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Restored Ketch Ilen Finds That The O’Briens Retain Their Special Fondness for Foynes Island

31st October 2018
 Ilen in search of wind as she heads seaward past Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary Ilen in search of wind as she heads seaward past Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary Photo: Dermot Lynch

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary exerts an almost supernatural attraction for the O’Brien family writes W M Nixon. The great circumnavigator Conor O’Brien always regarded it as his one and only true home. And though his voyagings and other adventures took him all over the world, he would be back on the island as often as possible. He spent his final years from 1944 to 1952 there, living frugally, doing some writing, and building elegant rowing punts until his death – still on the island - at the age of 72.

So although the port of Foynes on the mainland shore has greatly expanded – with Foynes Yacht Club becoming a regional pace-setter – the island continues to have an attractive air of remoteness. And while the O’Briens most closely related to Conor are now spread throughout Ireland and abroad, it’s seldom that a long time passes before there are some of them back visiting the island again.

ilen downriver2A perfect Autumn morning, but little enough wind – aboard Ilen, speeding down the Shannon Estuary on the strong ebb in search of a breeze. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Certainly this was the case last weekend, when the Ilen Project’s Gary MacMahon and a dozen shipmates took the ship to sea for some training sessions, and further testing of the restored 1926-built ketch’s systems – the word is that Robert Smalle of Limerick is a great ship’s cook.

ilen learning3Enough breeze finally arrived to make it worthwhile setting the sails. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But even to seaward of Scattery Island they found little enough wind for a few hours of sailing and some adjusting of the reefing systems, so when they headed back up-river, they decided to make an unscheduled diversion inside Foynes Island. For despite what some official narratives may tell us, Conor O’Brien always regarded Foynes as the starting port for all his major voyages with his world-girdling ketch Saoirse (1922) and the sail trading ketch Ilen (1926).

Now as it happens, Ilen will be making her official return to Foynes in the springtime of 2019, with all the proper official ceremonial to go with it. But evening was drawing on – surely no-one would notice in the gathering dusk last weekend if they briefly paid their respects with the restored Ilen to this place which meant so much, for here it was, right beside them, and the weather so settled?

Not a chance. The extended O’Brien family’s fondness for Foynes Island caught them out. Alison O’Brien, who is married to Stephen O’Brien the son of Murrough O’Brien who was Conor O’Brien’s nephew, was on the island for a few days, and she spotted Ilen immediately the historic little ship poked her nose into the channel.

ilen at foynes4Even in the gathering dusk, Ilen’s brief unofficial return to Foynes for the first time in 92 years did not go unobserved. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen foynes5The restored Ilen salutes Foynes Island. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen departs foynes6Ilen departs Foynes to catch the flood tide up to Limerick. Photo: Alison O’Brien


saoirse foynes7Times long gone – Saoirse herself after she’d been fitted with her first auxiliary engine. Photo courtesy Gary MacMahon

So now we have the first images of the restored Ilen back at Foynes, and through the winter can compare them with photos of the ship there in 1926, and of Saoirse in and around Foynes too. It was well dark when Ilen returned to Limerick city on the surging flood tide, and went back into her berth beside the pilot boat in the Ted Russell dock in fine form after that unplanned but magic meeting at Foynes

Next happening up on the agenda has been well-signalled – tomorrow evening (Thursday November 1st) sees the come-all-ye Ilen Shindig within the Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum. It’s from 5.30pm to 8.00, there’s entertainment and proper hospitality, and the celebration of the Ilen restoration will perfectly suit the times that are in it.

Published in Ilen
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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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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