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Historic Ketch Ilen Moves While the Sun Shines in West Cork

15th January 2018
Waiting for the tide. Even the normally snooty boatyard cat shows a measure of approval for the restored Ilen as everyone waits for the tide Waiting for the tide. Even the normally snooty boatyard cat shows a measure of approval for the restored Ilen as everyone waits for the tide Credit: Gary MacMahon

The east coast of Ireland may have endured vile weather on Saturday, but in West Cork there was almost a touch of sunny spring in the air when the historic restored ketch Ilen completed the final stage of her short but complex journey from the building shed to her shoreside completion berth writes W M Nixon.

Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt is such a crowded place that it required some lateral thinking to work out how to move the Ilen. She weighs well north of 25 tons, and the ultra-simple four wheel trolley ultimately assembled under her is far indeed from the multi-wheel vehicle which had been hinted at as the complex nature of the move became clear.

ilen arrives2Roll-on, roll off delivery of the pre-restoration Ilen to the Top Shed at Oldcourt. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Ilen before and after3Two images which say it all – Ilen as she arrived in the Top Shed (left) and as she left it (right). Photos: Gary MacMahon

But doing such things in unusual ways is the norm at Oldcourt, and the absence of a proper slipway to receive Ilen at the access end of the Top Shed had been solved many years ago by bringing her in at high water on Vincent O’Driscoll’s inter-island freight ferry.

It was roll-on, roll-off when Ilen arrived all those years ago, and it was the same again on Saturday. But the old ketch herself has now been born again. And Vincent and his crew have a new ferry, memorably called the Sabrina II.

ilen four pix4A sunny Saturday at Oldcourt, and Ilen is taken afloat for a short sea voyage on the Sabrina II. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Having been given full approval by the Top Shed yard cat, the Ilen waited patiently for the right conditions, while inside the shed work got underway on the first stages of the re-build of Ilen’s more famous older but smaller sister, Conor O’Brien’s world-girdling Saoirse.

Came Saturday, the sun rose up, the wind went down, the tide lifted high, and Sabrina II thrust her ramp in under Ilen’s stern and the characterful old ketch was taken on board with style. Then with textbook efficiency, after a very short voyage up the Ilen River, she was taken off the ferry in another part of the yard with the tide at a height that ensured a very smooth progression.

Ilen brought ashore5At the perfect tidal height, Ilen is brought ashore again in another part of the yard to access her shoreside completion berth. Photo: Gary MacMahon
Ilen is now comfortably in the shore berth which she’ll only leave to be put afloat. Meanwhile in Limerick – home base of the Ilen Project – director Gary MacMahon has overseen the assembly of a pre-fabricated roof structure which will be assembled at the yard to protect the Ilen work from the West Cork weather. For even in Oldcourt, the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

Published in Ilen
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Ireland's Trading Ketch Ilen

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

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.

Wooden Sailing Ship Ilen FAQs

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

The Ilen was designed by Conor O’Brien, the first Irish man to circumnavigate the world.

Ilen is named for the West Cork River which flows to the sea at Baltimore, her home port.

The Ilen was built by Baltimore Sea Fisheries School, West Cork in 1926. Tom Moynihan was foreman.

Ilen's wood construction is of oak ribs and planks of larch.

As-built initially, she is 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes.

Conor O’Brien set sail in August 1926 with two Cadogan cousins from Cape Clear in West Cork, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 and handed it over to the new owners.

The Ilen was delivered to the Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500.

Ilen served for over 70 years as a cargo ship and a ferry in the Falkland Islands, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties. She stayed in service until the early 1990s.

Limerick sailor Gary McMahon and his team located Ilen. MacMahon started looking for her in 1996 and went out to the Falklands and struck a deal with the owner to bring her back to Ireland.

After a lifetime of hard work in the Falklands, Ilen required a ground-up rebuild.

A Russian cargo ship transported her back on a 12,000-mile trip from the Southern Oceans to Dublin. The Ilen was discharged at the Port of Dublin 1997, after an absence from Ireland of 70 years.

It was a collaboration between the Ilen Project in Limerick and Hegarty’s Boatyard in Old Court, near Skibbereen. Much of the heavy lifting, of frames, planking, deadwood & backbone, knees, floors, shelves and stringers, deck beams, and carlins, was done in Hegarty’s. The generally lighter work of preparing sole, bulkheads, deck‐houses fixed furniture, fixtures & fittings, deck fittings, machinery, systems, tanks, spar making and rigging is being done at the Ilen boat building school in Limerick.

Ten years. The boat was much the worse for wear when it returned to West Cork in May 1998, and it remained dormant for ten years before the start of a decade-long restoration.

Ilen now serves as a community floating classroom and cargo vessel – visiting 23 ports in 2019 and making a transatlantic crossing to Greenland as part of a relationship-building project to link youth in Limerick City with youth in Nuuk, west Greenland.

At a mere 56ft, Ilen is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

©Afloat 2020

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