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Sailing on Saturday with WM Nixon

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.

ilen 1997 unloaded2Ilen unloaded in Dublin Docks, November 1997 Photo: W M Nixonilen may1998 dublin bay3 Ilen under sail for the first time in very many years, Dublin Bay May 1998. Photo: W M Nixon

paddy barry jarlath cunnane4Paddy Barry and Jarlath Cunnane aboard Ilen in Dublin Bay, May 1998. They are still very much involved in the Ilen Project. Photo: W M Nixon

ilen db98 tim magennis5Aboard Ilen on that historic sail in Dublin Bay in May 1998 were several classic and traditional boat enthusiasts, including (left) Fionan de Barra, with Tim Magennis at deckhouse and Paddy Barry on the right. The restored Ilen returns to Dublin Bay in May 2019. Photo: W M Nixon

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.

ilen restoration6Liam Hegarty (left) and Gary Mac Mahon at an early stage of Ilen’s hull restoration in Oldcourt
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.

gary and theo rye7Gary MacMahon with the late Theo Rye and a new CityOne sailing dinghy in Limerick. Photo: W M Nixon
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.

shannon angling cot8Liam O’Donoghue and Tony Daly with the Ilen School-built Shannon Angling Cot they rowed from Belleek in Fermanagh via the Erne and the Shannon all the way to Limerick

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.

gandelows racing venice9The new traditional Shannon gandelows built by the Ilen School made a memorable visit to Venice.

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 baltimore beacon10 Finally brought together – the restored Ilen off Baltimore Beacon, September 2018. While the hull had been restored in Oldcourt, everything above deck except the sails had been made in Limerick. Photo: Declan Lynch

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.

sabina and crew11Almost immediately after returning to Limerick last October, Ilen enjoyed a Presidential visit
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.

letter to greenland12In anticipation of the Salmon’s Wake voyage, schools in Limerick have been exchanging letters with their new pen-pals in Greenland
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.

angling cot in build13This traditional angling cot, currently in build at the Ilen School in Limerick, will be taken to Greenland as deck cargo on the Ilen. Photo: Gary MacMahonCommunication 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.

ilen all sail14On a gentle day early in 2019 in Limerick, Ilen is finally able to set her complete new suit of fore-and-aft sails. Photo: Gary MacMahon
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.

1997 paddy barry15Paddy Barry at the unloading of Ilen in Dublin Port, November 1997. In 2019, he will be aboard throughout the nine weeks Salmons Wake voyage to Greenland. Photo: W M Nixon

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.

Published in Boatyards

After an eleven year rebuild, last Saturday offered a first opportunity for sending up ‘Ilen’s’ entire suit of sails, save her square sail - a headwind at Limerick Docks precluded its participation.

It might be observed how ‘Ilen’ seems to punch above her weight in the amount of canvas her ketch rig is expected to flying. And this is directly attributable to the pioneering legacy of that inveterate blue water voyager of Irish traditional wooden sailing boats; Conor O’Brien.

When designing the ‘Ilen’s’ rig some five years back the Ilen Project, for better or worse, elected to pay homage to her original Conor O’Brien design rig from 1926. A decision which more than doubled the overall rigging task. Upgrading a traditional coastal ketch rig of three sails to an ocean rig of seven, not to mind all the additional supporting gear, blocks, spars, running and standing rigging is not a small task.

Happily, it has all come together nicely and ‘Ilen’ looks splendid, and nearly ready to embrace the coming sailing season.

Published in Historic Boats

Joseph Conrad wrote many stories and novels with a nautical setting, based on his time in the British and French merchant marine and in the old sailing ships. They depict trials of the human spirit and one of his memorable quotes is – “The mind of man is capable of anything.”

Perhaps so too is the mind of a marine journalist, because several current images have been coming to its surface.

I am the only Irish marine journalist who was present at the reappearance of the legendary Conor O’Brien’s Ilen when it was brought back to Dublin from the Falkland Islands on the deck of a freighter. I have followed it through the great restoration at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard near Skibbereen, not far from Baltimore where it was originally built.

