When the restored 56ft ketch Ilen of Limerick gets worthwhile wind conditions, she can give a good account of herself in terms of sailing speed. Yet no-one would claim that her rate of knots on passage afloat remotely compares to the speed and raw efficiency of pollution-emitting lorries ashore, buzzing along Ireland’s roads.
But Ilen Project Director Gary Mac Mahon – current holder of the Irish Sailing Presidential Award for his unflinching determination in restoring the Conor O’Brien-designed, Oldcourt West Cork 1926-built ketch to full seagoing conditions – reckons that the steady global movement in slow food and local artisan products makes for a good fit with Ilen’s ability to carry cargo to remote little quays - or indeed quays of any kind – at a leisurely but environmentally-friendly pace.
In this he is partially inspired by the example of the last Shannon sail-only cargo vessel, the trading cutter Alzina, owned and sailed by Captain John Davis of Labasheeda, that useful little port on the Clare coast midway between Limerick and the open Atlantic.
Alizina was working under sail until the 1950s, and Gary’s father Joe got some photos of this intriguing vessel and her activities in the mighty estuary. In those days, when “Just In Time” was an unimaginable concept in the deep heart of rural and coastal Ireland, there were enough consignments and cargoes and harvested crops coming in from the west at a leisurely pace to keep Alzina in business.
However, an element of urgency came into it all when she was docked in Limerick and gradually taking on board outward-bound cargo and goods, for the ideal was to have everything together and destined for Labasheeda for a single unloading at the quay there, as John Davis prided himself on being able to do the Limerick-Labasheeds passage on one good ebb tide.
So to emphasise the extra urgency - even in the already bustling atmosphere of Limerick - Alzina carried a ship’s bicycle, and it was the task of the ship’s boy – or whoever happened to be available – to hop aboard this iron steed as high water approached, and race round any shops where they knew specific personal orders for folk downriver were being put together at the last moment.
Despite the inevitable bicycle race, it all suggests an environmentally-friendly way of doings things which increasingly chimes with some of today’s mood, and Ilen in turn can become part of that.
When she made her first voyage in restored form last year to West Greenland – a voyage which in itself garnered several awards – the theme was Salmons Wake, as 2019 was the Year of the Atlantic Salmon, and any cargo carried on Ilen was cultural and creative material to strengthen links with schools and communities in Greenland.
But for 2020’s necessarily shortened season, a project has been devised which gives an acknowledgement of Ilen’s first sixty-five years of life as the freight and passenger vessel for the Falkland Islands, and combines it with the central concept one of her 2020 roles – four days as a youth educational vessel with the Limerick & Clare Education & Training Board.
The concept that’s emerging is the Ilen Community and Cargo Voyage 2020, whose final form is still taking shape. Currently, Ilen is back with builder Liam Hegarty in Oldcourt near Baltimore for her annual refit and some adjustments. But on August 24th she’ll head west with a first call at North Harbour on Cape Clear, home port of Conor O’Brien’s 1926 Ireland-Falklands crew of Con and Denis Cadogan, where she’ll take on board her first consignment, Cape Clear Gin.
Then it’s on for a long hop to Kilrush in the Shannon Estuary (August 26th), followed by a crossing to Foynes (August 29th) for the first time berthed there since 1926, Kilrush and Foynes being among the focal points for the Education & Training Board involvement, and Foynes Island being home for Conor O’Brien, who died there in 1952.
Then from Foynes it’s upriver to Limerick itself, where some of the Cape Clear Gin will be discharged, while additional products taken on board will include Ishka Spring Water, Limerick Beer, and Thomond Gate Distillery Whiskey, while other specialist quality products will doubtless be added as the voyage plan develops.
The Limerick visit has an added significance as it is hoped that on September 1st in a ceremony in the Hunt Museum (originally the Customs House), the official registration of Ilen (No 146843) will see the Port of Registry formally transferred from Skibbereen to Limerick.
The business done and cargo stowed away, Ilen heads down the estuary and then sails north around Loop Head for Kilronan in the Aran Islands, where more of the Cape Clear Gin will be unloaded. The course is then shaped south for Dingle where the spirit of Cape Clear is awaited, and then if time serves there’ll be a call to historic Derrynane, much associated with Conor O’Brien and last visited by Ilen in 1926. However, the primary purpose of the second half of the voyage is the delivery - under sail - of cargo from Cape Clear and primarily Limerick to Cork City, and the date set for the completion of that at the Cork quays is September 7th.
Conor O’Brien used to say that he always preferred to have a purpose over and above the pleasure of simply sailing when he went to sea, and it looks as though the Ilen Community and cargo Voyage 2020 is going to be fully in line with his philosophy. Meanwhile, dare we suggest that the manufacturer or distributor of a handy little transport bicycle might find a promotional opportunity in Ilen’s Community and Cargo Voyage 2020…….