There is something in the character of Irish people that makes them eager to chat to anyone, especially in a pub. Maybe it stems from the feeling of being part of one worldwide family.
“We want to know about people, where they came from, how they got here, why they came here, where they were last,” says Frank Magee, director of Dublin Tall Ships. “Because of our history of immigration, we know the pain of people leaving home, the loneliness that leaves in people’s lives and the joy of the welcome back.”
More than 70 million people around the globe are now of Irish descent, from a homeland of only 6.5 million people. The Great Famine of the 1850s saw Ireland’s population drop from eight million to four million when a million died and three million emigrated. Sadly, despite a brief reversal during the Celtic Tiger boom years of the 1990s, emigration remains the answer to the country’s economic woes and every family is affected by it.
Moored in the Dublin Docklands, an area undergoing a multimillion redevelopment that stalled when Ireland’s economy crashed in the 2008 world recession, is the Jeanie Johnston, the reconstruction of a sailing ship that carried more than 2,500 emigrants to North America on 16 voyages. Clambering down its narrow stairwells, trying not to bang my head on the low beams, I think it seems barely big enough to sail the River Liffey, never mind battle 3,000 miles of the stormy Atlantic. Up to 300 passengers were crammed into her tiny cargo space for the seven-week crossing.
It must have been an awful passage but what they were escaping was even worse: the Great Hunger, as it was called in Ireland, saw a million people die of starvation or disease brought on by malnutrition. Life-sized models illustrate the living conditions on the ship and tell stories such as the baby born aboard whose great-great grandchildren still thrive in the USA.
Almost 37 million Americans, about 12 per cent of the total population, claim Irish ancestry including every president come election time. Even US President Barack Obama, aka O’Bama, found a great-great-great-grandfather who left Moneygall in County Offaly in 1850 at the height of the Great Famine. It was this first great wave of Irish-Americans who introduced the Irish pub to America and Canada, the two countries that remain its most enthusiastic champion.
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