SQUARING UP ON THE ILENSquaring up on the Ilen

When the square sail, the last of the seven made for it, was raised quietly (shown above) and with not a lot of public attention, in Limerick Port where Ilen is based for the Winter. A very capable, four-sided sail last deployed on the good ship some 92 years ago… an image invoking an emotive sense of pride in the achievements of those who restored and rehabilitated her….

People can do wonderful things in the marine sphere and that was added to when I was sent the other photo here, from Clare Island, because the offshore islands are not, in my view, given the attention they should get and it has been overlooked that, in the current battle against plastic pollution of the oceans they are amongst the first recipients of this waste…

"Listen to the Podcast to hear more about how the offshore islands are dealing with plastic and other pollution"

Listen to the Podcast below to hear more about how the offshore islands are dealing with plastic and other pollution that is increasingly washing up on their shores and particularly Clare Island, a lovely island to sail into… and also about my third image… what do you do with old sails?

Clare Islanders have built a bungalow from waste plastic bottlesClare Islanders have built a bungalow from waste plastic bottles

Listen to the Podcast below

Published in Ilen

In ancient Greece, the Halcyon Days were a mythological seven day period of calm clear weather at the mid-winter Solstice writes W M Nixon. Down Limerick way, they’ve been making the best of the Halcyon Days, with the blue River Shannon ruffled only by the gentlest of breezes for several days now, while the sun has shone on the Ted Russell Dock where the restored 56ft 1926-built gaff ketch Ilen has seen continuing work by the Ilen Project team.

Various tasks have been ongoing to have her ready for the 2019 season, which will include a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire. And since Ilen returned to Limerick at the beginning of October, she has been much-visited by a wide range of people including President Michael D Higgins and groups of schoolchildren taking part in the interactive educational projects linked to the historic ship.

squaresail yard fitting2The power exerted by the squaresail demands substantial fittings – the transverse yard itself was specially designed by the late Theo Rye. Photo: Gary MacMahon

details from dockside3The proper sheeting of squaresails is almost a forgotten art – thanks to the forward lead to the cathead, Ilen’s topsail can be usefully carried on a reach. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But while she is so important historically, the Ilen nevertheless has to project an attractive persona, and one of the useful things about the holiday period is that it provided opportunities to see the re-born Ilen at leisure, with the “small tall ship” in an uncrowded state. It is then that her true spirit shines through, and you appreciate why Project Leader Gary MacMahon chose the special colour schemes he did. For as one visitor seeing the ship for the first time commented: “The Ilen looks so jaunty – she cheers everyone up”.

"a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire"

There was further cause for cheer in recent days when the newly-arrived traditional squaresail, exactly as designed by Conor O’Brien of Foynes Island back in 1926, was offered up to its spars and equipment – and fitted perfectly. So it’s only a matter of time before that long and distinctive bowsprit re-emerges from the sea lock into the Estuary, and we see Ilen setting full sail for the first time in many decades.

obrien drawings4Back to the original – Conor O’Brien’s drawings for squaresail control

Meanwhile, for those who would like a comprehensive overview of this very special project, the profusely-illustrated and comprehensive Ilen Report 2018 has just been published as a generous 32-page fully-coloured booklet, and is available free both as this Ilen_Report_Final.pdf, and in hard copy from [email protected]

reflections from astern5Reflections on a peaceful evening of early January in Limerick. A year ago, the weather was very different, and Ilen was facing a difficult launching operation and berthing move in the crowded boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Ilen

Down Limerick way, somebody is probably already putting together an appropriate song about how the historic sail trading ketch Ilen was saved from the scrapyard through a heroic decade-long restoration programme by Limerick’s Ilen Project, only to spend her first winter in twenty years back in commission sharing quaysides with ever-changing mini-mountains of scrap metal writes W M Nixon.

