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Limerick Trading Ketch Ilen Illuminates the Meaning of the Mighty Shannon Estuary

27th August 2020
The trading ketch Ilen berthed in County Clare where traditional sail traders berthed before her, at the quayside in Kilrush The trading ketch Ilen berthed in County Clare where traditional sail traders berthed before her, at the quayside in Kilrush Photo: Deirdre Power

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.

Scair na hOige’s busy programmeScair na hOige’s busy programme

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.

 Pioneering global circumnavigator Conor O’BrienPioneering global circumnavigator Conor O’Brien always made a point of starting his major voyages from Foynes. From the painting by Kitty Clausen

Published in Ilen, Shannon Estuary
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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