The historic ketch Ilen of Limerick puts to sea again from her home port this weekend at the beginning of a complex 2019 sailing programme which will see the restored ship voyage in July towards southwest Greenland writes W M Nixon. She’ll be following in the wake of the migratory salmon which have journeyed since time immemorial between the Shannon and Greenland’s only salmon river, the Kapisillit at the head of a fjord at Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and Ilen’s primary destination.
Ireland’s last surviving sailing trading ketch, the 1926-built 56ft Ilen was originally designed by global circumnavigator Conor O’Brien to be the inter-island freight and ferry vessel in the Falkland Islands, and he sailed her out there after she’d been built by Tom Moynihan and his men at the Fishery Schools in Baltimore. When Ilen was retired from active service in the islands in the 1990s, Conor O’Brien enthusiast Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick set about trying to bring her home for restoration.
In November 1997 he achieved his first goal when Ilen was finally lifted off a ship in Dublin Docks. After wintering in the city’s Grand Canal basin, she sailed for the first time in many years in Dublin Bay in May 1998, and soon made the passage to West Cork for the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival and the Glandore Classics Regatta.
However, it was obvious that a huge project of restoration work was required to make the ship compliant with survey requirements for regular sea-going, and for several years she was virtually moth-balled. But in time a programme was devised – the Ilen Project – whereby the main hull restoration would be undertaken by master shipwright Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt Boatyard on the Ilen River above Baltimore in West Cork, while 180-kilometres away in Limerick, Gary Mac Mahon and the Ilen Network established an international project, the Ilen Boat-Building School, which made many of the detailed items such as the hatches and deckhouses, and the spars and rigging came out of this extensive Limerick workshop as well.
All that work was in addition to other smaller boat-building projects undertaken in the School by a wide variety of trainees, many from an international background. These included a new fleet of the traditional Shannon gandelows, and other small craft including a Shannon angling cot and a flotilla of the economically-built yet very effective CityOne sailing dinghies, designed by the late naval architecture legend Theo Rye, who was an enthusiast for the entire Ilen programme.
The Ilen Project in its broadest sense was by no means a matter of never-ending boat-building work. There was fun to be had. The gandelows were regular visitors to the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival as well as other events back north on the Shannon Estuary, while the CityOnes made their mark at the Glandore Classics and several regattas. Two of the Ilen seniors, Liam O’Donoghue and Tony Daly, travelled the length of the Erne and the Shannon from Belleek in Fermanagh to Limerick in an angling cot they’d built in the school, and of course when the Thousandth Anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf came up in 2014, as defenders of the proud Limerick memory of Brian Boru, the Ilen gandelow crews and their boats had to put in triumphant appearance on Dublin Bay.
However, undoubtedly the most off-the-wall episode was taking the gandelows to one of the Festivals of the Sea in Venice. Folk from elsewhere may come up with ready wisecracks about “gandelow” being no more than the Limerick version of “gondola”, yet the citizens of the Serenissima went out of their way to make the Limerick crews and their boats welcome, and the entire visit was carried out with style and elan.
But meanwhile, as resources permitted the restoration work on Ilen’s hull continued. The detailed joinery-work built in Limerick was added in as required, and finally, in January 2018, Ilen emerged re-born from the old Top Shed at Oldcourt. There was still much work to be done, but she was able to put in an appearance at the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival in May, and then finally at the end of September she was sufficiently ready for sea to voyage round to her home port of Limerick where, in a hectic first week of October, visiting well-wishers included President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina.
Ilen had spent all her life as a working boat, but now that she was so superbly restored, there was no way she was going to be treated as an ornament. On the contrary, it was planned that she would work in the areas of education, special assistance, and national and international cultural interaction, helping people young and old to develop as they learned to understand the ways of the past, the lore of seafaring, the story of Limerick’s magnificent waterborne trading history, and the mysteries and wonders of nature.
In an age of multi-faceted, continuous and wall-to-wall entertainment – electronic and otherwise – this was a tall order, and a “Big Idea” was needed to bring it into focus. Early projects with a variety of schools and other groups in the Greater Limerick area have produced encouraging results. It was and is evident that interacting with something as tangible as a traditional sailing vessel in almost any way can be a very rewarding experience for those new to it, and so the idea developed that a major flagship project for the summer of 2019 would clarify the focus on Ilen and all that she did – and all that she might do, too.