Certainly, if the activity of the scrap metal trade from Limerick’s Ted Russell Dock is any indication of the good health of the metal-bashing trade in the Shannon-side city, then there’s no doubt that it’s thriving. And as the Dock is a capacious and clear space at weekends because of the high level of respect for the traditional Ship Owner’s First Commandment: “Though Shalt Not be in Port on Sundays”, then when Ilen’s crew avail of the briefly ship-free space for manoeuvring training, it’s invariably done against yet another new mountains of metallic bits and pieces which one day might be eligible for the Turner Prize.

ilen clayton2There’s plenty of space for Ilen’s manoeuvring training as she heads down the dock with the Clayton Hotel beyond, as the First Commandment of successful cargo ship management is: “Thou Shalt Not Be In Port On Sunday”. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so perhaps in addition to an Ilen Development Gallery from this winter’s activities, we’ll find a range of photos chronicling those ever-changing hills and mountains of metal offcuts. Stranger things have happened.

But certainly, those who are involved with the Ilen these days have developed a certain fondness for them, as they’ll forever be associated in their memories of a time when the Ilen ideal was being achieved.

In recent weeks, skilled joinery worker, boatbuilder and instructor Jim McInerney of the Ilen School has overseen the finishing of the furnishings in the pilot house, and very well they look too, an attractive combination of traditional quality woodwork providing a framework for the installation of electronic and other equipment, all of which is itself beautiful in its own way.

ilen pilothouse3The new finish in Ilen’s Pilot House (above and below) is an attractive mixture of classic marine joinery work and modern electronics

ilen pilothouse4

ilen pilothouse5

Jim and his group have now moved on to the completion of the main saloon-cum-classroom, which will be both comfortable and functional, for Ilen in her new life will have many roles.

To fulfil many of them, her crew will need to be confident of their handling abilities when berthing a boat with what could well be the longest bowsprit in Ireland. In fact, it sticks out so far ahead of the vertical stem that it has been seriously suggested they should think of installing a camera in its outer end to send a continuous transmission back to a little screen at the steering wheel, because it must be nearly 70ft from one to the other, and there’s lots of nautical paraphernalia in between.

ilen helm lessons6Close concentration for trainee helmsman James Madigan under the experienced guidance of Captain Gerry Burns (right) with Ilen Project supporter Chelsea Canavan (left) of the Hunt Museum enjoying a day n the water. Photo: Gary MacMahon
Be that as it may, last weekend Project Leader Gary MacMahon and his team had the benefit of guidance from Captain Gerry Burns, one of the most experienced seafarers and ship-handlers in Ireland. In fact, if you were to list the best people in the country for this particular piece of instruction, Gerry Burns would almost invariably come out on top of every list, for his experience ranges from fishing boats and yachts of all sizes right through to the largest ferries, while he was also a key member of Asgard II’s roster of reserve skippers.

For training in handling Ilen and bringing her alongside in challenging circumstances, much was learned, for as Ilen was designed to draw only 3ft forward in order to facilitate coming safely in on Falklands beaches on little islands which lacked even the most basic quay, it means that in cross-winds her head will very quickly be blown off course.

ilen profile7Ilen’s beach-friendly profile inevitably means that the bow is very easily blown to lee at slow speeds in cross-winds, and part of the special skill in handling her is knowing how to anticipate this and deal with it
They’ve learned all sorts of tricks such as the value of approaching tricky berths in astern. With her 150 hp Gardiner diesel and enormous three-blade prop, Ilen doesn’t mess about when you give her a bit of welly in astern - the bow will very quickly fall into line, and there’s the bonus that you have a much clearer view of where you’re going, but it’s a technique which needs confidence and competence.

