Photos by Conal Thomas

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Since 2015 when it inherited the Jeanie Johnston from the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA), the city council has pumped more than €200,000 into repairs for the replica famine ship.

Having cost over €15 million to build the ship’s value has now sunk to €400,000, according to Dublin City Council Administrative Officer Derek Kelly  – and officials say that more repairs are needed.

Some councillors are unsure whether more should be spent to save the historical tourist attraction, or if it should be cut adrift.

An Inheritance

It cost €15.5 million to build the replica ship, a price-tag that was largely covered by central government, according to a council spokesperson. Work started in 1993 and was completed in 2002.

In 2005, the DDDA bought the ship for €2.7 million from Kerry County Council, Tralee Town Council, and food company the Kerry Group, they said.

The ship was part of the €8 million parcel of assets handed over to Dublin City Council from the DDDA after it wrapped up in 2015.

But in the decade between the time when the DDDA bought it, and the agency’s demise, the ship was damaged.

Maintenance of the Jeanie Johnston was, essentially, a low priority for the authority and it was left unused for a number of years, according to the council spokesperson.

“During this period significant rot occurred at the transom of the vessel and below the water line,” they said, by email.

Dublin City Council paid for the majority of the repairs to fix the damage, which cost it €202,000, they said.

Still, when it rains, water trickles to the lowest point of the ship because of the way it was built, and stagnates there, causing rot.

Last week, Kelly gave an update on the council’s costly inheritance from the DDDA.

“There’s been significant repair work that’s had to be done,” he said, at a meeting of the council’s finance committee.

In terms of fully repairing the Johnston progress has been slow, he said.

Although a private operator currently runs daily tours of the ship, charging €10 per adult, it’s on an “ad-hoc” basis. The operator has been there since the heady days of the DDDA. The council have yet to draw up a proper tendering process for its operation.

More repairs are needed and the council can’t expect a private operator to pay for it, he said.

Roughly €27,000 of work needs to be done on the transom, between €3,000 and €5,000 must be spent on a rigging inspection, and the deck needs €40,000 of work. “The deck of the ship is in a substantial state of disrepair,” Kelly said.

The Jeanie Johnston also needs to dry-dock for a time in Howth harbour, so further repairs can be completed. That would mean taking it out of action for a time.

The council’s aim is to do it up so that it can get a permanent operator by early 2018, who, going forward, would share responsibility for the ship’s operation and maintenance.

All Aboard?

On Saturday afternoon, a couple sat on a picnic bench on Custom House Quay, waiting to board the vessel, as a flock of seagulls squawked in a dull sky above the rigging.

“You wouldn’t know it was here,” said one man, motioning towards the Jeanie Johnston moored off the quay. “It’s not really advertised.”

Inside the ship are exhibits about life aboard the original Jeanie Johnston, which carried more than 2,500 emigrants to America from 1848 onwards, according to its website.

Visitor numbers have been “pretty stagnant” of late, at about 25,000 per year for the past two years, according to the council spokesperson.

Council officials want those figures up between 60,000 and 80,000 in the future. It’s unclear yet, though, who will take on the challenge of increasing them.

Any new operator would have to be willing to take responsibility for the ship’s future maintenance and repairs, and how likely such an operator will come on board remains to be seen, said Kelly at last week’s meeting.

Because of the historic ship building methods used during the construction of the Johnston some of these problems are to be expected if a regular maintenance programme is not adhered to, said Kelly.

“But it is the council’s belief that the ship’s future is safe as a result of the investment made to date and that a new operator will be responsible for continuing this work,” he said.

Micháel Ó Cionna, who currently runs the tours of the ship for the council, said his company is interested in continuing to operate the ship, but they’ll have to wait and see when it goes out to tender.”

Only then will he consider a bid.

“We have to work out what’s required and what the terms are,” he said.

Neither Ó Cionna nor the council would say how much the company makes from the daily tours.

“Details of this are of a commercially sensitive nature and cannot be disclosed,” said the council spokesperson.

Sunk Costs

Independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley said he thinks the Jeanie Johnston is worth the cost. If the council can get an operator on board, the ship could become a thriving tourist attraction, he says.

“It does touch on our social history,” he says. “The amount of money, the overall cost with regards Dublin City Council, is a very small amount of money.” (The council’s budget for the current year is €862.5 million.)

Visitor numbers might increase if the council moved the ship to another location, McGinley said. At last week’s meeting, Kelly said that’s something that the council will examine down the line.

Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan is not so certain that the Jeanie Johnston is worth the money. “I’m concerned,” he says. “At this stage the costs seem to be excessive. It is only a replica.”

As McCartan sees it, the city mothers and fathers are caught. “It seems like a bottomless pit in one way. When is it all going to end?” he says. “And yet there’d be a furore altogether if it wasn’t repaired.”

It is the DDDA and the debts that it incurred that meant the Jeanie Johnston slid into disrepair, said Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.

“But it’s a piece of property that is worth preserving,” he says. “It’s worth saving. It’s worth creating a tourist asset for the city.”

Cónal Thomas

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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