President Michael D Higgins has been in Limerick this week in honour of its status as Ireland's City of Culture 2014. In addition to other events, a highlight was his award of the Freedom of Limerick, something very special to him as he was born in the Shannonside port.
Ireland's Head of State is keenly aware of the Shannon and Limerick's rich maritime heritage, and he and his party spent almost an hour visiting the "Naumachia in the Cathedral", the exhibition in St Mary's Cathedral of the CityOne sailing dinghies built by trainees with the Ilen Boatbuilding School in the city.
The Ilen Boatbuilding School has several significant cultural aspects, as it was brought into being by Limerick designer Gary MacMahon and Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey initially to teach boat-building skills by restoring the 1926-built 56ft ketch Ilen, which was designed by noted Shannon Estuary ocean voyager and adventurer Conor O'Brien.
But then as the work of the school developed, it took on the project of also building 23ft boats of the traditional Shannon gandelow type, specialized craft which evolved over the centuries to deal with the challenges of using the shallow and muddy waters of the Shannon Estuary with its exceptional tidal range.
The President of Ireland is welcomed to the Naumachia in the Cathedral by Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey. Also foreground are the Dean of Limerick the Very Reverend Sandra Bragnell, Mrs Sabina Higgins, and Gary MacMahon of Ilen Boatbuilding School.
It was the first time any new gandelows had been built in well over thirty years. This project was then further developed to build the CityOne Sailing Dinghies specifically for Limerick use, the unique design of these boats being drawn by naval architect Theo Rye to a detailed Limerick specification. With the new dinghies planned for completion at the height of Limerick's year as City of Culture, a CityOne International Graphic Arts Competition was also launched to create innovative ideas for the colour layouts on the sails and the hulls of the boats. It attracted 61 entries worldwide, and the four selected designs were from graphic artists in Kenya, Ireland Portugal and Texas.
Participants in the Ilen School at the Cathedral included (left to right) Robert Smalle. Tony Broe, Liam O'Donoghue, James Madigan (Ilen School Instructor), Michael Grimes and Gary Wilmott.
It was the CityOne dinghies with their striking colour schemes which formed the centrepiece of the Naumachia in the Cathedral. But there were other exhibits linked to the many aspects of the Ilen School's work too, and in addition to meeting the boatbuilders and crews that sail the CityOnes, the President also met the "Gandelow Gang", who are drawn from the Limerick area both to make up the building teams for gandelows and CityOnes alike, and to row the gandelows in competition and traditional boat gatherings at home and abroad.
The Presidential party inspect the exhibits detailing the work of the Ilen School
In concluding his speech, the President summed up the mood of the day:
"I very much want to thank everyone involved in staging this exhibition here in this magnificent 12th Century building. What a great tribute it is to those who put all the original stones in place, that there is something new of the human spirit and craft being exhibited here. These boat builders, they are consummate craftsmen.
The international design dimension to the CityOne project is to be highly commended, and it is such a pleasure to be here with you today. I am delighted that the Ilen School project is part of the Limerick City of Culture. Isn't it wonderful that these skills are being passed down and developed, so that more and more people can take part, and for the community to see such inspiring craft?"
The President meets members of the Gandelow Gang and the Ilen Boatbuilding School including (left to right) James Madigan, Michael Grimes, Gary Wilmott and Tony Broe.