ilen quayside clayton8“If you can walk away from it, then it’s a landing…..” The rough humour of aviation was not needed with Sunday’s readily-available and neatly-accessed quayside space in Limerick, giving Ilen plenty of different berths to test the skills of trainee helmsmen. Photo: Gary MacMahon
That and all other aspects of ship-handling in restricted places only comes from instruction and training and practice and practice again and then practice yet again and again with the best teacher you can find, and with Gerry Burns enthusiastically sharing the sea training and awareness ideals of the Ilen Project, they’d the best man for the job amongst the moving mountains of the Ted Russell Dock.

ilen crew9At the end of a good day’s work are (left to right) Gary Mac Mahon, Eoin Mac Mahon, James Lyons of Sailing Into Wellness, James Madigan, Tony Daly and Captain Gerry Burns

Published in W M Nixon

When we’d flash floods pestering the country recently with wayward downpours, Gary MacMahon went to check out the beloved Ilen in Limerick docks, and found the old girl sitting serenely under her own private rainbow writes W M Nixon

But then, the restored 1926-built 56ft trading ketch, with her impeccable connections to global circumnavigating pioneer Conor O’Brien of Foynes, has had a year of good fortune since she was skillfully extracted in a brief weather window in January from Liam Hegarty’s Top Shed in the hyper-crowded Oldcourt Boatyard near her birthplace of Baltimore.

The rigging and finishing process was a painstaking and time-consuming task, and so too was the long process of bringing her up to the rigorous standards for certification as a passenger carrying vessel. Thus the Autumn was well upon us when she’d to face the challenge of getting from Baltimore to her home port of Limerick, but with a crew of all the talents aboard, they took full advantage of another handy weather window, and saw it off in just 17 hours.

Since then, in addition to a visit by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, the ship’s arrival in Limerick has chimed neatly with the much-visited Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum which successfully concluded yesterday, but the ship’s company did find the time to put to sea for one last occasion in 2018, going down the Shannon Estuary beyond Scattery Island a couple of weekends ago in search of a breeze, and nipping inside Foynes Island on the way back for an unofficial reconnaissance in anticipation of the official visit there next year.

ilen passing glin2There’s no hiding place for Ilen when she proceeds down the Shannon Estuary – her familiar shape was spotted from the south shore as she passed Glin. Photo: Estelle O’Driscoll

The old ketch has such a distinctive appearance that several people recognized her immediately as she moved sweetly through the estuary waters, and Estelle O’Driscoll at Glin was one of them, getting got some photos which show how much at home Ilen is on that fine waterway.

And as Afloat.ie reported at the time, Alison O’Brien – a Conor O’Brien relative by marriage – was at the family place on Foynes Island for the weekend, and she too was very much aware of the ketch’s presence.

conor obrien cottage3Conor O’Brien’s home place on Foynes Island was the cottage known as Barneen, as seen here from Ilen during the recent visit. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But now, the workaday surroundings of the Ted Russell Dock is Ilen’s home until the end of winter, and much work still needs to be done until the full programme for next year – which may well include a round Ireland venture – can be finalized.

With traditional and wooden boat festivals springing up all round the coast, everyone will want to have the now widely-recognized Ilen at their particular gathering, and the problem will be trying to fit it all together to make logistical sense. Popularity and immediate public recognition certainly bring their own challenges…..

Published in Ilen

#ShannonEstuary - The recent return to the Shannon Estuary, almost 100 years later of restored ketch trader Ilen, which Afloat highlighted, sees the sole surviving Irish built ocean-going timber sailing vessel back home in Limerick Docks, writes Jehan Ashmore

After a 20 year restoration project, the 56ft 'small tall ship' Ilen, returned last month to the estuary after an absence of 92 years as focused by Afloat's W.M. Nixon. The Illen, built to a Limerick design where such vessels traded on the estuary in Munster, had docked in the mid-west city port's Ted Russell Docks. Take note as Afloat previously reported, today's (Thursday) conivial Come-all-Ye party to celebrate the restoration at the Ilen Exhibition in the city's Hunt Museum (between 5.30 to 8.00pm). All are welcome.