In an era of increasing awareness of the environment and the need for conservation and climate awareness, the “Big Idea” was right there, hidden in plain sight. While the numbers of Atlantic salmon passing through Limerick may have decreased markedly since the Ardnacrusha dam was built in the late 1920s and for other reasons, the salmon in the Shannon going to and from the sea are still very much part of the city’s culture. And it is known that while Atlantic salmon migrate to many rivers in several countries, in all of Greenland, they go to only one, the Kapisillit.
So why not sail Ilen in the salmon’s wake to this one special river with an Ilen Boat Building School-constructed Shannon angling cot as deck cargo, and thereby create a unique link around which a vibrant cultural interaction can be built between the schools and young people of Limerick and their counter-parts in southwest Greenland? The idea took hold, and it has developed as a busy project with schools in the greater Limerick area.
This ambitious Salmons Wake Voyage will take over Ilen’s 2019 programme at the end of June. But meanwhile, the first part of the 2019 season involves Ilen interacting with the Sailing Into Wellness movement, with a series of short voyages along Ireland’s south and east coasts.
To position her for this and as part of the preparations for the Greenland voyage, over this Easter Weekend she’ll be making the passage from Limerick back to Baltimore and the Oldcourt Boatyard for a pre-season haul on Tuesday with a hull inspection, following which she’ll be making coastal passages with Sailing Into Wellness via ports such as Kinsale, Waterford and Howth until on Friday, May 17th she’s in Dun Laoghaire for a major presentation.
After that, the Sailing Into Wellness programme continues with a return to West Cork and the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival (24th May to 26th May), with an SIW Ilen base then established in Kinsale. But as June progresses, the ship will return to Limerick with preparations for the nine-week Greenland voyage being finalised.
Communication with the local Greenland community and two schools in Nuuk has been active, and in July it is planned that Deirdre Power of the Ilen Project and artist Chelsea Canavan from Limerick will be in residence in Nuuk to help in co-ordinating Ilen’s reception. That will include the visit to the Kapisillit River where the new-built Shannon angling cot currently being created by the Ilen Boat-Building School and brought to Nuuk by Ilen herself as deck cargo will be put afloat as a tangible symbol of many interacting links.
With such a programme, which will see Ilen sail between 5,000 and 6,000 miles by season’s end and dozens of ports visited, obviously very many people will be actively involved at different stages. But for the major ocean voyages, Gary Mac Mahon has been able to call on the services of a unique group of people who combine traditional boat sailing skills with extensive Arctic voyaging experience.
He himself is a veteran in this area, as one of his Arctic experiences was with the legendary Paddy Barry aboard the Galway hooker St Patrick, sailing far into northern latitudes.
Paddy Barry has been involved with the Ilen project from an early stage, as he was there at that special moment in November 1997 in Dublin Docks when Ilen was finally unloaded back in Ireland, he was in command when Ilen sailed again for the first time in very many years in Dublin Bay in May 1998, and over the long, challenging years of the restoration, he has been a ready source of encouragement and help.
He and Gary will both be in the ship’s complement for the outward passage to Nuuk and the many activities in Greenland itself. In fact, Paddy will be aboard for the entire nine weeks. But Gary’s time is limited, so for the return passage in August and early September, Paddy Barry will be joined by his partner in the Arctic circumnavigation of the Northabout, Northabout’s original builder, owner and skipper Jarlath Cunnane, and they will share the hugely experienced company of Dr Mick Brogan. These days, he’s best known as an organiser of Cruinnui na mBad at Kinvara, but like the other three, Mick Brogan is a seaman extensively versed in the ways of the Arctic and the needs and challenges of a traditionally-rigged ship.
With Ilen’s departure today (Easter Saturday) from Limerick bound for Baltimore, these latest chapters in an extraordinary story get underway. Conor O’Brien’s account of the original voyage in 1926 from Foynes to the Falklands produced some of his best writing. But now that the old ship has become the Ilen Project, we find the story extending in several directions which somehow take in many places between Venice and Nuuk. It seems that when Gary Mac Mahon gets hold of an idea, all things are possible.