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Irish Mid-Winter Provides Halcyon Days for Ilen’s Historic Square-Sail

8th January 2019
The jaunty look. Miraculous mid-winter calm for the first setting of Ilen’s new squaresail in the dock at Limerick The jaunty look. Miraculous mid-winter calm for the first setting of Ilen’s new squaresail in the dock at Limerick Photo: Gary MacMahon

In ancient Greece, the Halcyon Days were a mythological seven day period of calm clear weather at the mid-winter Solstice writes W M Nixon. Down Limerick way, they’ve been making the best of the Halcyon Days, with the blue River Shannon ruffled only by the gentlest of breezes for several days now, while the sun has shone on the Ted Russell Dock where the restored 56ft 1926-built gaff ketch Ilen has seen continuing work by the Ilen Project team.

Various tasks have been ongoing to have her ready for the 2019 season, which will include a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire. And since Ilen returned to Limerick at the beginning of October, she has been much-visited by a wide range of people including President Michael D Higgins and groups of schoolchildren taking part in the interactive educational projects linked to the historic ship.

squaresail yard fitting2The power exerted by the squaresail demands substantial fittings – the transverse yard itself was specially designed by the late Theo Rye. Photo: Gary MacMahon

details from dockside3The proper sheeting of squaresails is almost a forgotten art – thanks to the forward lead to the cathead, Ilen’s topsail can be usefully carried on a reach. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But while she is so important historically, the Ilen nevertheless has to project an attractive persona, and one of the useful things about the holiday period is that it provided opportunities to see the re-born Ilen at leisure, with the “small tall ship” in an uncrowded state. It is then that her true spirit shines through, and you appreciate why Project Leader Gary MacMahon chose the special colour schemes he did. For as one visitor seeing the ship for the first time commented: “The Ilen looks so jaunty – she cheers everyone up”.

"a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire"

There was further cause for cheer in recent days when the newly-arrived traditional squaresail, exactly as designed by Conor O’Brien of Foynes Island back in 1926, was offered up to its spars and equipment – and fitted perfectly. So it’s only a matter of time before that long and distinctive bowsprit re-emerges from the sea lock into the Estuary, and we see Ilen setting full sail for the first time in many decades.

obrien drawings4Back to the original – Conor O’Brien’s drawings for squaresail control

Meanwhile, for those who would like a comprehensive overview of this very special project, the profusely-illustrated and comprehensive Ilen Report 2018 has just been published as a generous 32-page fully-coloured booklet, and is available free both as this Ilen_Report_Final.pdf, and in hard copy from [email protected]

reflections from astern5Reflections on a peaceful evening of early January in Limerick. A year ago, the weather was very different, and Ilen was facing a difficult launching operation and berthing move in the crowded boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork. Photo: Gary MacMahon

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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