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.
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.
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.
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.