On completion of Ilen in 1926, Conor O’Brien's ketch, built with an auxiliary engine, departed Limerick for Falklands Islands owners where for the majority of time served 60 years in inter-island cargo trade deep in the South Altantic Ocean. Last month, however Ilen would finally sail up the Shannon Estuary again having made a delivery passage from Baltimore (where built), retracing a preparatory journey to Foynes made by O'Brien in advance of the ocean delivery to the Falklands Islands Company.

The small cargoship having become abandoned, eventually returned as deck cargo to Ireland when loaded ashore in Dublin Port in 1997. In the following year work began to restore the unique Irish built sail ocean going cargoship.

Close to Baltimore is where Ilen, mid-way through its restoration, in 2008 was given a new lease life thanks to the ketch receiving the skilled craftmanship at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard in Oldcourt, upriver on the River Ilen from Skibberean. Much of the restorations detailed work of mast and sail work, though took place at the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick.

Also in 2008, a personnal visit took place to the city's Ted Russel Docks to examine the commercial shipping scene, albeit then no sail traders of the past but motorised ships such as Celtic Spirit. The general cargo short-sea trader (pictured above) in the port's single dock basin is seen in October just over a decade ago with Inland Fisheries Ireland patrol cutter Costantoir Bradan.

As W.M. Nixon also alluded in recent coverage of Ilen (scroll down to photo) which sparked memories as the scene included a blue hulled cargoship (likewise of Celtic Spirit). The shipping scene shows the stark contrast in the Dock between the restored ketch complex foredeck and completely differs to those experienced by sailors on the modern ships nearby.

The unidentified blue hulled ship is similar in size to Celtic Spirit, which then had opened up a new service in trading round timber (logs). Trees felled from commercial forests in Co. Tipperary were the source and if recalled correctly, also involved plantations from some of the neighbouring counties. A dockside grabber crane would seize several logs at a time before swung speedily into the hold of Celtic Spirit whose cargo was bound for a European port.

Celtic Spirit no longer forms part of the current 9 strong fleet of Welsh based operator, Charles M.Willie & Co.(Shipping) Ltd located in Cardiff. A successor of the same name serves alongside a fleetmate, Celtic Freedom acquired last year from Arklow Shipping Nederland B.V. as their Arklow Rally. Also sold but in 2016 was Arklow Shipping Ltd's (ASL) Irish flagged Arklow Rose which was renamed Celtic Venture.

At the time of that report another of ASL oldest R-class short sea traders, Arklow Raider had called to Limerick Docks. The dock basin is one of six terminals operated by Shannon Foynes Port Company (SFPC) which recorded a third consecutive year of record profits as 2017’s return in turnover was close to €14 million.

The presence of Ilen in Limerick's Ted Russell Dock (completed in 1853) brings the past and the present to co-exist in terms of demonstrating traditional Irish maritime heritage and modern day shipping and aptly Arkow Shipping, Ireland's largest indigenous shipowner-operator. 

As previously alluded in the year Ilen was built (1926), Ted RusselI Docks that same year reported around 100 importers and exporters using the port. At that time, the dock's principle client were the flour millers, John Bannatyne & Sons. 

The activities of Bannatyne contributed to approximately half of the revenue to Limerick Harbour Commissioners (from 1994, SFPC). Only last year, SFPC's Limerick Docklands Framework Strategy announced plans to reinstate historical buildings over time such as the large Ballantyne Mills building that occupies the main quay lining Ted Russell Docks. 

Exports from Limerick Docks more than tripled imports in 2016, which shows how the dock basin asset has contributed to business in the city and the wider mid-west region. Another recent caller last month to the Dock was again from ASL whose Arklow Cadet (also dating to 2016) which docked in the inland port located on Ireland's largest estuary.

 

Published in Shannon Estuary

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary exerts an almost supernatural attraction for the O’Brien family writes W M Nixon. The great circumnavigator Conor O’Brien always regarded it as his one and only true home. And though his voyagings and other adventures took him all over the world, he would be back on the island as often as possible. He spent his final years from 1944 to 1952 there, living frugally, doing some writing, and building elegant rowing punts until his death – still on the island - at the age of 72.

