Kathryn Miles first heard the story of the Jeanie Johnston, a ship that ferried Irish immigrants to North America during the potato famine, about eight years ago, when she was visiting Ireland and came across a re-creation of the square-rigged ship.

She learned about its history, including the fact that it was the only so-called “coffin ship” to keep all of its passengers alive.

“I kept saying somebody ought to write a book about this,” Miles said. “And nobody did. So finally I thought somebody has to write a book about this so I’ll be the one to do it. I was really lucky. I was able to sign on as an apprentice crew member for the ship, which gave me a really great firsthand knowledge of how the ship worked and exactly what it was like to live below.”

The result is “All Standing: The True Story of Hunger, Rebellion, and Survival Aboard the Jeanie Johnston” (Free Press, $26).

Miles, 38, lives in Belfast with her partner, a boat captain, and teaches environmental writing at Unity College. She started out as a journalist but ended up earning a degree in philosophy from Saint Louis University, then a doctorate in English from the University of Delaware. She thought her life’s work would focus on criticism and scholarship.

“When the job at Unity College opened up, it was for a slightly different focus, and that was more on creative nonfiction, which was somthing of a shift for me but a very welcome shift,” she said. “And so now I kind of find myself right back where I started, which is doing a lot of reporting, narrative nonfiction storytelling and that sort of work. These stories are better than any story you can make up. All I have to do is just listen and stay out of the way, and the stories oftentimes tell themselves.”

She tells the story of the Jeanie Johnston by following the family of infant Nicholas Reilly, who was born on the ship. 

Q: Your descriptions are very detailed. Describe the kind of research you had to do to bring this era to life.

A: It was a challenge. Because the Irish famine was happening and it was obviously this major crisis, and because Ireland was a fairly unwanted colony being held by Britain, record keeping was not foremost in anyone’s mind. So there was a lot of archival digging that I had to do, a lot of reading blurry microfilm in very cold library basements. But there was also some very exciting work as well, like tracking down the ship manifests and being able to see the notes that were taken in (Captain James Attridge’s) own handwriting.

And, of course, sailing on the ship was a remarkable experience. I had some tall ship experience sailing on some of the schooners here in Maine, so I knew a little bit about it, but I don’t think anything can really prepare you for that experience.

We encountered a pretty bad storm when we were out, and it didn’t feel like it at the time, but that was very useful as well. I was laying down below deck. I was on a break between watches, and I was listening to the way the ship just shuddered and screamed as it was pitching through these storms, and I just kept thinking, you know, these people who are already suffering so much and had never before been at sea, they endured this for weeks on end, and just that realization really forged a connection between me and some of the characters in the book.

Q: Describe life on a typical coffin ship. How miserable was it, and what made it so dangerous?

A: There were about 5,000 of these coffin ships. Most of them were very tired old timber haulers.

On the previous generation’s slave ships, where the captains were paid based on how many people walked off the ship in America, there was an incentive for these slave ship captains to keep alive as many slaves as they could. There was no such incentive for these (coffin ship) captains. Once the Irish passengers paid to step aboard, what became of them was no one’s concern.

The ships were very old. They were in very bad condition. Some of them would just disintegrate in the middle of a storm and all of the passengers would drown. Others were obviously not built to carry people, and so they would stack these bunks, if you will, which were about the size of two kitchen tables put together — they were about 6 feet square — and an entire family, that would be the only space they had in the entire ship. They would have to lay head to foot to accommodate a family of four. There was not enough room to sit up. And usually the only sort of facilities they had on board were a bucket that would get overturned and that would more than overflow and people were seasick. And so you have these deplorable conditions on board to begin with, you have people who are already very emaciated and fatigued and compromised because of the famine.

Ship captains by British law were supposed to give a pound of either oatmeal or cornmeal to them a day, but oftentimes it was moldy or had gone bad with bilge water and so there was no food. When a storm came, they would be just shut in down below. There was also a belief at the time that contagious diseases were spread through the air, and so the best way to prevent contagious diseases was to prevent the flow of fresh air. There were these appalling stories of them showing up in North America knee-deep in human waste down below. People, when they died, if they were lucky their bodies were thrown overboard, but sometimes they were just left in their bunks And then you have these waves of cholera and typhus taking hold, and we start to see these increasing mortality rates — 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent — there were some ships that were as high as 75 percent mortality rates. 

Q: What was daily life like for them? Would they just lay in their bunk all day?

A: It depended on the captain. It depended a lot on the captain. And so if you had a benevolent captain like, for instance, Attridge, the captain of the Jeanie Johnston, he had a lot of mandates about how they would spend their time. Everyone was woken at 7 a.m. If you were well, you were asked to make your bunk, come above deck, and they would have the chance to walk around. They had cookstoves where they could cook their food.

The doctor, who is I think one of my favorite characters in the book, Richard Blennerhassett, he was a fringe figure because he was going against this no fresh air mentality. So he was mandating whenever possible the immigrants got up on deck. They were able to walk around. He mandated that they air out their bedding too, so there was a much better cleaniness record. He would deputize some of the male passengers to serve as sort of like stewards down below and they would have to sweep up and they would empty out the slop pails and things like that as well. He also started quarantining anyone who was sick. He had built a little ship’s hospital where people would be settled from the others.

So all of these things together, coupled with the fact that the shipbuilder who knew that this was going to be an Irish immigrant ship, he built a hull, which was a little unusual for other barques at the time. There was enough space where a grown adult could stand up and walk around, and that made a big difference, too. 

Q: How did you settle on telling the story through Nicholas?

A: He’s sort of become the legendary figure of the ship. If you tour the re-creation in Ireland, or if you go to some of the museums that talk about it, there’s all these stories about this miraculous birth of this miraculous baby, but no one knew what happened to him.

As I was writing the story and talking to different historians, some people said, well, you know, maybe he didn’t make it, or maybe he died after landing in North America. That would be an incredibly reasonable thing to happen to an infant after enduring such a journey. It was toward the tail end of my writing I was doing some genealogical research and I found a census entry for a man whose name was Nicholas J.J. Reilly, and his date of birth was April 1848 and his place of birth was at sea. I thought, this has got to be the guy. I did some work, and I found his descendants, who live in California, and they’re just a remarkable family. They knew his story from the time he arrived in America, but they didn’t know how he got here. And I knew his story about how he got here but I didn’t know what had happened. We had a series of just wonderful Skype calls and phone calls. They sent some pictures of him at his bar in Minnesota. The fact that he already had a lot of currency for people who are fans of the ship and have visited the museums, that plus the fact that, in my mind, he really did become the emblem for the quest for the American dream, so for me it seemed like he was the perfect frame to understand the ship as a whole.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad