By Ray O’Hanlon
A check for $855 donated by the New York Mets to the Jeanie Johnston Famine ship project remained uncashed this week as a West Point, N.Y., businessman pledged to replace it with a larger sum.
Denis Maher, whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. from Tipperary a century ago, told the Echo that he was prompted to act when he read the Echo’s stories about how the Mets first delayed payment to the charitable organization, the Famine Ship Ltd., and then finally paid up what Maher himself described as "a pathetic donation" to the group.
"This insult should not be accepted under any terms," the 44-year-old businessman said. "My children’s swim team could have raised more than that at a Saturday car wash."
Maher, who heads his own company, The Maher Group, said he would personally donate $1,000 to the Famine Ship Ltd. to cover the Mets check if that check is sent back uncashed to Shea Stadium.
Famine Ship Ltd. executive director Jeff Cleary said that his group was considering Maher’s "very generous" offer.
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"But we’re still intent on talking with the Mets and are hopeful that we can work something out," Cleary said.
The Famine Ship Ltd. last week finally received the check from the Mets after a five-month wait.
The $855 is what the Mets organization believes the group should be paid for its efforts in selling tickets on Irish Night at Shea stadium held last Aug. 5.
Cleary, on the other hand, believes that, at the very least, the Jeanie Johnston project should have received a payment based on the difference between the 1997 and 1998 crowd totals on Irish Night.
By his estimation, that would result in a check of $11,183 as opposed to the one cut for the far lower figure. Cleary believes the $855 donation to be utterly derisory. And Denis Maher agrees.
"The Mets are a professional sports team worth at least $400 million. Someone actually calculated a total of $855 as the tax-deductible total and mailed it with a note. I know that this is wrong and would not be acceptable to any charitable organization," Maher said.
"The hardships those poor people endured on the coffin ships would be diminished and compromised by these sports elitists. Long ago our ancestors taught us to beg no more. We are in no mood for any handouts. More money would have been raised outside the Shea Stadium gates by donations of hardworking New Yorkers, policemen, firemen, nurses and all who know the real meaning of earning a tough dollar," Maher added.
The plan to raise money on Irish Night for the $6 million Jeanie Johnston rebuilding project was launched last May at a reception held at the Irish Consulate in Manhattan. The reception was attended by former Tanaiste and Kerry TD Dick Spring, the primary political patron of the Jeanie Johnston project which is currently taking place at Blennerville, near Tralee, Co. Kerry.
In a press release coinciding with the Consulate reception, the Mets made it clear that it was happy to be involved with the project.
"When the Famine Ship project was brought to the Mets attention, we were immediately excited to be able to help out the team of young people from different nations who have come together to build the replica ship."
Expectations at the outset were high. A letter sent by the Famine Ship Ltd. to potential donors stated that "a substantial portion of the gate receipts [from Irish Night] will be donated to the Jeanie Johnston project."
On Irish Night itself, those expectations were maintained as over 35,500 fans attended the game against San Francisco.
A special souvenir program was printed for the game. It included letters from both Dick Spring and New York Governor, George Pataki.
Spring wrote in part: "I welcome the proposal to rebuild the Jeanie Johnston and to sail her once again to her old destinations in the United States and Canada. It is a project which brings us together again."
Pataki wrote that Irish Night served to benefit a project that had historical significance and heartfelt meaning for persons of Irish ancestry and freedom-loving people everywhere.
"In undertaking the reconstruction of the Jeanie Johnston — the famed ship upon which many Irish immigrants traveled during the mid-19th century — you pay tribute to the Irish men and women who left their homeland to find a new life in the United States and other lands," he said.
"By commemorating the experiences of these brave individuals who endured pain and hardship, you also honor the memory of the victims of the Great Hunger who were not as fortunate and perished in their quest for a better life."
Pataki concluded his message with best wishes "for a successful evening."
However, a successful outcome proved elusive. The Mets took the view that the crowd was no larger than one it could have attracted by its efforts alone. The Famine Ship Ltd., in the ball club’s view, had not succeeded in selling many extra seats, particularly in the stadium’s lucrative corporate boxes.
The Famine Ship Ltd. disagreed, arguing that Irish Night ’98 managed to attract a bigger crowd — by a margin of roughly 2,000 — over Irish Night ’97, and this despite the fact that the former fell on a Wednesday and the latter fell on a Saturday.
As the weeks turned into months, relations between both sides cooled to the point where the Famine Ship Ltd. accused the Mets of deliberately not returning its phone calls.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, the rebuilding of the Jeanie Johnston goes on. The original Jeanie Johnston made 16 transAtlantic voyages to the U.S. and Canada between 1847 and 1855 without losing a single passenger. As such, the ship probably doesn’t properly fit the typical definition of a "coffin ship."
The reborn Jeanie Johnston is due to sail to North America next year stopping off at as many as 20 ports in the U.S. and Canada, including the Mets hometown of New York. President Clinton has indicated an interest in meeting the ship when it arrives in Boston.