So although the port of Foynes on the mainland shore has greatly expanded – with Foynes Yacht Club becoming a regional pace-setter – the island continues to have an attractive air of remoteness. And while the O’Briens most closely related to Conor are now spread throughout Ireland and abroad, it’s seldom that a long time passes before there are some of them back visiting the island again.

ilen downriver2A perfect Autumn morning, but little enough wind – aboard Ilen, speeding down the Shannon Estuary on the strong ebb in search of a breeze. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Certainly this was the case last weekend, when the Ilen Project’s Gary MacMahon and a dozen shipmates took the ship to sea for some training sessions, and further testing of the restored 1926-built ketch’s systems – the word is that Robert Smalle of Limerick is a great ship’s cook.

ilen learning3Enough breeze finally arrived to make it worthwhile setting the sails. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But even to seaward of Scattery Island they found little enough wind for a few hours of sailing and some adjusting of the reefing systems, so when they headed back up-river, they decided to make an unscheduled diversion inside Foynes Island. For despite what some official narratives may tell us, Conor O’Brien always regarded Foynes as the starting port for all his major voyages with his world-girdling ketch Saoirse (1922) and the sail trading ketch Ilen (1926).

Now as it happens, Ilen will be making her official return to Foynes in the springtime of 2019, with all the proper official ceremonial to go with it. But evening was drawing on – surely no-one would notice in the gathering dusk last weekend if they briefly paid their respects with the restored Ilen to this place which meant so much, for here it was, right beside them, and the weather so settled?

Not a chance. The extended O’Brien family’s fondness for Foynes Island caught them out. Alison O’Brien, who is married to Stephen O’Brien the son of Murrough O’Brien who was Conor O’Brien’s nephew, was on the island for a few days, and she spotted Ilen immediately the historic little ship poked her nose into the channel.

ilen at foynes4Even in the gathering dusk, Ilen’s brief unofficial return to Foynes for the first time in 92 years did not go unobserved. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen foynes5The restored Ilen salutes Foynes Island. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen departs foynes6Ilen departs Foynes to catch the flood tide up to Limerick. Photo: Alison O’Brien

 

saoirse foynes7Times long gone – Saoirse herself after she’d been fitted with her first auxiliary engine. Photo courtesy Gary MacMahon

So now we have the first images of the restored Ilen back at Foynes, and through the winter can compare them with photos of the ship there in 1926, and of Saoirse in and around Foynes too. It was well dark when Ilen returned to Limerick city on the surging flood tide, and went back into her berth beside the pilot boat in the Ted Russell dock in fine form after that unplanned but magic meeting at Foynes

Next happening up on the agenda has been well-signalled – tomorrow evening (Thursday November 1st) sees the come-all-ye Ilen Shindig within the Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum. It’s from 5.30pm to 8.00, there’s entertainment and proper hospitality, and the celebration of the Ilen restoration will perfectly suit the times that are in it.

Published in Ilen

The return of the restored trading ketch Ilen to Limerick after 92 years has been a matter of quiet celebration among all involved since the 56ft “small tall ship" sailed up the Shannon Estuary from Baltimore at the beginning of October writes W M Nixon. And interest has been such that people from near and far want to meet those involved in every aspect of the 20-year project, which eventually saw the ten years from 2008 until 2018 taken up with giving new life to Ilen at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork, with much of the detail work being done at the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick.

With the successful Ilen exhibition being staged in Limerick’s renowned Hunt Museum, the ideal venue for a party is available, so there’s going to be a convivial Come-all-Ye within the exhibition in the Museum on Thursday November 1st from 5.30 to 8.00pm. At it, everyone will be welcome to have a good time and an informative one too – the benign presence of the Ilen in the Ted Russell Dock has brought daily interest and greater awareness in Limerick, and an increased sense of the city’s truly maritime nature, with its fascinating past and developing future

ilen foredeck2.jpgContrasts in Limerick’s dockland - the restored Ilen’s complex foredeck speaks of a different world from that experienced by sailors on the modern ships nearby, yet they share the same sea. Photo: Deirdre Power.

