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Ireland’s Hopes for a Tall Ship Are Running High

8th January 2022
File image of the tall ship Lady Ellen sailing
Ship of Hope: if all goes according to plan for the Atlantic Youth Trust, by the summer the Lady Ellen will be the Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s multi-purpose training ship

What goes around comes around. When Enda O’Coineen’s Atlantic Youth Trust revealed their interest in acquiring a classic three-masted topsail schooner from Sweden last Autumn for multiple maritime functions, of which sailing training would only be one, it set bells ringing in many ways — most of them positive.

The warmest feelings were aroused by the classic appearance of the 164ft Lady Ellen. For the reality is that these days, the professional seafarers who undertake the demanding task of being responsible for the safety, well-being and instruction of dozens of other people’s children in sail training programmes are themselves expecting certain standards of onboard comfort.

In fact, the more fastidious expect accommodation which equals that provided for their colleagues serving in the best ships of the international merchant marine and the leading navies.

As a consequence, many modern tall ships are a very odd combination of classic clipper ship forward, and a sort of mini cruise liner aft. In some of them, this effect is achieved to such gross effect that it reminds you of the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee.

She looks like a proper classic sailing ship, and sails like one tooShe looks like a proper classic sailing ship, and sails like one too

But when the first photos were released in Ireland of the Lady Ellen, everyone just gave a happy sigh. Her sweet appearance may be slightly marred by a sort of wheelhouse shelter right on the aftermost pin of the quarterdeck, but otherwise her deck cabins are of modest height, with the overall effect being one of harmony.

And for those with memories stretching back over many years, the appearance of the Lady Ellen was like a friendly ghost brought to life, as she is a reminder of the hopes of two great sea-minded people who pioneered the idea of an Irish tall ship at a time when officialdom seemed determined to obliterate any consciousness of our maritime potential.

The inspirational Arklow-based Lady of AvenelThe inspirational Arklow-based Lady of Avenel

One was Jack Tyrrell of Arklow, whose schoolboy summers as ship’s boy aboard his uncle’s trading brigantine Lady of Avenel were so central to the beneficial shaping of his character that his lifelong dream was to provide subsequent generations with the chance to share a similar experience.

The other was an inspirational teacher, Captain Tom Walsh, who ran the little Nautical College in Dun Laoghaire, and kept the flame of Irish maritime hopes alive in what was a very thin time for Ireland and the sea. One result of this was that in 1954, Jack Tyrrell designed for Tom Walsh some proposal drawings for a 110ft three-masted barquentine to serve as an Irish sail training ship.

We’ve been here before: the 1954-proposed 110ft barquentine, designed by Jack Tyrrell for Captain Tom Walsh, is remarkably similar to the Lady EllenWe’ve been here before: the 1954-proposed 110ft barquentine, designed by Jack Tyrrell for Captain Tom Walsh, is remarkably similar to the Lady Ellen

By the summer, this could be the Grace O’MalleyBy the summer, this could be the Grace O’Malley

Captain Tom Walsh of the Nautical College in Dun Laoghaire – seen here in 1957 – was ahead of his time in sail-training ship proposalsCaptain Tom Walsh of the Nautical College in Dun Laoghaire – seen here in 1957 – was ahead of his time in sail-training ship proposals

In the slow-moving 1950s, it was an idea before its time. And when Ireland did finally get a national sail-trailing ship in 1969, it was through a completely different route, with the repurposed Asgard, Erskine and Molly Childers’ 1905-built Colin Archer 51ft ketch used in the 1914 Irish Volunteers gun-running to Howth.

She was and is a fine little ship, now conserved by the National Museum and on display in Collins Barracks. But she was too small for the job, and very soon a movement was under way to have her replaced with a larger “mini tall ship”. In the February 1973 issue of Afloat Magazine, proposal drawings by Jack Tyrrell appeared of a ship inspired again by the Lady of Avenel, but of a more modest size at 83ft hull length.

By this time the sail training programme was in the remit of the Department of Defence, as it tended to be shunted around whichever government minister was interested in the sea — the choice was never extensive. But the newly-appointed Minister for Defence, Patrick Sarsfield Donegan TD of Co Louth, was keen on boats and sailing. He willingly undertook the Asgard programme. And he happened to see those plans one morning as he was starting to make a very thorough job of celebrating his saint’s day in his own pub, the Monasterboice Inn.

Jack Tyrrell of Arklow with Clayton Love Jr, Admiral of the Royal Cork YC and one of the founders — and the longest-serving member — of Coiste an AsgardJack Tyrrell of Arklow with Clayton Love Jr, Admiral of the Royal Cork YC and one of the founders — and the longest-serving member — of Coiste an Asgard

Thus there is absolutely no doubt that the decision to build the 84ft Tyrrell-designed and Arklow-built Asgard II was taken by Paddy Donegan on 17 March 1973, but it was March 1981 by the time she was in commission.

She gave excellent service, punching way above her weight on the national and international scene for 29 seasons, until in September 2008 she struck a semi-submerged object in the Bay of Biscay, and gradually but inexorably sank, with all the crew being safely taken off.

With Ireland going into economic freefall in the total crash of the Celtic Tiger, the then Government — to outside observers, at least — appeared to take advantage of the situation to divest themselves of the entire notion of a national sail-training ship and a government-administered programme to support it. This was so abundantly evident that dedicated maritime enthusiasts came to the conclusion that the only way forward was through a non-governmental trust functioning on an all-Ireland basis, and thus the Atlantic Youth Trust came into being under the inspiration of oceanic adventurer and international entrepreneur Enda O’Coineen.

