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Displaying items by tag: Ilen

Global circumnavigator and sailing ship designer Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) inevitably saw his most noted vessels, the 42ft world-girdler Saoirse and the 56ft trading ketch Ilen, being closely associated by the rest of the world with their birthplace in Baltimore. But much and all as he liked West Cork, he always insisted that ultimately his heart was in the Shannon Estuary on Foynes Island, where he was living when designed both vessels, and so he made a point of ensuring that they spent some time in the Foynes anchorage before going off on their great voyages. Thus although Saoirse’s pioneering cruise round the world south of the great Capes is generally thought to have started from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, O’Brien secretly reckoned it had got going from Foynes some weeks earlier. And equally, while the official records show that Ilen’s voyage to the Falkland Islands started from Avonmouth near Bristol on the 26th August 1926, as far as her skipper was concerned, the voyage had got under way from Foynes on the 28th July 1926.

There’s charming proof of this in the Foynes Harbour Master’s personal log from the 1920s. At the time, the HM was Hugh O’Brien, who was Conor O’Brien’s brother-in-law through marriage to one of the voyager’s sisters, while sharing his surname through being distantly related as a de Vere O’Brien of Curragh Chase. As Harbour Master, Hugh O’Brien was wont to embellish his records book with drawings of visiting vessels of special interest, and naturally, the new Ilen got the complete treatment in July 1926, resulting in very tangible evidence of Conor O’Brien’s assertion that this was the ship’s spiritual home port.

Now that Ilen has passed her biennial Department of Transport survey (as recently reported in Afloat.ie), the coming easing of pandemic restrictions means that plans are being firmed up for her programme in May, and she will shortly leave her winter berth in Kinsale to make the familiar passage round Ireland’s majestic southwestern seaboard towards Foynes, where Foynes Yacht Club have generously allocated a berth. This will enable the Ilen Marine School to implement as full a programme as the regulations at the time will permit, and the fact that it will see Ilen spend a longer period at her spiritual home than she ever has in her 95 years of existence will be a salute to the faithfully-kept records of Hugh O’Brien.

Published in Shannon Estuary

The good ship Ilen, the 56ft Trading Ketch of Limerick, has been in the slipway cradle at Liam Hegarty's boatyard in Oldcourt upriver of Baltimore in West Cork this week, enjoying the relatively dry weather and the attention of her crew as they brush on fresh-smelling paint. And she returns to the salty sea on Saturday, confident in the renewal of her Departmental Certificate.

Even with the best-maintained vessels such as Ilen, the annual inspection can bring its challenges. And on Wednesday evening, after very thoroughly spending a day going through the ship, the Department of Transport surveyor descended the ship's ladder to speak softly with the crew.

But it was good news. Ilen, he stated, had passed survey with just the remediation of a few minor matters. Under the Department's Passenger 5 Licence, she can now resume operations for 2021. This survey outcome is directly attributable to her crew's dedicated annual maintenance programme. Considering the severe limitations to travel this year and last, it really is excellent news.

Ilen in the slipway cradle at Oldcourt this week, where she has passed her annual Certification with flying coloursIlen in the slipway cradle at Oldcourt this week, where she has passed her annual Certification with flying colours. Photo: Gary Mac Maho

Ilen makes for the Lower Shannon Estuary in April under the Ilen Marine School's developing community educational Kingship Programme, which takes its name and logo inspiration from the fact that King John's Castle is the most venerable feature of the Limerick riverfront, while King's Island is at the heart of the ancient city.

Subject to variations in pandemic restrictions, the following six weeks of operations await her during Aril and early May:

  • Ilen familiarisation courses
  • Ilen will sail the Lower Shannon on experimental community voyaging.
  • May Weekend sailing demonstration just west of Shannon Bridge, Limerick City.
  • Onboard the Ilen, a marine survey of the tidal Shannon from Loop Head to Thomas Island will also unfold. This schools survey, both actual and online, will - among other areas - focus on water quality, measurements of salinity, and plastic pollution. Ilen is getting fully equipped for such marine surveys.
  • Traditional rigging courses.
  • A navigation course on the Lower Shannon will also unfold.
  • As part of Ilen Marine Schools 2021 Kingship Community Educational Programme, carefully monitored community sailing days on the Lower Shannon will be part of the schedule.

All of the above courses and activities will be delivered, without charge to the communities and individuals who participate, and interest is high.

The Ilen Marine Schools' Kingship Programme symbol draws its inspiration from the city's historic interaction with the River Shannon.The Ilen Marine Schools' Kingship Programme symbol draws its inspiration from the city's historic interaction with the River Shannon

Foynes Yacht Club and Shannon Foynes Port Company are generously collaborating to provide Ilen with berths at the head of the Estuary in Limerick City, and down towards the sea at Foynes in County Limerick on the Shannon Estuary's southern shore.

The remaining season is still at the planning stage in view of the "unknowables" inherent in the emergence from the pandemic restrictions, but all being well the newly-certificated Ilen's 2021 season will be a very active one, built on experience gained with a necessarily limited but successful programme in 2020.

Published in Boatyards
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Ireland's Conor O'Brien was the first amateur skipper to circumnavigate the globe by the classic sailing ship route south of the great Capes, running down his easting in the big winds of the Great Southern Ocean which blow unhindered round the globe. But although his 42ft ketch Saoirse – which he'd designed himself – was often described as a "little ship", she was tiny by comparison with the enormous square-riggers which regularly plied this route.

Those majestic wind-jammers were already in decline as a commercial and maritime force by the time Saoirse and her owner-skipper from Limerick achieved their clear-cut "first", with the smallness of the vessel adding to the lustre of its unique glory. And now the Centenary is approaching, for Saoirse took her departure from Dun Laoghaire on the 20th June 1923, and returned on 20th June 1925, with a whole new generation of O'Brien admirers emerging to emphasise the importance of marking this very special achievement in as many appropriate ways as possible.

