The Shannon Estuary is king size and clearly defined. Where some other great rivers gradually broaden as they near the sea, sometimes dissipating further into a delta, the Shannon Estuary affirms its individuality with a rapid change as it emerges between mountains and hills from river to sea in Limerick. And yet that first taste of real sea is still a very long way from the open ocean, for the geography between the counties of Limerick and Kerry on the south shore and Clare on the north is such that a majestic waterway – a superhighway of the sea – is developed to such an extent that the distance from river to ocean is almost one hundred kilometres.
It comes tantalising close, at 97 kilometres. But that figure hasn’t registered really registered with the city and its area’s schoolchildren, for down the centuries they’ve had it drummed into their minds that the Shannon Estuary is sixty miles long, and that’s it. But even at sixty miles, it makes it seem so enormous that they can scarcely grasp what it means, and its full significance in the economy and ecology of the region. So for the next four days, the restored 56ft trading ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage is the focus of Scairt na hOige, a Creative Youth Festival around the Shannon Estuary.
Currently, Ilen is in County Clare where - as reported in Afloat.ie - she had very efficiently delivered a cargo of West Cork produce from Baltimore for discharge on Monday morning in the ancient but now up-dated port of Kilrush. But for now and until Sunday afternoon, she is being re-focused as an educational centre, and on Saturday she’ll have crossed the estuary to Foynes and a berth at Foynes Yacht Club to continue the work, while adding a further very significant historical element. For this is her first stopover visit since her restoration to Foynes, which was the home port of Conor O’Brien, designer and skipper of Ilen and of the world-girdling Saoirse before her, and though the official versions of the voyages of Saoirse and Ilen would have it that they started in some other major ports, as far as Conor O’Brien was concerned, the voyages were properly underway once he sailed each vessel away from Foynes.
From Foynes, Ilen will sail to Limerick for a two-day visit to take on cargo and a ceremony on September 1st in the Hunt Museum (the former Limerick Customs House) finalising her registry in that historic port, and then she resumes her trading activities with the delivery of a cargo to Kilronan in the Aran island on a working voyage which will eventually see the main part of her cargo discharged in Cork.