life in America at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century.

The appalling details of the Irish potato famine and the neglect of the British government under colonial secretary Earl Grey are another thread. In 1852 a government committee of inquiry returned a damning report that, the author reports, “concluded it was public neglect that had resulted in so much suffering there. It was the closest thing to an admission of responsibility Ireland would receive from the British government until Tony Blair made a public apology in 1997.”

Using newspaper accounts, rare archival documents, and her own experience sailing as an apprentice aboard the recently re-created Jeanie Johnston, Miles tells the story of these extraordinary people and the revolutionary milieu in which they set sail. In this lucid and engaging book, she puts human faces on one of the worst tragedies in modern times.

— Margaret Buchholz

Margaret Buchholz is the former owner of this newspaper and author of Josephine: From Washington Working Girl to Fisherman's Wife, Shore Chronicles, New Jersey Shipwrecks, Island Album and co-author of Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, available at local stores. Send comments to

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