It is a real curiosity of Conor O'Brien's unique place in Irish life - and in our own and world maritime history - that enthusiasm for his achievements seems to come in such distinct generational waves. Every so often, somebody "discovers" O'Brien all over again, and the rest of us - who are already quietly but fully aware of the exceptionality of his achievement - get berated for not honouring his memory as it should be. So maybe the best thing at this stage is to attempt a timeline-factsheet to put some sort of Conor O'Brien memory structure in place.

Why do we remember Conor O'Brien?

In 1923-25, he became the first amateur skipper to circle the world south of the Great Capes.

What was his family background?

He was from a County Limerick land-owning family whose main home was the mansion of Cahirmoyle at Ardagh, 15 kilometres inland from the port of Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, and now better known as the place where the Ardagh Chalice was found.

His immediate family history?

His grandfather was William Smith O'Brien, the Young Ireland leader. His father – who rejected the Young Ireland policies – was married twice, and Conor O'Brien's older half brother was the artist Dermod O'Brien (1865-1945), who was President of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1910 to 1945.

Conor O'Brien: Portrait by Kitty Clausen Conor O'Brien: Portrait by Kitty Clausen

When and where was Conor O'Brien born?

He was born on 3rd November 1880 in his mother's house in Kensington in London. His mother, of the Marshall family of Yorkshire, had a house in Kensington and a country place in Surrey, so Conor's boyhood saw winters in England and summers in Ireland, the Irish summers being spread between Cahirmoyle in Ardagh, a family property on Foynes Island, and summer holidays staying at Keatinge's Hotel at Derrynane in West Kerry where he learned to sail, though for many years his main sport was mountaineering, but he did compete successfully in rowing at school

Conor O'Brien's first command, the 27ft former Naval whaler Mary Brigid at DerrynaneConor O'Brien's first command, the 27ft former Naval whaler Mary Brigid at Derrynane 

Which school did he attend?

Winchester College in England – he seems to have been a diligent enough pupil, but although he'd gone there as a scholar, he did not emerge with any special awards.

His university career?

Trinity College, Oxford, where he did a four-year course in chemistry, which he seems to have found increasingly uninteresting as he graduated with a Fourth Class Degree.

Further education?

A long-established interest in architecture was growing, and in 1903 he was apprenticed to a conservation architect in London, but somehow seems have been able to spend expanding amounts of his time in Dublin, where his brother has set up his increasingly successful artist's studio in 1901.

What did he work at in Dublin?

He did some architectural work for the Co-Op movement, mostly on new creameries, but was also involved in projects for St Mary's Cathedral in Limerick, where he was home as often as possible.

What was his Dublin life like?

It was one of contrasts, as he moved in artistic and creative circles, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arts & Crafts Movement. He was a founder member in 1907 of the United Arts Club, along with WB Yeats, George Russell, Constance Markievicz and many others in an eclectic group.

Yet at the same time, he was much involved in mountaineering, particularly in North Wales with a group that occasionally included Mallory and Irvine of Everest fame.

Holidays in Derrynane now included the 27ft former naval whaler Mary Brigid, which he sailed one summer round the coast to Dublin Bay, and then returned west via the Grand Canal and the Shannon.

When did he buy his first proper seagoing cruiser?

In 1910 he sold the Mary Brigid and a share in a house he had in Dublin, and bought the 17-ton 1871-built gaff cutter Kelpie, a hefty 46-footer, in Dun Laoghaire. In order to give himself a proper grounding in navigation, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and in 1911 he cruised Kelpie round Ireland.

Conor O'Brien and his sister Kitty aboard Kelpie off the west coast of Ireland, 1913.Conor O'Brien and his sister Kitty aboard Kelpie off the west coast of Ireland, 1913.

The boat's enormous cutter rig had been problematic, so by the 1911 cruise he'd reduced it to ketch rig, and by 1913 he preferred to keep her if at all possible in Foynes, which he reckoned to be his true home.

How did he get involved with the gun-running with Erskine Childers and Asgard in 1914?

His cousin Mary Spring Rice was a participant in the pro-Home Rule gun-running planning by Alice Stopford Green, Erskine Childers and others in response to the industrial-scale gun-running by the Ulster Volunteers into Larne in April 1914, and she had hoped to bring her Foynes-based former sailing trawler Santa Cruz in support of Erskine & Molly Childers' Asgard to collect the German arms shipment at a rendezvous at the Ruytigen Lightship at the south end of the North Sea.

But her vessel was unready and probably unsuitable, and knowing that Conor O'Brien was now strongly sympathetic to the Home Rule movement, she asked if he would like to get involved with Kelpie. His reply was that he always got special enjoyment out of a cruise with added purpose, and as a result, in July 1914, Kelpie and her skipper waited with increasing (and noisy) frustration for the delayed Asgard to make the rendezvous in Cowes.

Molly and Erskine Childers with Asgard's dinghy during a Baltic cruise in the early years of their marriageIn time of peace – Molly and Erskine Childers with Asgard's dinghy during a Baltic cruise in the early years of their marriage.

Eventually, they met up, then despite fog, the lightship was found, and the two gun-laden vessels headed for Ireland. But although Asgard was able to make her famous entrance to Howth on Sunday, July 24th and unload all her guns in two hours, it was reckoned that the other landing on the beach at Kilcoole in County Wicklow would benefit from the services of a yacht with an auxiliary engine, and thus the Kelpie's guns were transferred to Sir Thomas Myles' auxiliary cutter Chotah in the shelter of St Tudwal's island on the Welsh coast, and successfully landed at Kilcoole next day.

The Great War broke out almost immediately, and the leading players in the gun-running went straight into service with the allies, Conor O'Brien getting through the war in mine-sweeping with the RNVR, with his unconventional attitude to life in general occasionally ruffling feathers. 

What's the story about Conor O'Brien working for Michael Collins?

O'Brien returned from war service to find Ireland in increasing turmoil after the Easter Rising of 1916, and particularly after the massive pro Sinn Fein vote in the General Election of 1918. This led to the meeting of the First Dail, and the establishment of an alternative Irish government which ran in opposition yet parallel to the British administration headquartered in Dublin Castle. O'Brien offered the services of himself and the Kelpie to this alternative Government in which Michael Collins was the administrative and financial mastermind, and in 1919-1920 Conor O'Brien patrolled with Kelpie as a Fisheries Inspector & Advisor off the northwest and west coasts.