There are hundreds of subtly different meanings to the word “no”, but Enda doesn’t understand any of them. He is totally resilient in face of setbacks, be they in business or when he’s alone out on the Great Southern Ocean. And he is of the opinion that general derision or a flat refusal is actually — if the other party only knew it — a cheery greeting and a positive reception of whatever way-out idea he is proposing.

Galway rules the waves: Enda O’Coineen with President Michael D Higgins Galway rules the waves: Enda O’Coineen with President Michael D Higgins

Nevertheless, the Atlantic Youth Trust’s concept — developed by its director Neil O’Hagan to provide a ship partially based on the Sprit of New Zealand’s realised vision of a floating classroom and expedition centre as much as a sail training ship — was well received but difficult to grow in a time of national austerity, with political turmoil in the all-Ireland context.

But the idea had certainly never gone away, and while there are many reasons as to why it is now tops of the agenda once more. The fact that the Lady Ellen was for sale last September in western Sweden played a key role, with the excitement of the chase being heightened by the fact that it had been thought she’d been sold elsewhere.

Stripped down for winter, the Lady Ellen in Sweden awaits her new future in Ireland Stripped down for winter, the Lady Ellen in Sweden awaits her new future in Ireland

However, that seemingly fell through, she came back on the market, and now the deposit has been paid by Atlantic Youth Trust supporters subject to all the usual legalities and technicalities, such that if everything proves acceptable survey-wise and under other headings, the deal has to be closed by the end of February.

While she was built as long ago as 1980 for a Swedish industrialist with personal attachments to the prototype, the 1911-built wooden trading schooner Lady Ellen, the current ship’s hull is in top-grade steel as used for submarine construction, so not surprisingly she came through a 2015 survey and major refit with flying colours.

This is one serious ship, built in submarine-quality steel to last for a very long timeThis is one serious ship, built in submarine-quality steel to last for a very long time

Yet to the casual observer she seems to be all wood in her finish, and therein lies an extraordinary problem that will have to be faced by the AYT when, if all goes according to plan, the ship undergoes significant work with the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast in the spring.

For her present accommodation is positively luxurious by sail training standards, though her seagoing credentials are impeccable with 17 transatlantic passages logged. Yet below decks, we’re talking of en suite cabins for around 35 in all, whereas the trust will be seeking to up the accommodation to at least 40 and probably 45 in all, with 30-35 trainees plus five experienced youth leaders and five professional crew.

The existing accommodation details may need significant amounts of unravelling in order to accommodate a total ship’s company of 45-plusThe existing accommodation details may need significant amounts of unravelling in order to accommodate a total ship’s company of 45-plus

The saloon — taking up the full width of the vessel — makes such extensive use of wood and varnish finish that you forget you’re on a steel shipThe saloon — taking up the full width of the vessel — makes such extensive use of wood and varnish finish that you forget you’re on a steel ship

Even the “basic” crew cabin reflects the “problematically high” quality of the interior finishEven the “basic” crew cabin reflects the “problematically high” quality of the interior finish

When Jack Tyrrell was sketching out the accommodation for the Tom Walsh ship of 1954, he simply indicated space where the crew’s sleeping accommodation would be found. He may well have expected that the young people would be happily slinging a hammock from the deck beams.

But as the photos of the current ship indicate, while not totally luxurious, her accommodation is stylish, very well finished, glowing with the best of varnish-work, and generous with space. So some of it will have to come out, and we can only hope that it’s treated a little more kindly than the bits and pieces of the original Colin Archer interior for Asgard which, in 1968 when she was being converted for sail training by Malahide Shipyard, were brutally consigned to a bonfire.

The separate cabins emphasise the high quality of the finishThe separate cabins emphasise the high quality of the finish

With repurposing all the rage these days, some of the ship’s current accommodation could certainly find some interesting and useful functions ashore, or in other boats. But the fact is while the vessel is being bought reportedly for the attractive price of €1.78 million, unbuilding and rebuilding can be an expensive process, as can the necessary replacing of standing and running rigging, and perhaps some spars.

Thus, if all goes according to plan with the deal closed at the end of February, the current project of getting the ship in commission in her new form, with the necessary shoreside support systems up and running, will be very rapidly making significant dents in the overall budget of €3 million.

And we have to remember that while the gallant Asgard II succeeded in punching above her weight among much larger tall ships, this new vessel is twice as long overall, making her in volumetric terms very much more than simply twice as large. So it’s going to take a considerable and constant effort to keep her in optimal trim and at full functional level. For apart from anything else, a busy ship is a happy ship, but a 164ft three-masted topsail schooner is a lot of ship to keep busy.

Yet the very fact that the Grace O’Malley, as she’ll be popularly renamed, has now come centre stage is just the tonic that we all need at this time of tiny slivers of hope, when it’s just possible the light at the end of the tunnel is not entirely a total pandemic express train coming the other way. We wish her well.

She’ll be even more welcome than the flowers in spring – the Grace O’Malley may be coming to a port near youShe’ll be even more welcome than the flowers in spring – the Grace O’Malley may be coming to a port near you

Published in W M Nixon, Tall Ships
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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