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The Restoration of Ireland’s Last Traditional Sailing Ketch: Sailing 'Ilen' Looks Achievable This Summer

2nd May 2018
Removing the tarpaulin from Ilen as work continues on the historic vessel Removing the tarpaulin from Ilen as work continues on the historic vessel

Away back in 1997 I stood on the quayside at Alexandra Basin in Dublin Port, watching a very old boat being unloaded from a freighter … I was the only reporter there. The media generally weren’t interested in the story of an old boat, even if she had been brought back from the war-torn Falkland Islands and was part of Irish maritime history….. The television news camera crew with me thought she looked a bit decrepit and were wondering how I had convinced the RTE News Desk that what was happening deserved coverage. In my turn I had been convinced that it did by a Limerickman who has never lost his enthusiasm for a project that I have followed and reported upon over the past 21 years.

Yes, it has been that long as he determinedly followed his aim but this week when I was marking a centenary of sort of my own – presenting the 100th edition of my current radio programme, This Island Nation, that man brought me a bit of very good news. Gary McMahon, who has determinedly led the project I have covered for 21 years, told me of its final stages being reached -. The restoration of Ireland’s last traditional sailing ketch and that “sailing ILEN is looking “all the more achievable this Summer…”

It was a great piece of news to get and it really made my day as I looked at the photographs he had sent me from Liam Hegarty’s boatyard in Skibbereen, with the message:

“After a long and challenging winter on the ‘Ilen’, it was not unpleasant to draw back the big tarpaulin covering ….. affording a glimpse of what an uncovered Ilen might look like, it was also an opportunity to discern if weeks earlier the bowsprit had been steeved up appropriately. Happily it had. As this is more an aesthetic appraisal, than a structural one.

“Main mast rake was another of today’s considerations, as progressive tension was slowly introduced to the rig over the previous week. Mainly from two load-bearing chain blocks, acting in unison on two opposing wire shrouds on opposite sides of the ship. At any rate Ilen’s new rig responded very capably to the increased loads placed upon it - the credit for which is directly attributable to the dedicated team who designed, made and assembled it at the Ilen Workshop, LEDP, Limerick over the previous four years.

“But for now, it’s hardly time to rest on one’s laurels as many weeks of rigging work lie ahead. Nonetheless a sailing ‘Ilen’ for summertime 2018 is looking all the more achievable, on each passing week.”

What great news!

Gary is self-effacing, always praising those who have worked with him, supported him and kept the project going, while keeping himself in the background. The work at Hegarty’s yard has been astounding, so has that at the Ilen Workshop in Limerick, but every project needs a leader who surmounts challenges …

Ireland’s boating history owes a lot to Gary McMahon

Having seen the Ilen as she was when landed 21 years ago and what has been achieved, Ireland’s boating history owes a lot to Gary McMahon.

Pictured, in another piece of history, are the crew, including Gary McMahon, which sailed Ilen from Dublin Port to West Cork after she had been landed in 1997:

SAILING ILEN SOUTH TO WEST CORK AFTER SHE WAS LANDED AT DUBLIN PORT IN 1997Paddy Barry, Gary MacMahon, Padraic de Bhaldraithe, John Reen, Paul Murphy, Martin O'Neill and Pat Redmond, sailing towards Glandore, West Cork. That's Gary on the port side of mizzen mast at the wheel

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Published in Ilen
Tom MacSweeney

About The Author

Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney writes a weekly column for He also presents the maritime radio programme This Island Nation on community radio stations around Ireland.

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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.

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