Michael Collins' Fisheries Inspector helming Kelpie…….At sea, Conor O'Brien thought that wearing shoes of any kind was an affectationMichael Collins' Fisheries Inspector helming Kelpie…….At sea, Conor O'Brien thought that wearing shoes of any kind was an affectation

What happened to Kelpie?

With the War of Independence being fought with increasing violence as 1920 drew on, O'Brien had mixed feelings about the way things were going, yet in 1919 despite the turmoil, he had managed to get himself elected a member of the Royal Cruising Club, proposed by the very unionist Commander Frank Gilliland of Derry, whom he'd met through the RNVR, and seconded by Erskine Childers, who was by that time a total independence republican.

The RCC membership was subsequently to serve O'Brien very well, and as a keen new member at a loose end when everyone in Ireland seemed to be on one side or another in a sort of war, he went cruising such that, in the summer of 1921, Kelpie was to be seen of the coast of Scotland while her owner and some mountaineering friends conquered every significant peak and cliff face in the Cuillins of Skye.

The Mountaineers weren't sailors, and anyway their leave had run out, so having departed towards Scotland from Dublin Bay at the beginning of the cruise, O'Brien decided to return to Foynes single-handed via Ireland's west coast. But persistent headwinds made him change plan and head for Dublin Bay instead.

The Cullins of Skye provided a superb objective for what proved to be Kelpie's last cruiseThe Cullins of Skye provided a superb objective for what proved to be Kelpie's last cruise

However, the wind headed again and lightened, and in beating slowly through the North Channel at night, he set an alarm clock to allow himself a brief sleep, but managed to sleep right through the alarm. In classic O'Brien style, he subsequently placed all blame on the German-made alarm clock. But either way, while her exhausted skipper slept deeply, the poor old Kelpie came gently ashore in the dark and fog on the rocky Scottish coastline close south of Portpatrick, and with the tide ebbing, Conor O'Brien realised he was watching the slow death of his ship. At dawn, he put everything he could find space for into Kelpie's dinghy while leaving just enough room for himself, and rowed away into the fog towards Portpatrick's little harbour.

If you were making a movie about Conor O'Brien's great round the world voyage, this would be where you'd start. Early morning. The fog still heavy on the calm sea, though with the first hint of sunlight. The only noise the sound of rowing. Out of the fog appears a man on his own in an incongruously over-laden dinghy. He rows past, and heads into the barely visible harbour entrance. We see him clamber ashore in the harbour, and walk up the quayside and on past the Portpatrick Inn. Conor O'Brien's life, though he doesn't quite realize it at the time, has changed in a way that will ultimately make him a legend among sailors.

What did the loss of Kelpie ultimately mean for Conor O'Brien?

With landed family fortunes declining as a result of the actions of the Land League and the Land Commission, he only had a very small private income, and little or no personal property. By the summer of 1921, Kelpie had become in effect his home. But in time he secured the insurance money for her loss, and he retreated to Foynes Island where he'd the use of a cottage, Barneen. There, he designed his ideal for an ocean-going long-distance vessel, and this was to become the 42ft Saoirse.

When and where was Saoirse built?

She was built by Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights and trainees in the Fisheries School Boatyard in Baltimore, West Cork in 1922. O'Brien had experience of the high quality of Moynihan's work through repairs made to Kelpie in his Fisheries Inspector days.

Was Ireland not engaged in Civil War in 1922?

Yes, and West Cork was one of the more active theatres, yet the boat-building continued, and after Saoirse was launched and sailing, O'Brien claims to have carried the mails for the Irish Post Office as their links ashore had been broken.

Was there anything seen by the sailing community as unusual about Saoirse's appearance in 1922?

Just about everything. O'Brien deliberately went for an archaic hull and rig using long-proven equipment. But the accommodation was ahead of its time. While he once claimed that Saoirse was in effect a seagoing Art & Crafts cottage, she certainly was cosy down below, and he ensured that unlike Kelpie, the galley was right aft in the location of minimal movement at sea, very much ahead of the times in 1922.

Saoirse on the slipway is revealed to have as simple a hull as possibleSaoirse on the slipway is revealed to have as simple a hull as possible

Had Conor O'Brien any significant ocean-voyaging experience under sail before he created Saoirse?

No. But he reckoned his time with Kelpie on Ireland's west coast - week in, week out - had taught him much about the needs of a vessel suitable for many ocean conditions, and this experience had been augmented by his time mine-sweeping with trawlers on a year-round basis during the Great War. In addition, the hugely experienced Tom Moynihan quietly persuaded him to make design modifications which improved Saoirse in many ways.

How long had he had the notion of a Round the World Voyage in mind?

We don't know, for initially, he would only admit that he was voyaging to New Zealand to join a climbing expedition. But he didn't deny the logic of coming home by way of Cape Horn.

Why did his voyage start from the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire?

He'd been associated with the club since at least 1910, and knew that it would provide the ideal setting for the highly-publicised departure of the first vessel to undertake an ocean voyage under the Tricolour ensign of the Irish Free State, with the name Saoirse celebrating both the freedom of the seas, and the new independence of Ireland. But in his heart of hearts, he reckoned all his voyages ultimately began and ended at Foynes.

O'Brien had Saoirse rigged as a proper little ship, with her offwind rig including stun'sailsO'Brien had Saoirse rigged as a proper little ship, with her offwind rig including stun'sails.

Did Saoirse's departure garner significant attention?

Yes. The going-away party seems to have begun at the United Arts Club in Dublin, and then became a moveable feast to the RIYC in Dunleary (as O'Brien called it), and then on to Saoirse herself before she finally managed to getaway.

How was public interest maintained?

