The Conor O’Brien-designed 56ft ketch Ilen sailed for the first time in twenty years today off Baltimore writes W M Nixon.
Originally built in 1926 at the picturesque West Cork port, and recently restored at nearby Oldcourt by Liam Hegarty’s boatyard working in concert with the Ilen Boat-building School of Limerick, the characterful working boat will find a new career as the focal point for educational projects in Limerick, the Shannon Estuary area and beyond.
Everything possible has been done in the restoration to retain Ilen’s original features while making her compliant with modern requirements for passenger-carrying vessels. The work has continued after she was put afloat earlier this year in order for the renowned Top Shed at Oldcourt to be cleared for the re-building of the smaller 42ft Saoirse - now underway - in which Conor O’Brien of County Limerick sailed round the world south of the Great Capes in 1923–25.
It was during this voyage that O’Brien called into the Falkland Islands after rounding Cape Horn, and the islanders were so impressed by Saoirse’s seaworthiness that they persuaded the Falkland Islands Company to commission a larger version to be their inter-island ferry, as well as the livestock and freight carrier. The result was the Ilen which, after a full working life, was brought back to Ireland in 1997 by the Ilen Project, led by Gary MacMahon, in the hope of undertaking a complete restoration. Now, with the first day’s sea trials completed, the hopes for the Ilen are approaching fulfilment, and a direct link to Ireland’s seafaring history has been renewed.