Professional Stamp Experts

Out In The Universe...Stamps: Celebrating Irish Immigration To North America

Michael O. Nowlan - April 4, 2000

'Erin go bragh!' is one of the often proclaimed utterances in Ireland and the many lands beyond "old Erin's shore" where the Irish have settled. Probably no continental locale can boast of as much Irish immigration as North America. It is not surprising then that stamp collectors can easily build a topical collection featuring Irish theme stamps. A choice example was just issued.

On March 9, 2000, An Post, the Irish Post Office, issued a single 30-pence stamp to honour the Jeanie Johnston. That Ireland chose to celebrate an ancient sailing vessel on a new stamp probably signaled little significance for North Americans. Nonetheless, the Jeanie Johnston was a major influence on immigration on this side of the Atlantic.

The new Irish issue compliments last year's Ireland and United States combined joint issue to mark the 150th anniversary of the Irish Potato Famine and the arrival of Irish Immigrants to America. Those two stamps have a similar design with a generic sailing ship of the day arriving at port. The stamps differ slightly with the Irish stamp featuring a border at the bottom for the inscription while the U.S. stamp inscription is on the design.

The Jeanie Johnston was not a joint issue, but that ship has probably a greater story to tell than all the vessels that brought immigrants to North American soil. A triple-masted barque, she was built in Quebec, Canada in 1847 for the Donovan family of Tralee, County Kerry in South West Ireland. Constructed of oak and pine, copper-fastened, and weighing 408 tons, she could carry up to 200 passengers along with a 17-man crew. She was 32 meters long.

During the years of the Irish famine, the Jeanie Johnston had the dual role of passenger ship and timber carrier. She carried Irish emigrants to Baltimore, New York and Quebec, and on her return journey she would take cargoes of lumber to Tralee. A trusted passenger carrier, the Jeanie Johnston never lost a soul to disease or the sea at a time when emigrant vessels were known as "coffin ships". She reportedly made 16 voyages between Tralee and North America.

Even when she sank in the mid-Atlantic in 1858, all aboard were saved from what was certainly a remarkable and blessed vessel. Waterlogged, she sank slowly allowing rescue for passengers and crew.

A full sized replica of the original Jeanie Johnston has been built at a shipyard at Blennerville, near Tralee, Co. Kerry. It is scheduled for launch on April 18. In an interview early this year, John Griffin, CEO of the Jeanie Johnston project in Ireland said "we will set sail for North America on May 7 arriving in Washington, D.C. on June 7." During this Millennium voyage to North America, the ship will visit over 20 cities. The journey's purpose is to strengthen Ireland's links with her extended communities in Canada and the United States.

The construction of the replica has still another dimension. It is an excellent example of North-South Irish co-operation. Young people from Belfast, Dublin, and Kerry worked side-by-side to build the vessel.

When she arrives in Washington, the Jeanie Johnston will be met by President Clinton and other dignitaries as a salute, not only to the historic vessel, but also to the Irish who have made such a contribution to American life. From the U.S. capital, she will visit several ports on the eastern seaboard before heading for some Canadian stops.

Although the original Jeanie Johnston did not make visits to New Brunswick, Canada she has one direct connection to that province. In November 1853, she was blown off course in a storm and forced to seek safe haven in St. Andrews. About 195 Irish immigrants disembarked there, and some of them stayed rather than go by steamer or foot to Portland, Maine which most of the group did. They have descendants in that area today.

The vessel's first Canadian stops then will be in Saint John July 20-25 and St. Andrews July 25-26. The ship will also visit Halifax for the Tall Ships extravaganza before going to Quebec and several Ontario ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Her last Canadian stop will be St. John's Newfoundland on her way back to Ireland in October.

When the Jeanie Johnston comes home it will be a time of celebration and joy. Her history was one of the great success stories of the Irish immigration in the 19th century.

The An Post stamp, which bears a distinctive image of this beautiful three-masted sailing ship, was designed by Vincent Killowry. It is available in a 16 stamp sheetlet and a special First Day Cover featuring a water colour of the Jeanie Johnston.

The Jeanie Johnston and the 1999 joint United States/Ireland stamp pay tribute to one of the most powerful immigration movements to North America. Practically all corners of the continent boast some form of Irish heritage and annual celebration. During the years of the Irish famine which were greatest at the mid-nineteenth century, over three million immigrants landed in Canada and the United States.

Today, the Irish celebrate with song and dance. Many communities have Irish cultural groups, Irish eateries/pubs, and festivals. Miramichi, New Brunswick Canada and Milwaukee, Wisconsin are among those with summer festivals to celebrate Irish heritage. On March 17, the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City is one of the grandest in the world. San Antonio, Texas boast a full week of Irish activities around the March 17 feast of Ireland's patron saint. The river along the famed Riverwalk is even dyed green for the occasion.

The philatelic connection between Ireland and the United States did not commence with the 1999 joint issue on immigration. In 1981, both countries joined support in issuing a stamp to honor Irish-born architect James Hoban, and in 1984 United States issued a 20-cent stamp honoring Irish tenor John McCormack while Ireland used the same design to pay tribute to one of its nation's most gifted voices on a 22-penny stamp.

Ireland also paid tribute to U.S. President John F. Kennedy who had Irish ancestry. A 28-penny stamp was issue on November 24, 1988. The list can go on. Although Canada did not issue any special stamp for the Irish Potato Famine or immigration, images of Irish patriots do appear on Canadian stamps. The most notable is the 1927 five-cent stamp (Scott 146) depicting Thomas D'Arcy McGee, a federal cabinet minister who was assassinated on April 6, 1868 on his way home. McGee was born in Ireland in 1825 and came to Canada via United States in 1857.

Irish heritage, therefore, is a sound topic with which to launch a topical collection. Other nations' stamps also offer opportunities to expand such an album by good numbers. 'Erin go bragh (Ireland forever!) can certainly be echoed on Irish-theme stamps.

What is your favorite topical grouping. Let me know through the message boards at Collectors Universe, and I will give it attention in a future column.

Michael O. Nowlan was born in Chatham, New Brunswick Canada. He grew up on a nearby farm, was educated, and became a teacher. In retirement, he follows his life-long avocation of writing. His credits include 16 books (four books of poems, two children's titles, and anthologies for schools). In recent years, he has written extensively about stamp collecting for CANADIAN STAMP NEWS, GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL STAMP NEWS, and other philatelic publications.

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