One of his crew members for the early stages was contracted to file reports to the Irish Times from each port visited, and O'Brien himself had a natural talent for writing. Thus while Saoirse was away for only two years, he managed to get extensive logs into three consecutive annual editions of the Royal Cruising Club Journal, which in a sense gave his voyage official sailorly approval at a very senior level.

What were Saoirse's crewing arrangements?

Difficult. O'Brien was notorious for his impatient and outspoken bad temper. He only settled down as he got far out to sea, and in some ways was the living embodiment of Dr Johnson's comment that when a man gets to like a sea life, then he is not fit to live on land.

"Not fit to live on land……" Conor O'Brien happy at the helm in a good breeze far at sea, and so sure of Saoirse's sea kindliness that he's dressed as though for a summer's day in Ireland"Not fit to live on land……" Conor O'Brien happy at the helm in a good breeze far at sea, and so sure of Saoirse's sea kindliness that he's dressed as though for a summer's day in Ireland

It's reckoned that he'd got through something like 18 different crew-members by the time Saoirse returned to Dublin Bay, and when he got a compatible and able shipmate, events conspired to make it a short relationship.

The classic instance of this was in the Southern Indian Ocean, which – like many others subsequently following the same route – O'Brien found to be the roughest part of the entire voyage. Saoirse was running before "a moderate gale", and to his satisfaction, this excellent shipmate was making as good a job of the helming as O'Brien would have expected of himself.

Then they both noticed that somewhat over a mile away, a pinnacle wave was forming, with the three-way ocean swell building into an Everest of the ocean which eventually collapsed on itself in an enormous roar of hundreds of thousands of tons of breaking water. Neither of the two on deck said anything, but O'Brien was soon noting in the log that if Saoirse had been caught up in that, she wouldn't have had a chance. As for the highly-regarded sailor, when they reached Adelaide in Australia, he simply disappeared ashore with all his belongings and papers, and wasn't seen again.

When did Saoirse round Cape Horn?

"On the evening of Tuesday, December 2nd 1924, a small bluff-bowed 42ft gaff-rigged ketch of antique appearance approached Cape Horn from the west. The weather had been unsettled with winds from several directions, and two days previously, squalls from the northeast had brought flurries of snow, despite it being early in the southern summer. But conditions were improving as the Horn came abeam around 2200hrs in the last of the daylight.

With the onset of the short southern summer night with its brief token darkness, the wind settled in the north, and the little ship made steady progress. By noon on Wednesday in fine conditions, she had made good 140 miles in 24 hours, aided by a favourable current of at least one knot.

Superb visibility enabled the ketch's crew to admire the massive scenery along the rugged coast as they shaped their course to pass eastward of Staten Island. The wind then drew fresh and favourably from the southwest, and despite progress being slowed by their vessel's fouled bottom - for they had been at sea for more than 40 days since leaving New Zealand – by Saturday, December 6th they were moored in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands."

"This bluff-bowed little ship". Saoirse's lines as taken off by Uffa Fox in 1927"This bluff-bowed little ship". Saoirse's lines as taken off by Uffa Fox in 1927

Why did it take Saoirse nearly six months to finish the global voyage from the Falklands back to Dun Laoghaire?

They stayed for six very hospitable weeks in the Falklands, and finally departed with the possibility of two useful contracts. One of the crew had formed a close relationship with an Islands woman, and took his departure from Saoirse in a South American port to return to the Falklands and marry her. As for his skipper, the islanders were so impressed by Saoirse that they started planning how best to persuade the rather economically-minded Falklands Islands Company to commission Conor O'Brien to design and organize the building of a larger sister to serve as the inter-island ferry.

What happened when Saoirse returned to Dublin Bay on Saturday, June 20th 1925?

Dublin Bay Sailing Club cancelled their racing for the day so that their fleet could provide a Guard of Honour. There was a boisterous initial welcome at the Royal Irish YC, and then a public parade into Dublin – reputedly watched by at least ten thousand cheering spectators - with O'Brien travelling in a ceremonial pony-drawn carriage to the United Arts Club, which provided a Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.

What happened then?

Fortunately, O'Brien had much to keep him busy. Before the year was out, the contract for the building of a 56ft trading ketch for the Falkland Islands had been finalized. The Ilen was under construction in Baltimore by1926, and in late summer O'Brien himself – crewed by cousins Con and Denis Cadogan from Cape Clear – sailed her out to the Falklands, with the Ilen registered as a yacht in the RIYC listing, as that was the only way her delivery skipper could get insurance.

The restored Ilen at the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire in May 2019, before her voyage to West GreenlandFull circle. The restored Ilen at the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire in May 2019, before her voyage to West Greenland. Photo: W M Nixon

When did his major book of the voyage, Across Three Oceans, first get published?

Early in 1927, by Edward Arnold of London, and it was a publishing success. Apart from the engaging style of O'Brien's writing, it showed how cleverly he had placed himself through his link to the Royal Cruising Club, set up in the unlikely year of 1919 by the even more unlikely combination of Frank Gilliland and Erskine Childers.

Joining the RCC meant he came to the notice of the Club's Vice Commodore, Claud Worth. Worth was the undisputed guru of British cruising at the time, and his reach was such that his encouragement played a significant role in persuading Bill Nutting to bring the Cruising Club of America into being in 1922.

For much of the 1920s, Worth was the adjudicator for the Royal Cruising Club's annual awards, and despite the fraught situation in relations between Ireland and England, he awarded Conor O'Brien the RCC's premier trophy the Challenge Cup - which dated from 1896 – three years in a row in 1923, '24 and '25.

Subsequently, the ultimate supportive gift from Claud Worth was the foreword he provided for Across Three Oceans, in which two of his thoughtful paragraphs defined Conor O'Brien's achievement:

"…anyone who knows anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance required to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul uncoppered bottom, at speeds of 150 to 170 miles a day, as well as the weight of wind and sea which must sometimes have been encountered…..

….. however common long ocean voyages in small yachts may become, Mr O'Brien will always be remembered for his voyage across the South Pacific and round the Horn."

What happened to Conor O'Brien after 1927?