Published in Ilen

The restored 1926-built 56ft ketch Ilen proudly tells us on her transom that her home port is Limerick writes W M Nixon. And while Limerick may have come to prominence as a raiding base and trading centre for the Vikings at the head of the Shannon Estuary, today it is a strategically-located commercial and manufacturing city where - despite many handsome buildings - you are never far from reminders that this is a place where they make things, and metal-working is often involved.

The Ilen Project’s work has reached the successful conclusion of the re-born “small tall ship” making the passage at near-record speed from Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork right up the coast of West Cork and Kerry to the length of the Shannon Estuary and the heart of the city in the Ted Russell Dock. There, further protection is provided by the lock gates necessitated by the large tidal range at the head of the estuary.

In her home port, Ilen and her crew have constant reminders that Limerick is a working place. All sorts of cargoes are coming and going, and though she is in the choice position of being allocated a prime spot beside the official Pilot Boat berth, just across the quayside is the transit point for many cargoes. And at the weekend in the sunshine, it had a mountain of scrap metal ultimately destined for “other places beyond the seas”. 

ilen limerick docks2Ilen’s location seems completely different from a changed perspective. Photo: Gary MacMahon

It can be other shipments at other times, but as the Limerick folk are taking the Ilen to their generous hearts, they know that a completely sheltered winter berth is vital, regardless of what neighbouring cargoes may be like from time to time.

With Ilen now securely in place in her home port, the connection can be made with the Ilen Exhibition which has been running successfully at the city’s Hunt Museum, so much so that the Ilen Schools Programme is now booked up until the end of November. There’ll be a further official ceremony on November 1st to link the Hunt Museum Exhibition (which runs until November 14th) with the ship’s presence in the dock, and meanwhile exciting plans for the vessel’s programme in 2019 and beyond are taking shape, all to be revealed in due course.

rosies at hunt3Keen crew: an Ilen Workshop under way in the Hunt Museum for pupils from “Rosie’s” – aka Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, Rosbrien, Limerick.

sabina and crew4President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins with Ilen’s crew in Limerick Docks. Photo Ilen Network

For the Ilen Boat-Building School team, it will all be a new stage in the process, which reached a high point when President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina made a point of going aboard Ilen during their recent Limerick visit, and meeting those who were both involved in the re-build, and as the delivery crew.

For Project Director Gary MacMahon, the focus of life is under-going a complete change. During the eleven-year re-build, he made the return journey between Limerick and Oldcourt more than 500 times. There are times when West Cork can seem very far away, no matter where you start from…..

As for the delivery passage, it went smooth as silk in light winds, drawing on Ilen’s reality as a motor-sailer. She’s powered by a 150hp Gardner diesel with a 2:1 gearbox which is perfectly in balance with the big propeller, such that at 1,000 rpm the ship is at optimum speed with the engine temperature never going above 60 degrees.

ilen at skellig5Smooth progress. Ilen makes her way past Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, on course for Limerick from Baltimore. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Thus the total time for the passage was just 17 hours, and when it became evident they were going to be early, with night upon them they were able to pull into Carrigaholt on the Clare side of the Estuary for a four-hour rest. That was the sweet spot for Gary MacMahon. The anchorage and quay at Carrigaholt are dominated by the distinctive 1480-built castle of the MacMahons, the Chieftans of the Loop Head Peninsula. Maybe it was time for the ancestors themselves to show respect for a wonderful project nearing its successful conclusion……

carrigaholt castle6Carrigaholt Castle, an ancient stronghold of the MacMahons on the north shore of the Shannon Estuary. This was Ilen’s only stopping place on the passage from Baltimore to Limerick

Published in Ilen
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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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