By Harry Keaney
Another storm cloud has cast its shadow over the Jeanie Johnston.
The latest salvo across the ship’s bow comes in a report from the manager of Kerry County Council, which agreed to support the project by guaranteeing loans up to £2 million from the Bank of Ireland. But now, the manager, Martin Nolan, has questioned the ability of those behind the project to undertake the mammoth task.
Meanwhile, Jim Finucane, a director and board member of the Jeanie Johnston Company, said the ship was being built to very high specifications and he pointed out that it was not just a museum but would be a full ocean-going vessel.
"I feel, when it gets to the U.S., people will be pleased with the end project," Nolan told the Echo from Tralee on Monday, just after he left the ship, which is currently receiving its finishing touches. For its transAtlantic voyage, it must comply with modern maritime regulations and specifications.
Explaining Nolan’s involvement in the project, Finucane said that Tralee Urban District Council and Kerry Council are, in effect, guarantors for the cost of the project, and Nolan, as county manager, is chief executive of both bodies.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The project is expected to cost more than £8 million.
The ship, built in Kerry, is a replica of a Famine-era sailing vessel that, unlike so-called coffin ships of the time, never lost a passenger. The Jeanie Johnston was to sail to the U.S. this year as part of the millennium celebrations but that voyage was scuttled and it is now expected to take place in the spring of 2001. The ship was launched last May from a specially constructed shipyard at Blennerville, Co. Kerry, by the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese.
Nolan is not the only one with questions about the endeavor. So too has Councilor Brendan Cronin, the only council member who has consistently opposed council involvement in the project.
Although he said he hoped the project would be successful, he said he thought the council’s financial backing of it was a wrong move.
He described the ship as "the pipedream" of a few wealthy and influential people in Tralee.
But Finucane sees the Jeanie Johnston project as more than building a ship, and he hopes others would see "the vision" involved.
"This is the first time our country has done something to commemorate its immigrants," Finucane said, adding that it would bring history alive by actually showing how immigrants had once traveled to the U.S.
The ship has also been associated with the Northern Ireland peace process; Finucane referred to the fact that work on the vessel had also been done by people from the North.
In delivering his report on the project to a recent meeting of Kerry County Council, Nolan said that the Jeanie Johnston company may have "outgrown its ability," according to the local Kerryman newspaper.
Nolan said the company had "already seriously misjudged the complexities and costs of building the ship itself."
"In my view," Nolan said, "very detailed planning and analysis are required before the final decisions on the [U.S.] voyage are taken."
But Nolan added that the voyage should take place at the end of the planning stage if "the preliminary projections for income stand up and are realized in confirmed cash bookings."
Calling for the company to be strengthened and restructured at both board and management level, Nolan said that the Jeanie Johnston project had made demands that a voluntary group was unable to meet.
"Just because you have committed and dedicated people who are prepared to work extremely hard and very honestly and honorably, it doesn’t follow that they have the skills and abilities necessary to complete all tasks on such a complex project," Nolan said.
Concern was also expressed at the council meeting that the cancellation of this year’s voyage to the U.S. had seriously reduced the projects potential income. Nolan also indicated that he did not share the optimism of the Jeanie Johnston Company that next year’s planned trip to the U.S. would clear all of the debts that had been built up.
Nolan’s report indicated that while £6.5 million has been raised, including a grant of £2 million from the Department of the Marine and natural Resources, additional funding of more than £2 million is required.
U.S. bound, eventually
Despite his questions and reservations, Nolan believes the ship should be completed and taken, as planned, on its voyage to the U.S. and Canada. He said that if the vessel was seaworthy, safe, built to very high standards, he "could see no reason" why the project should not be completed.
Referring to the postponement of this year’s voyage to the U.S., Nolan said this had been the right choice by the company because it was important that this venture was planned as carefully as possible. Saying "the pain is over and the gain is yet to come," Nolan confirmed that a marketing program for the project had been developed since last December and that Aer Lingus and the Irish Tourist Board were now both involved.
Nolan said that, at the end of the day, the Jeanie Johnston is a sophisticated tourist project that will promote Tralee, Kerry and Ireland.
During the coming weeks, officials of the Jeanie Johnston Company hope to have meetings with Nolan to deal with the concerns he has raised, according to Finucane.
Finucane said that Nolan’s comments had to be put in the context that they were made after a substantial grant — the £2 million Department of the Marine — was made by the government.
"This project has always been a national project and the scale of it is huge," Finucane said. "There is a very dedicated team, the ship is built like no other ship and was launched without any incident."
"Most massive project"
Despite the difficulties facing the project, the Kerryman newspaper reported that the response from councilors remained largely supportive, with one, Jackie Healy-R’, describing it "the most massive project" ever to leave the shores of Ireland.
Sinn Féin Councilor Martin Ferris predicted that the ship would "reawaken the dormant Irish nation" throughout the world, but he warned that a damage-limitation operation was now needed in the U.S. following the canceled voyage.
"There were great expectations in America in places like Boston," Ferris said.
The American angle was also referred to by Fíanna Fáil councilor Denis Foley, who said he hoped that the project had not been tainted by the problems and that the numbers of tourists visiting Kerry from the U.S. would not be affected.
A former council chairman, Ted Fitzgerald, said it would be disastrous for the prestige of the entire country if the Jeanie Johnston did not sail to the U.S. He said that as a matter of patriotism, there must be no bad publicity which damages the project.
Labor Deputy Breda Moynihan-Cronin called on her colleagues to take pride in the local project. She predicted that it would pay off "in leaps and bounds" when it reached the U.S.
"The money will come back tenfold," she said.