Buoyed by the success of Across Three Oceans and with additional funds from the fulfilment of the Ilen contract, he made a very clever job of converting Saoirse to set more canvas in a sort of schooner rig while still using the original masts, and he entered her for the 1927 Fastnet Race. He was feted in Cowes, with Uffa Fox slipping Saoirse in order to taking off her lines, while Maurice Griffiths, Editor of Yachting Monthly, joined the crew for a Fastnet Race which Saoirse didn't actually finish as her new schooner rig didn't suit the endless windward work which prevailed, but the experience of sailing with O'Brien was further immortalised by Griffiths.

Had he any family life after 1927?

Yes, on October 10th 1928, soon to be 48, he married the 42-year-old Kitty Clausen, daughter of the artist George Clausen. She looked younger then her years, and although not a sailor, she genuinely shared Conor's enthusiasm for the nomadic lifestyle on Saoirse. Her family's summer life was centred around Cornwall, and Conor was happy to be based there at St Mawes on the east side of Falmouth Harbour, as he was finding the new inward-looking Ireland which was emerging after Independence to be claustrophobic, something which was unpleasantly exemplified in his beloved Baltimore, where the Fisheries School – formerly an exemplary charitable institution - had been taken under the notoriously harsh remit of the Industrial Schools.

The newly-weds. Conor and Kitty hoisting sail aboard Saoirse – in best big ship style, he was happy to incorporate chains in his halyardsThe newly-weds. Conor and Kitty hoisting sail aboard Saoirse – in best big ship style, he was happy to incorporate chains in his halyards

Domesticity below – Conor in Saoirse's homely saloonDomesticity below – Conor in Saoirse's homely saloon

Where did Conor and Kitty cruise in Saoirse?

For much of the early 1930s, they were in the Mediterranean, based for some time in the Balearics, and one year getting as far east as Greece. They wrote books together about it, Conor doing the writing and Kitty the sketches. But in time, Kitty was showing signs of developing illness, and they returned to Cornwall in 1935 and she died there in 1936, it is believed of leukaemia. Conor designed her headstone for a grave he and the Clausen family had managed to secure under an impressive pine tree in the beautiful waterside churchyard of St Just-in-Roseland - it is a peaceful place.

"A peaceful place" – Kitty Clausen's headstone in St Just in Roseland, one of the last architectural design tasks undertaken by Conor O'Brien "A peaceful place" – Kitty Clausen's headstone in St Just in Roseland, one of the last architectural design tasks undertaken by Conor O'Brien

Conor O'Brien died in 1952 aged 72 on Foynes Island – what had he been doing since becoming a widower in 1936?

He continued to live on Saoirse in Falmouth, but his heart was no longer in sailing her, and an Irish crew who called there on a cruise in 1937 found Saoirse to be hauled into the shed in Falmouth Boatyard with Conor still living onboard, seemingly sustained largely by tins of baked beans. However, among those who appreciated it, his writings on voyaging were still appreciated, and small books about yacht design and equipment still appeared – published by Oxford University Press - together with magazine articles which added to a set of works which included a couple of adventure books aimed at a younger readership

How did he become involved with a World War II posting in New York?

He finally sold Saoirse to English owner Eric Ruck in 1940, thus although he is completely identified with the boat, he only owned her for 18 years. In 1940, through old RNVR contacts from World War I, he got a posting as Dispatch Officer in New York for ferry crews delivering American-supplied vessels for the Royal Navy across the Atlantic, and while this programme lasted until 1944, he enjoyed himself hugely, stimulated by the city's new architecture and can-do attitude to life, and re-vitalised by having a clearcut job to do.

Saoirse sailing in Eric Ruck's ownership, with the formerly loose-footed mainsail now fitted with a boomSaoirse sailing in Eric Ruck's ownership, with the formerly loose-footed mainsail now fitted with a boom.

His final years?

In 1944, aged 64, he returned to Ireland and up-graded the cottage of Barneen at the west end of Foynes Island to be his home, though he shared the day's main meal with relatives who lived in the island's main house. He produced occasional writings and technical drawings and built at least one elegant clinker punt which he would row across to Foynes for some surprisingly convivial pints of Guinness.

He died on Foynes Island of congestive heart failure in 1952 aged 72, and after a well-attended funeral in Foynes, was buried at nearby Loghill Church, overlooking his beloved Shannon Estuary.

What has happened to Ilen and Saoirse?

Ilen was brought back to Ireland under the inspiration and hands-on leadership of Gary MacMahon of Limerick in 1997, and in 2018 a major restoration was completed in a joint project between the Ilen Boat-Building School of Limerick and Liam Hegerty's boatyard at Old Court upriver from Baltimore in West Cork. In 2019 she voyaged to East Greenland, and has worked extensively with the Sailing Into Wellness programme, and several educational and environmental projects.

Gary MacMahonGary MacMahon

The spirit of Conor O'Brien lives on – Ilen in Greenland, July 2019The spirit of Conor O'Brien lives on – Ilen in Greenland, July 2019. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

The Saoirse came ashore on a beach in Jamaica in the aftermath of a hurricane in 1979, but enough of her and her Ship's Papers were saved for Gary Mac Mahon to buy the rights to the registered vessel, and she is now being re-built by Liam Hegarty in Old Court.

How has the memory of Conor OBrien and his achievements been commemorated?

In 1929 he as made the first Honorary Member of the newly-formed Irish Cruising Club, and attended some of its functions in the late 1940s. And there are several memorials in the Foynes area and a model of Saoirse.

In 1998, to mark the 75th Anniversary of Saoirse's global circumnavigation, the Irish members of the Royal Cruising Club funded the sculpting of a bust of Conor O'Brien, carved by West Cork sculptor Danny Osborne (he created the Oscar Wilde reclining statue in Merrion Square) from a single vertebra of a giant blue whale which had been found on a beach on Ireland's Atlantic coast.

