January 20, 2013

Author Q & A: Safety in numbers

Kathryn Miles' new book recalls the only so-called 'coffin ship' to keep every one of its passengers – refugees of the Irish potato famine – alive.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Kathryn Miles

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:


Twitter: MeredithGoad


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