By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A maiden voyage to America next year by a replica famine ship being built in New Ross, Co. Wexford, has been deferred and staff in the boatyard have been laid off as a result of a cash crisis.
The Dunbrody was to have sailed from Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day to arrive in Boston in May. The ship had originally been envisioned as a floating exhibition center to attract tourists to New Ross, but it was later decided to upgrade it to full sea-going standard. This has led to the costs soaring above the initial budget of £2.6 million.
The John F Kennedy Trust, which has been overseeing the construction, has now scaled down the operation and laid off 14 of 64 staff working on the vessel pending the outcome of a new budget evaluation.
Trust chief executive Sean Reidy said the organization is going through "very difficult waters at the moment" and needs in excess of £1 million extra. Organizers are re-assessing the whole project, but were still determined to build a ship capable of sailing across the Atlantic.
"With the upgrading and increased costs the project will now cost about £4.5 million. So far we have raised £3.5 million," he said.
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"The best estimates we got from experts were wide of the mark and the fund-raising in America has brought in less than we expected. We are now regrouping and reflecting on how we go forward from here. Certainly, the deadline of next March has gone out the window.
"One of the problems has been that it is very difficult for fund raisers to raise money while people still can’t see the Dunbrody. We are hoping that we will now be able to get a major corporate sponsor," he said.
Building a sea-going vessel is a much bigger undertaking, Reidy said, because a passenger vessel has to comply with stringent safety regulations. The Dunbrody was on course for completion with the hull constructed, the main mast set in early November and spars and rigging all ready.
The project attracted 52,000 visitors last year to New Ross to watch the craftsmen work.
The Dunbrody project also attracted the personal attention of former U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy-Smith, whose grandfather emigrated from the area.
The 176-foot-long replica will involve more than 450 tons of native oak, larch and other timbers. Coillte, which sponsored much of the timber, has established a plantation of the same name where 25,000 trees are to be planted. Members of the public can have a tree planted in their name for £10.
Last year, details of emigrants who fled the Great Famine directly from Ireland and by traveling via Liverpool, London and other British ports, were part of a huge archive handed over to then President Mary Robinson by Kennedy Smith.
The records from the U.S. National Archive will be kept on a computer database on board Dunbrody. The Famine records are part of a collaborative partnership between the JFK Trust, the Ellis Island Restoration Commission in New York and the Balch Institute for Immigration Research, Temple University, Philadelphia.
Work began on the database six years ago with the aim of creating a definitive record of all Irish immigration into the US from 1820. Reidy said the emigration records now had two million entries on its database and they would travel with the Dunbrody for people who wanted to check their Irish roots.