Many people have dropped by the Old Cornstore on the riverside at Oldcourt in West Cork to see work progressing on the restoration of the 1926 Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen writes WM Nixon. And naturally they’ll have the impression that they’re at the main scene of the action. After all, the 56ft vessel certainly looks the part - a complete ship, full of promise in her distinctive new colour scheme.
But as Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick points out, even with a hefty traditional vessel like Ilen, the finished hull with deck in place is only about 35% of the complete and fully commissioned vessel. And though the assembly of the various parts inevitably has to take place in Oldcourt with Liam Hegarty and his team, much of what you’re looking at on the Ilen today was actually built in the Ilen School’s efficient workshops in Limerick city.
There, young people – indeed, people of all ages and from many backgrounds – are finding that working with wood, and creating parts for boats or building complete boats, is a profoundly interesting and fulfilling experience. In recent years, the Ilen School has turned out impressively authentic versions of the traditional Shannon gandelow, and in a completely different direction, sailing dinghies of the distinctive CityOne class to a very special design by the late Theo Rye.
These smaller craft have been imaginatively used by those who built them for various expeditions to events such as the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival and the Glandore Classics Regatta. And in 2014, the Gandelows somehow managed a remarkable double by taking part in the Thousandth Anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Clontarf (wasn’t Brian Boru a Limerick man, after all?) and yet somehow also took in a Marine Festival in Venice, as it’s reckoned that the word “gandelow” originated from gondola, but mutated along the way.
Having taken such things and various other projects in their stride, the Ilen people in Limerick have enthusiastically lined up to build the deckhouses, hatchways, skylights, lignum vitae rigging deadeyes and many other items for Ilen herself. Each is an exquisite bit of marine joinerywork in its own right, and when fitted on the ship, they go so well with the overall concept that you’d be hard-pressed to guess that they were built many miles away, in the characterful city on Shannonside, rather than among the rolling green hills and woodland of West Cork.
But such is the case, because for all his fondness for West Cork, Conor O’Brien’s spirit is in Foynes Island on the Shannon Estuary, and Limerick is his city, the city of the O’Briens since time immemorial. And recently, Limerick has been turning out the stanchions for the Ilen’s guard-rails, something which is well in line with the city’s engineering traditions. But most impressive of all is the final work on finishing the spars.
When Ilen was shipped back from the Falklands in 1998, some of her surviving spars were in a decidedly poor conditions. But the new Limerick-built replacements are robust works of art, with a natural functional beauty. It really will be a show on the road, and then some, when they’re taken on that winding journey from Limerick down to Baltimore.