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Limerick Ketch Ilen's "Cargo Cruise" Delivers the Goods on Ireland's Atlantic Coast

8th September 2020
Ilen departs Foynes, on passage for Kilronan in the Aran Islands. Conor O'Brien – Ilen's designer in 1926 – ensured that all his major voyages essentially started from Foynes, his home port where he lived on Foynes Island Ilen departs Foynes, on passage for Kilronan in the Aran Islands. Conor O'Brien – Ilen's designer in 1926 – ensured that all his major voyages essentially started from Foynes, his home port where he lived on Foynes Island Photo: Deirdre Power

The restored 1926-built Conor O'Brien-designed 56ft ketch Ilen of Limerick found the Atlantic in a challenging mood last week as she undertook a combined educational, cultural, and commercial cargo voyage. Yet despite the vagaries of the Irish weather and the demands of the ocean, Project Director and skipper Gary Mac Mahon and his crew completed a complex series of coastal and open sea passages to an intriguing variety of ports.

The programme included educational events in both Kilrush in County Clare and Foynes in County Limerick along the Shannon Estuary, and additional calls to Kilronan in the Aran Islands and Dingle in West Kerry to leave off special cargoes of food and drink consignments of quality items from artisan producers in southwest Ireland and Limerick.

The voyage got underway from Baltimore in West Cork, with noted local brands such as Red Strand Coffee, West Cork Whiskey and Cape Clear Gin being shipped for delivery northwards. Some of it was unloaded at Kilrush to various noted outlets, but once that was done, for three days the Ilen presence was being used with an entirely different emphasis, as she became one of the centre-pieces for the Scait na hOige Youth Festival which staged events in both Kilrush and Foynes.

The Ilen as part of a living education programmeThe Ilen as part of a living education programme. Young Ryan Quinn from Limerick – who had taken part in the Ilen Salmons Wake project in 2019 – is given the learning tour of the traditional rigging during the Scait na hOige festival. Photo: Deirdre Power

As already reported in Afloat.ie, this was the first berthing call to Foynes – Conor O'Brien's home port – since Ilen was restored. So what with meeting O'Brien relatives, and the Festival and the renowned hospitality of Foynes Yacht Club, it was busy.

But with the local products such as Thomond Red Ale from Limerick and Rigney's famous ham and bacon from Curragh Chase being added to the cargo, it was soon time to be back in the delivery business. The weather was closing in, and Ilen's crew hoped to have made their call north to Kilronan and be south of Blasket Sound before the top really came off.

in the Aran islands, Aonghus Mullen of Kilronan takes delivery of a cargo of goodies from Gary Mac Mahon aboard Ilen after the historic passage from FoynesDoing the business – in the Aran islands, Aonghus Mullen of Kilronan takes delivery of a cargo of goodies from Gary Mac Mahon aboard Ilen after the historic passage from Foynes

As ever, Ilen did the business, though it was a close enough call. In Kilronan it was Cape Clear Gin and best jam from Kilrush which was taken off by Aonghus Mullen of the Spar group, and then the ship headed south into a clear enough night which concluded with a spectacular dawn as they entered the Blasket Sound.

Ilen enters a gentle-seeming Blasket Sound on passage from Kilronan to DingleMixed messages from the dawn as Ilen enters a gentle-seeming Blasket Sound on passage from Kilronan to Dingle. By the time she'd emerged from the Sound, the message was clear – in rough going, the entire bowsprit had been fully dipped at least twenty times. Photo: Gary MacMahon

It was a dawn which would have any seafarer on high alert, and as Conor O'Brien said of Blasket Sound, it always seems to be flat calm or wind over tide with steep and breaking seas. In 2020, his 1926 ketch seems to have managed both, with the south end of the Sound seeing her in bucking bronco mode – she'd dipped her entire bowsprit at least twenty times by the time they could square off for the welcome shelter of Dingle.

Ilen crewman Mike Grimes (right) still has to ensure that the consignment of Treaty City Thomond Red Ale from Limerick completes its journey to Paddy Bawn BrosnanThe work goes on. It may have been a rugged passage through Blasket Sound, but in Dingle, Ilen crewman Mike Grimes (right) still has to ensure that the consignment of Treaty City Thomond Red Ale from Limerick completes its journey to Paddy Bawn Brosnan. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

While all this was going on, little did they know that far away in California, retired Fastnet Rock lighthouse keeper Richard Cummins was busy with a project inspired by the Ilen Model contest which fascinated an international selection of schoolchildren during the strictest parts of the Lockdown. But where they were making mini-Ilens out of tetrapaks, the former Fastnet man was putting an Ilen model in a bottle, so now a little bit of California is forever Limerick and West Cork.

putting an Ilen model in a bottleWhile Ilen's Cargo Cruise was under way, in distant California former Fastnet Rock lighthouse keeper Richard Cummins was nearing the critical stage of putting an Ilen model in a bottle…….

Ilen in a bottle……and it worked

The Ilen's crew were safely in Kinsale, neatly ahead of the next bit of meteorological mayhem, when they heard the story from California as they prepared for the final discharge of cargo from this part of the voyage, with Limerick ham and bacon heading for the Barrett family's friendly Dunmore House Hotel near Clonakilty.

Ilen continues in Kinsale with diversions to Cork Harbour through September, but towards the end of the month, she heads for Dublin on another cargo cruise, and is due in Howth Marina on September 27th.

Keeping ahead of the weather meant an overnight arrival in Kinsale Keeping ahead of the weather meant an overnight arrival in Kinsale. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

 Ilen co-skipper James Lyons (left) of the Sailing Into Wellness programme ensures that very special supplies get to Richard Barrett of the Dunmore House Hotel. Back to business in Kinsale. Ilen co-skipper James Lyons (left) of the Sailing Into Wellness programme ensures that very special supplies get to Richard Barrett of the Dunmore House Hotel. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

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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