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Historic Ketch Ilen’s Essential Limerick-Baltimore Corridor Re-opens

6th March 2018
The inter-island communications vessels Ilen (left) and Penelope in the Falkland Islands in 1977. The Irish-designed-and-built Ilen was always reckoned slightly faster than the German-built Penelope, even when Ilen’s skipper and youngest commander, the 16-year-old Stephen Clifton, was still learning the ropes The inter-island communications vessels Ilen (left) and Penelope in the Falkland Islands in 1977. The Irish-designed-and-built Ilen was always reckoned slightly faster than the German-built Penelope, even when Ilen’s skipper and youngest commander, the 16-year-old Stephen Clifton, was still learning the ropes

Efficient travel between the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick and Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore, where work continues on restoring the 56ft 1926-built ketch Ilen, has been a key factor in progressing the project writes W M Nixon.

All the more detailed parts are assembled in Limerick before being transported to Baltimore for installation in the ship. The recent exceptionally bad winter weather saw the link disconnected for a few days, but now it’s running smoothly again. And next week will see Ilen’s massive mainmast being transported to Oldcourt for early stepping, as her new location in the open – albeit under a special tent structure which withstood the bad weather very well – enables work to proceed in all areas.

ilen propellor2For efficient working of the inter-island routes, it was essential that Ilen operated as a true auxiliary ketch, and the recent fitting of this impressive propellor has been a marker of real progress. Photo Gary MacMahon

ilen tankage3Getting the newly-made tanks from Limerick to Oldcourt, followed by their rapid transfer into the ship, was a typical function of the Limerick-Baltimore “corridor”. Photo: Gary MacMahon

The impressive propellor has been fitted, work on the interior has seen Limerick-made tankage of all kinds being installed, and once the mast is in place we’ll be seeing a ship reflecting the Ilen in her working days, though in a much brighter paint scheme to reflect her future educational role.

Once in place, the rig will appear to have it own delicate tracery, but as the images from the Ilen workshop reveal very clearly, the spars and their rigging are on a really heavy and workmanlike scale.

ilen mastwork4The workshop in Limerick has provided the ideal facilities for the initial assembly of the mainmast. Photo: Gary MacMahon

ilen mastwork5Definitely a grown-up piece of work – detail of the fittings at the hounds. Photo: Gary MacMahon

The restoration has been followed with increasing interest by the Falkland Islanders she used to serve, and recently they sent Gary MacMahon in Limerick some photos from the 1970s showing Ilen berthed with the other inter-island communications vessel, the German-built Penelope ex-Feuerland, which like Ilen has been re-patriated to the land of her berth for restoration, in this case in Hamburg.

To the quiet pleasure of the Ilen team, the word from the islands is that Ilen was always the faster of the two, even when her skipper was the youngest commander of all, the recently-recruited 16-year-old Stephen Clifton.

ilen rig profile6Ilen as she will look when fully rigged again, something which takes a sigificant step forward next week when the main spars are transported from Limerick to Baltimore

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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