Conor O'Brien discovered in the single vertebra of a blue whale, as carved by Danny Osborne to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of his completed circumnavigation in 1998Conor O'Brien discovered in the single vertebra of a blue whale, as carved by Danny Osborne to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of his completed circumnavigation in 1998

The O'Brien bust was presented to the RIYC at a 75thAnniversary memorial lunch in October 1998, attended by many members of his family and others from Limerick and elsewhere who have kept the Conor O'Brien name and achievements prominent.

As it happens, there is a prominently-placed O'Brien statue in Dublin, but it is in memory of his grandfather William Smith O'Brien. Having originally been first placed on the South Quays in 1870, in 1929 it was moved to its current position of considerable honour in O'Connell Street. Yet even in this age when the political correctness or deeper significance of statuary can be a matter of heated debate, it is doubtful if many of those who hurry past the O'Brien statue in non-pandemic times have the slightest awareness of what it signifies. So in trying to provide a meaningful memorial to Conor O'Brien of Saoirse and what he achieved, perhaps the best place is right here, online.

The William Smith O'Brien monument in its place of prominence in Dublin's O'Connell Street. But in today's rushed and screen-dominated world, does anybody really appreciate the full meaning of another piece of urban statuary?The William Smith O'Brien monument in its place of prominence in Dublin's O'Connell Street. But in today's rushed and screen-dominated world, does anybody really appreciate the full meaning of another piece of urban statuary?

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In Greek mythology, at the Winter Solstice, there is a brief calm for the Halcyon Day, and this was the experience of the crew on the Limerick ketch Ilen as they headed away on Monday evening, after a busy two weeks in Ringsend which had included a series of courses in Dublin Bay for the Sailing into Wellness programme.

In addition to that, their visit – based at Poolbeg Y & BC - had coincided with the All-Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park, for which crewman Mike Grimes hoisted the biggest Limerick GAA flag ever seen in Dublin aboard the ship.

It achieved the desired result with Limerick beating Waterford. But with very unsettled conditions in the offing, a brief weather window had to be grabbed at the Winter Solstice, and Ilen headed south on Monday night in calms and a briefly clearing sky which - for an hour and a half - offered the opportunity to observe the much-heralded conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter.

Sligo recruits to Ilen's crew – Sophie Skinner and David O'Boyle enjoyed an efficient passage from Dublin to Kinsale on the longest night of the year. Photo: Gary Mac MahonSligo recruits to Ilen's crew – Sophie Skinner and David O'Boyle enjoyed an efficient passage from Dublin to Kinsale on the longest night of the year. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Then the night skies closed in as a new low approached from the south. But by the time the increasingly cold wind started to make in from the east and then the northeast, Ilen was well onto the south coast and passing Hook Head at first light, sailing with increasing speed which saw her comfortably into her winter berth at the Trident Hotel in Kinsale exactly 24 hours after departing Dublin.

The weather may be closing in again, but with a favourable though cold nor'easter, Ilen is already nearing Kinsale less than eight hours from Hook Head.   Photo: Gary Mac MahonThe weather may be closing in again, but with a favourable though cold nor'easter, Ilen is already nearing Kinsale less than eight hours from Hook Head. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

The passage from the Hook had been seen off in a crisp eight hours of sailing, much enjoyed by two Sligo newcomers to the crew, Sophie Skinner and David O'Boyle. The next two months will see the Ilen Limerick crew on a maintenance programme around the ship, and then in March she'll be hauled on the slip further west at Oldcourt on the Ilen River above Baltimore for a Departmental Inspection before going on to her home port of Limerick and an early season programme with Foynes Yacht Cub.

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The great Captain Cook may have voyaged to the Pacific in 1769 for the astronomical purpose of observing the Transit of Venus from Tahiti. But tonight (Monday) the crew of the Limerick ketch Ilen have a more modest hope - the clearance of southeast Ireland’s Solstice sky to provide a memorable sighting of the keenly-anticipated conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

Having been in Dublin for a couple of weeks in which Ilen provided Sailing into Wellness courses in Dublin Bay with her crew being additionally rewarded with Limerick beating Waterford in the All-Ireland Hurling Final, the 56ft 1926-vintage Conor O’Brien traditional ship is grabbing a break in adverse gales to get back to base via the South Coast. And if the stars are there to be seen, so much the better.

For the locals, it’s the bright lights of Dublin as seen from Ilen this evening. But for astronomers, it’s light pollution to be put well astern as quickly as possible. Photo: Gary mac MahonFor the locals, it’s the bright lights of Dublin as seen from Ilen this evening. But for astronomers, it’s light pollution to be put well astern as quickly as possible. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Dublin Bay
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The Limerick ambassadorial ketch Ilen arrived on the Liffey River at Dublin in the late hours of Sunday after a fast passage, and since then has been out daily from Poolbeg Y & BC's marina on Dublin Bay with a local crew of very enthusiastic winter sailors.

However, a ship from the west can somehow never be in Dublin without historic undertones, and yesterday evening as Ilen returned to port, she was recorded on RTE TV News as the cross-channel cargo ferry Clipper Pennant headed seaward in unfettered style, bound for a UK port as tortuous Brexit negotiations in London and Brussels were reaching a final stage which may make such regular smooth occurrences into much more red-tape-obstructed affairs.

As Ilen Marine School Project Manager Gary Mac Mahon comments, it's ironic that after 70 years of service in the isolated self-governing British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands, Ilen should find herself inadvertently at the centre of a news item which is built around the business of Britain isolating herself from Ireland and Europe.

Happily, there have been more congenial topics to focus on as Ilen's visit continues in conjunction with Sailing Into Wellness, Coolmine, Tiglin and @tolkariver. As it happens, just upstream of @tolkariver's base where the Tolka Estuary starts to become a river, we find Croke Park, and there in a very historic encounter thus Sunday, Limerick will play Waterford in the All-Ireland Hurling Final 2020 on December 13th.

Regular crew and 200 per cent Limerick man Mike Grimes arrived with the Ilen in Dublin with his kitbag somehow hiding an enormous Limerick GAA flag. Indeed, it might well be the largest banner to be flown in Dublin in support of the Limerick Team and their upcoming Senior Hurling All-Ireland Final, and once in port Mike lost no time in asserting his allegiance.

