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West Cork Mini-Workboat Was a Key Link in Ilen's South Atlantic Shepherd Role

25th September 2020
Sheep-shape & Bristol fashion, or a time for woolly thinking……? For 64 years from 1926 until around 1990, deck scenes like this were a regular part of the Ilen's long working life Sheep-shape & Bristol fashion, or a time for woolly thinking……? For 64 years from 1926 until around 1990, deck scenes like this were a regular part of the Ilen's long working life

When we contemplate the 56ft 1926-vintage Limerick ketch Ilen today in her superbly-restored form, making her stylish way along rugged coastlines and across oceans on voyages of cultural and trading significance between places as evocative as Nuuk in West Greenland and Kilronan in the Aran Islands, we tend to forget that for 64 years this Conor O'Brien-designed Baltimore-built ketch worked very hard indeed as an unglamorous yet vital inter-island link in the Falklands archipelago.

In that rugged environment, she was, of course, the inter-island passenger boat. But she could also be relied on to bring urgently-needed supplies - including medicines - to some very remote settlements, and a regular commuter on board was the "travelling schoolteacher", who was the only link to structured education for the children of families running distant island sheep-stations.

With many islands lacking proper quays, the Ilen's punt was an essential part of the sheep delivery routeWith many islands lacking proper quays, the Ilen's punt was an essential part of the sheep delivery route. Here, it's 1974, and Ilen skipper Terry Clifton starts the Seagull outboard while Gerald Halliday (forward) holds Ilen's chain bobstay, and third crew Stephen Clifton finds it is standing room only among the paying passengers. Photo courtesy Janet Jaffray (nee Clifton).

But while the people were important, ultimately the sheep were what it was all about, such that from time to time Ilen Project Director Gary Mac Mahon receives historic photos which underline this aspect of Ilen's working life.

And in case there had been any doubt about it, after Ilen was shipped back to Ireland in November 1997, she spent the winter in the Grand Canal Basin in Dublin being prepared to sail back to Baltimore in the early summer of 1998, a target which was met.

But, as ruefully recalled by Arctic ocean circumnavigator and traditional boat enthusiast Jarlath Cunnane of Mayo, one of the volunteers who worked on Ilen through that winter, the toughest and most necessary job had nothing to do with setting up the rig. On the contrary, it was the removal of the accumulated and impacted evidence of 64 years of ovine occupation from the hold.

Ilen in the Falklands at George Island jetty in 1948Ilen in the Falklands at George Island jetty in 1948, with the punt astern. The photo is by John J Saunders, who was the "Travelling Teacher" among the islands

Ilen as we know her today, stylishly restored and seen here sailing off the coast of Greenland, July 2019Ilen as we know her today, stylishly restored and seen here sailing off the coast of Greenland, July 2019. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Yet being in that hold or on deck was only part of it for the sheep in their travelling around the islands, for many of those islands lacked proper quays. So in getting the sheep ashore, it was often vital to have a handy, robust and seaworthy ship's punt which – like Ilen herself - had to be versatile in moving easily when lightly laden, while still being more than capable when heavily laden with stores and sheep and people, and often all three together.

Ilen and her punt, with a float of kelp drifting past in classic Falklands styleIlen and her punt, with a float of kelp drifting past in classic Falklands style. While the little boat may look ruggedly workaday, there's real functional elegance here, with the transom well clear of the water to allow ease of progress when un-laden, allied to proper load-carrying power

Among the islands of West Cork, traditional punts like this were developed to a high standard, their basic design modified in line with their planned purpose. Thus when Darryl Hughes with the restored Tyrell of Arklow 1937-built 43ft gaff ketch Maybird sought an elegant yacht's tender, he took Maybird to Oldcourt so that boatbuilder Liam Hegarty – the restorer of Ilen – could create a bespoke punt in the classic Hegarty style to fit Maybird's available deck space.

In going to such trouble to get the ideal boat, Darryl Hughes was in a sense following in the footsteps of Erskine Childers back in 1905, when Colin Archer was building Asgard for Erskine & Molly Childers. Childers went into extraordinary detail about the final form they required for Asgard's tender, as he felt that he and Molly would want to sail the 10ft boat on mini-expeditions in remote anchorages.

The resulting little charmer of a boat had such character – judging by the historical photos - that after John Kearon had completed the conservation of Asgard in Collins Barracks, round the world sailor and former dinghy champion Pat Murphy said she needed her dinghy, and he raised funds around Howth so that Larry Archer of Malahide could re-create the Colin Archer dinghy, which now nestles under Asgard herself in the museum.

Molly and Erskine Childers in Asgard's specially-designed 10ft tender.Molly and Erskine Childers in Asgard's specially-designed 10ft tender

The Larry Archer-built replica of the Asgard dinghy nestles under the ship herself in Collins BarracksThe Larry Archer-built replica of the Asgard dinghy nestles under the ship herself in Collins Barracks, as conservationist John Kearon explains how the preservation work was done to a group of cruising enthusiasts. Photo: W M Nixon

But while Asgard and Maybird's dinghies are fairly light little things which wouldn't be expected to carry excessively heavy loads, when Ilen headed south for the Falklands in 1926, it seems that she took with her a classic working version of the West Cork punt, robust yet sweet of line.

As with all working boats, the ultimate secret is in the stern and the basic hull sections. A straight-stem bow is a fairly straightforward design challenge, but the hull sections amidships have to resist the temptation to be completely round – you need a bit of floor for stability – while most importantly of all, the transom has to sit well clear of the water when the boat is lightly laden, as this makes her easy to row at a reasonable speed with just one or two onboard.

In fact, purists would argue that in a rowing dinghy as in a sailing boat, any immersion of the transom when un-laden is a design fault, as it results in a wake like a washing machine when the boat is moving, instead of letting her slip effortlessly along leaving barely a trace.

Ilen's punt gets a brief rest on deck as the mother-ship powers through a typically blustery Falklands dayA very hard-worked little boat. Ilen's punt gets a brief rest on deck as the mother-ship powers through a typically blustery Falklands day in the 1940s.

The most remarkable example of a successful achievement of this is with the traditional Thames sailing barge whose hull, in the final analysis, is simply a rectangular box pointed at the front, but with an exceptionally clever transom at the stern which takes shape as the hull lines rise at an optimum angle.

The Ilen work tender had no need of such sophistication in its lines, but nevertheless, there's a rightness about the way that transom sits clear of the water, the half-moon out of the top telling us that once upon a time it was handled by someone who knew how to scull, even if in later years the preferred means of propulsion was with a vintage Seagull outboard motor.

Either way, those hardy sheep eventually reached their destination, and the Ilen continued to work her way into the hearts of the islanders such that today, the former members of her crew and their descendants, and those who travelled among the islands aboard this versatile ketch, continue to find old photos that remind us and them of her past life, emphasising how remarkable it is that she has been able to take up her current role as Ireland's only example of a former sail trading ketch.

With sheep, stores and people delivered to the islands, Ilen with her punt aboard heads through Falklands SoundHomeward bound. With sheep, stores and people delivered to the islands, Ilen with her punt aboard heads through Falklands Sound under the late Terry Clifton's command. Photo courtesy Janet Jaffrey (nee Clifton).

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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