The Dunbrody Odyssey

  Dunbrody, A Famine Odyssey – How JFK’s Roots Helped Revive an Irish Town 

By Sean Reidy


I arrived in New Ross in 1993 to begin work for a local newspaper so, naturally, it wasn’t long before Seán Reidy and I crossed paths. I hadn’t had much prior acquaintance with the town: it was a place we passed through on the way to the seaside in Duncannon or Fethard, dominated, to my child’s eyes, by the giant space-age silver sphere of the teeming fertiliser factory. Now there were rusting chains on the gates of that factory and most of the town’s other industries. New Ross was down at heel and, I found, a little down at hearti. Not Seán Reidy, though.

Seán had plans – plans of such vaulting ambition that, were they being proposed by anyone else, might have come across as harmless fantasy. He and his colleagues in the John F Kennedy Trust were going to raise millions and build a life-size replica of a 485-tonne 19th-century Famine ship whose masts, spars and rigging would tower above the town’s main thoroughfare, acting as a giant stop sign for tourists and a beacon of hope for the locals. Simple!

But the doubters were steadily won over – not by any slick sales patter or bells-and-whistles spiel but by the quiet confidence that Seán always managed to exude and his seemingly unshakable conviction that this was going to happen. Bit by bit, the contagion of hope spread through the town. I, too, was infected and – typical of Seán’s powers of persuasion – not merely convinced but roped in: soon, apart from covering the Dunbrody story for my newspaper, I was doing some PR work for the JFK Trust, coaching its trainees in desktop publishing and writing skills, helping to produce its occasional newsletter and even writing the odd speech for dignitaries to deliver at major Dunbrody events.

I was among the 3,000 who rose in the small hours of a chilly Sunday morning in February 2001 to witness the launch. That’s when I realised how emotionally invested I was; as Dunbrody glided out into the mighty Barrow, it wasn’t the fog that blurred my vision.

Soon afterwards, my job took me away from New Ross so the Dunbrody story neatly book-ended my time there – from the blueprints, fresh off the naval architect’s desk in 1993, to the dream’s final physical expression in massive baulks of larch, oak, greenheart and opepe. Clearly, the success of the project was written in the stars.

Not a bit of it! As this book reveals, there was nothing inevitable about Dunbrody’s eventual triumph. How perilously close to the rocks she sailed on more than one occasion! Behind the calm confidence he exuded, Seán Reidy here unveils the doubts and qualms and sleepless nights, never mind the sheer hard work and tenacity of an extensive collective.

No, the Dunbrody story is the saga of a community’s determination, resolve and refusal to say die – indeed, the same indomitable resilience exemplified by the Famine Irish who sailed on the original Dunbrody, who braved an ocean to build new lives in an alien world. The new Dunbrody stands as a fitting tribute as much to the people of today’s New Ross as to their 19th-century forebears.

Simon Bourke

About the Author

Author Sean Reidy will be well known to anyone with an interest in Irish US relations and politics. Sean was CEO of the JFK Trust from 1991 to 2014 and in that time he led the community of New Ross in building not only the Dunbrody Famine Ship but it’s visitor centre along with the Irish American Hall of Fame and the Irish Emigration Centre. He was also a key figure in the development of the new Kennedy Homestead Visitor centre amongst many other Irish / US projects.

Sean Reidy and Caroline Kennedy Kennedy Homestead opening
First board of directors at JFK Trust
Picture shows Former USA Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith pictured with Project Manager Sean Reidy at the keel laying ceremony 1997.
JFK Trust visit to Áras an Uachtaráin President Mary Robinson 1997-21
Sean Reidy & Joe Biden