Up for the match – Limerick hurling fan and Ilen crewman Mike Grimes makes no secret of his loyalties aboard ship at Poolbeg this week. Photo: Gary MacMahonUp for the match – Limerick hurling fan and Ilen crewman Mike Grimes makes no secret of his loyalties aboard ship at Poolbeg this week. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Once out of the bag, Mike sent the battle flag up Ilen's seventy-foot mast in support of a sport and a team that is his passion even above his lifelong boating adventures. The Ilen has five days of community work with Sailing into Wellness and their clients before she turns south again, making her steady way home to Limerick. Hopefully, this will be in celebration of a win on Sunday, but if there is a successful outcome, she may have to think about getting home northabout, as otherwise, she'll be sailing close along the coast of Waterford…

Published in Ilen
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The unmistakable sight of the traditional ketch Ilen as she crosses Dublin Bay today  (Monday, December 7th).

The restored vessel is on a 'Sailing into Wellness' programme on the capitals' waters this week, working with organisations Coolmine, Tiglin and @tolkariver

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

The Ilen enjoyed lively conditions for her voyage up the east coast to Dublin, reaching speeds of seven knots and more.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, she was delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for seventy years, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties.

Returned now to Ireland and given a new breath of life, Ilen may be described as the last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships, yet at a mere 56ft, it is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

After a week in Dublin, the Ilen sails south towards other adventures out of Kinsale.

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The restored 1926-built 56ft Limerick trading ketch Ilen's project of education through action and involvement continues to be developed with the Ilen Marine School's Community and Cargo 2020-21 Programme. Transportation of cargo to coastal communities was the original purpose of the traditionally-rigged flagship and "Floating Classroom" Ilen. Consequently, late last year - pre-pandemic - the Ilen Project's management under the direction of Gary MacMahon decided to revitalise her seaborne cargo trade, which had come to an end sometime in the early 1980s.

They planned to do this by facilitating trade between local food and beverage producers out from six ports on the south and west coasts of Ireland. The Community and Cargo 2020 voyage unfolded over two weeks in August - fourteen happy days during which the Ilen ship's company somehow found safe passage-making time between two unseasonal storms and two unprecedented lockdowns.

 Ilen making good speed under sailDoing what she does best – Ilen making good speed under sail. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Ilen making good speed under sailThe dream fulfilled – Ilen finds favourable weather

The seaborne cargo voyage was a very tangible and successful dimension of the Community and Cargo 2020 programme. It was well-matched by the engagement with the schools on land, with children handling the crates of produce and being thrilled at the thought of cargo coming to them from over the waves.

Recently in a follow-up, the first three Limerick City schools each received a delivery of Ilen's Community and Cargo boxes. This delivery was the first step in a socially-distanced Ilen Marine School Educational Programme, which has been designed to meet with schools and HSE policies around COVID 19. In essence, this programme allows us to continue the very popular schools involvement rolled out in the previous term.

One of the new cargo boxes is welcomed to Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in LimerickOne of the new cargo boxes is welcomed to Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Limerick. Other schools involved in the initial stage of filling the boxes with relevant material include Scoil Iosagain CBS Primary School, and Presentation Primary School, both in Limerick

The new Ilen Marine School Cargo Boxes are attractive pieces of work in their own right……..The new Ilen Marine School Cargo Boxes are attractive pieces of work in their own right……..

and each box arrives with Instruction Pack and videos………and each box arrives with Instruction Pack and videos

Following on from this, the programme will continue to develop with the contents of a cargo box despatched for delivery under sail onboard Ilen to another school up or down the coast, depending on how direct relationship between schools are being fostered in the coming weeks.

There was visible excitement as the eventually outgoing cargo boxes arrived at their respective schools, with swiftly conveyance to their classroom settings for packing, The cargo box comes with a teacher's guide packet (digital and printed) which contains:

  • - Instructions and scripts for each activity.
  • - Class videos to watch on each activity.
  • - A digital database in Google Classroom, accessible to all the teachers for ease 
of access to supporting material.
  • - Four activities that guide the student and teachers through a creative process 
which takes them into the watery world of cargo trade and sailing tradition. 


The programme, as it moves forward, will host three online virtual zoom sessions designed to facilitate the making of new relationships between participating schools. Moreover, the programme should stir pupils' imagination, both in the classroom and at home, as the needs of the two different learning settings have been taken into account. 
It's an imaginative project which is proving to be a mutually educational project both for the crew of the Ilen Marine School, and the schoolchildren and teachers involved.

Ilen departs Foynes on her cargo voyage. It was on Foynes Island in the winter of 1925-26 that Ilen was designed by Conor O'BrienIlen departs Foynes on her cargo voyage. It was on Foynes Island in the winter of 1925-26 that Ilen was designed by Conor O'Brien. Photo: Deirdre Power

Published in Ilen
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As boatyards fill up, with more boats being hauled for their Winter hibernation, talking to owners I've heard disappointment, doubt about the future, mixed with hope and a need for encouragement.

Disappointment amongst the racing sector, with the October League in Cork Harbour truncated and the November/December League stopped by Level 5 restrictions, but satisfaction amongst owners that they got in some racing and cruising. There is also a feeling that the blunt "one fits all" restrictive approach towards our sport by the government showed lack of understanding amongst politicos and bureaucrats about the value of sailing to physical and mental health and that Ireland is an island nation and "An uplift to the spirit is needed…" another regular refrain.

That came to me from the Ilen Marine School in Limerick as WM Nixon reports here on Afloat, showing the newly-refurbished interior of this impressive historic vessel.

After travelling 7,000 nautical miles she needed some TLC.

"Following her relaunch in 2018, going into operation in 2019 and having sailed over 7000 nautical miles Ilen's restoration remains a work in progress," they told me. "One of those remaining tasks, which we happily completed this month, was finishing the interior accommodation. The large footfall of passengers and visitors, since her relaunch, has brought Ilen a measure of wear-and-tear, which is the welcome effect of popularity."

Having followed the restoration for so many years since she was brought back from the Falklands and the work of Liam Hegarty and his colleagues at their Oldcourt boatyard near Baltimore, allied to the Ilen Marine School in Limerick, I went back to our Podcast here in May of 2018 when Ilen was brought to Baltimore Harbour to be seen in public for the first time since restoration. It was that year's Wooden Boat Festival. This year the Festival was stopped due to Covid, but the spirit of the sea reflected in Ilen cannot be stopped.

Despite the battering which sailing has taken from the pandemic to me this boat, the work of marine people and, with the spirit of the sea which binds all of us in sailing together, obstacles can be overcome and provide hope for the future. Listen to Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey and Liam Hegarty of Oldcourt and take encouragement.

Published in Tom MacSweeney
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When the 56ft Conor O'Brien-designed trading ketch Ilen - built in Baltimore in West Cork in 1926 - was retrieved and brought back to Ireland by Gary MacMahon of Limerick from the Falkland Islands in November 1997, it was the beginning of a long process of restoration and preparation for seagoing, a process which came under several different headings, all of them within the umbrella title of The Ilen Project.

While the rebuild project was centre stage over many years, it was known as the Ilen School and Network For Wooden Boat-Building. There was a twin focus on the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick - where many significant parts such a deckhouses were built in addition to several small craft - and on Hegarty's Boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River above Baltimore, where Liam Hegarty and his craftsmen on the main job were from time to time joined by noted international shipwrights from abroad who appreciated the opportunity to work in completely traditional style.

Once the ship was sailing in the late summer of 2018, she began to move towards a sea training and cultural emphasis, and for the first part of the 2019 season she was active from Kinsale under the command of James Lyons, working very effectively within the Sailing Into Wellness programme. Then as July 2019 approached, she was re-focused to become a sailing ambassador to West Greenland on an impressive ocean voyage from Limerick under the Salmons Wake banner, as 2019 was the Year of the Atlantic Salmon, and the journey of Ilen to Greenland, and her extended presence there, provided direct lines of cultural inter-action between schoolchildren in Limerick and Clare, and the schoolchildren of Greenland.

the new Ilen Marine School T-shirt makes its debut in saluting the ship at KilrushTest marketing for a re-branding process – the new Ilen Marine School T-shirt makes its debut in saluting the ship at Kilrush. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Returning from Greenland as the Autumn of 2019 approached, she shaped her course directly for Kinsale and further work with Sailing into Wellness while the outline of plans for 2020 were being sketched out around a possible voyage to Madeira, a key port of call for Conor O'Brien when he sailed Ilen to the Falklands in 1926.

However, the pandemic put paid to that, but the brief summertime lifting of restrictions did enable Ilen to undertake a Community & Cargo Voyage, delivering artisan products from Cape Clear, Baltimore, Kinsale, Cork, Kilrush, Foynes, Limerick, Kilronan in the Aran Islands and Dingle among specialist and general outlets along the way.

It was while Ilen was in Kilrush in late August during this intriguing cargo voyage that the process began of moving her into the next stage of her continuing metamorphosis, as the crew appeared on deck wearing the new Ilen Marine School T-shirts, and the handsome dark blue Ilen Marine School ensign went aloft.

The name "Ilen Marine School" has actually been in being since 2000, but as is the way of this longterm project, director Gary Mac Mahon felt that the ship and the Ilen Trust guiding her had to fulfill certain objectives afloat and ashore before the official changeover process could begin.

These things take time, and while Ilen may have returned to deliver the last of her cargoes to Kinsale in early September displaying some of the symbols of the developing Ilen Marine School, it is only now that the paperwork is nearing completion, and on Bank Holiday Monday she took her first sail in her new role.

Ilen's accommodationIlen's accommodation has been upgraded in recent weeks. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

In the meantime, the crew of Mike Grimes, Mantas Seakauskis, Frank O'Sullivan and Jim McInerney have been busy re-activating their boat-building and finishing skills to bring Ilen's accommodation up to a standard which is a very long way indeed from her role for sixty years as the sheep ferry in the Falkland Islands. Indeed, it is a different world altogether from the "Arts & Crafts Floating Cottage" interior which Conor O'Brien and his wife Kitty Clausen created in the accommodation of Ilen's predecessor, the world-girdling Saoirse.

Ilen's shiny new-look saloonIlen's shiny new-look saloon will make for a fascinating comparison…

….with the Arts & Crafts concept of Saoirse's saloon, as captured by Kitty Clausen, with Conor O'Brien at the saloon table….with the Arts & Crafts concept of Saoirse's saloon, as captured by Kitty Clausen, with Conor O'Brien at the saloon table

The work of re-building Saoirse continues at Oldcourt with Liam Hegarty and his team, and in due course we'll see how close to that iconic Saoirse saloon the sailors of 2021 (or maybe 2022) can hope to reach.

Meanwhile, the name "Ilen Marine School" will ring bells for connoisseurs of the famous James Malton prints of Dublin in the 1790s, one of the most famous being his 1796 depiction of the impressive purpose-built Marine School on the south quays of the Liffey. The idealism of the city fathers in creating an educational establishment to produce competent seamen and ship's officers seems to have been an ambition which was too good to last, as the Marine School was to fade away over time.

the Marine School (left) in Dublin, as recorded by James MaltonAn idea ahead of its time – the Marine School (left) in Dublin, as recorded by James Malton

It continued for a while in replacement premises in Clontarf, and then it was subsumed into Mountjoy School for Boys, which in turn was amalgamated with Temple Girls School to become Mount Temple School in Clontarf, leaving only the faintest trace of memories of the old marine school. Nowadays, Mount Temple is best known as the alma mater of U2. We can only guess at what unexpected talent may emerge from the Ilen Marine School…….

The last traces of the Marine School in Dublin are now to be found in Mount Temple School, which has in recent decades encouraged some remarkable talentsThe last traces of the Marine School in Dublin are now to be found in Mount Temple School, which has in recent decades encouraged some remarkable talents

Published in Ilen
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