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Ireland's Last Trading Ketch Becomes Ilen Marine School

28th October 2020
First day at school: the trading ketch Ilen in her new role as the Ilen Marine School, getting under way on Bank Holiday Monday. First day at school: the trading ketch Ilen in her new role as the Ilen Marine School, getting under way on Bank Holiday Monday. Photo: Eidin Griffin

When the 56ft Conor O'Brien-designed trading ketch Ilen - built in Baltimore in West Cork in 1926 - was retrieved and brought back to Ireland by Gary MacMahon of Limerick from the Falkland Islands in November 1997, it was the beginning of a long process of restoration and preparation for seagoing, a process which came under several different headings, all of them within the umbrella title of The Ilen Project.

While the rebuild project was centre stage over many years, it was known as the Ilen School and Network For Wooden Boat-Building. There was a twin focus on the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick - where many significant parts such a deckhouses were built in addition to several small craft - and on Hegarty's Boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River above Baltimore, where Liam Hegarty and his craftsmen on the main job were from time to time joined by noted international shipwrights from abroad who appreciated the opportunity to work in completely traditional style.

Once the ship was sailing in the late summer of 2018, she began to move towards a sea training and cultural emphasis, and for the first part of the 2019 season she was active from Kinsale under the command of James Lyons, working very effectively within the Sailing Into Wellness programme. Then as July 2019 approached, she was re-focused to become a sailing ambassador to West Greenland on an impressive ocean voyage from Limerick under the Salmons Wake banner, as 2019 was the Year of the Atlantic Salmon, and the journey of Ilen to Greenland, and her extended presence there, provided direct lines of cultural inter-action between schoolchildren in Limerick and Clare, and the schoolchildren of Greenland.

the new Ilen Marine School T-shirt makes its debut in saluting the ship at KilrushTest marketing for a re-branding process – the new Ilen Marine School T-shirt makes its debut in saluting the ship at Kilrush. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Returning from Greenland as the Autumn of 2019 approached, she shaped her course directly for Kinsale and further work with Sailing into Wellness while the outline of plans for 2020 were being sketched out around a possible voyage to Madeira, a key port of call for Conor O'Brien when he sailed Ilen to the Falklands in 1926.

However, the pandemic put paid to that, but the brief summertime lifting of restrictions did enable Ilen to undertake a Community & Cargo Voyage, delivering artisan products from Cape Clear, Baltimore, Kinsale, Cork, Kilrush, Foynes, Limerick, Kilronan in the Aran Islands and Dingle among specialist and general outlets along the way.

It was while Ilen was in Kilrush in late August during this intriguing cargo voyage that the process began of moving her into the next stage of her continuing metamorphosis, as the crew appeared on deck wearing the new Ilen Marine School T-shirts, and the handsome dark blue Ilen Marine School ensign went aloft.

The name "Ilen Marine School" has actually been in being since 2000, but as is the way of this longterm project, director Gary Mac Mahon felt that the ship and the Ilen Trust guiding her had to fulfill certain objectives afloat and ashore before the official changeover process could begin.

These things take time, and while Ilen may have returned to deliver the last of her cargoes to Kinsale in early September displaying some of the symbols of the developing Ilen Marine School, it is only now that the paperwork is nearing completion, and on Bank Holiday Monday she took her first sail in her new role.

Ilen's accommodationIlen's accommodation has been upgraded in recent weeks. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

In the meantime, the crew of Mike Grimes, Mantas Seakauskis, Frank O'Sullivan and Jim McInerney have been busy re-activating their boat-building and finishing skills to bring Ilen's accommodation up to a standard which is a very long way indeed from her role for sixty years as the sheep ferry in the Falkland Islands. Indeed, it is a different world altogether from the "Arts & Crafts Floating Cottage" interior which Conor O'Brien and his wife Kitty Clausen created in the accommodation of Ilen's predecessor, the world-girdling Saoirse.

Ilen's shiny new-look saloonIlen's shiny new-look saloon will make for a fascinating comparison…

….with the Arts & Crafts concept of Saoirse's saloon, as captured by Kitty Clausen, with Conor O'Brien at the saloon table….with the Arts & Crafts concept of Saoirse's saloon, as captured by Kitty Clausen, with Conor O'Brien at the saloon table

The work of re-building Saoirse continues at Oldcourt with Liam Hegarty and his team, and in due course we'll see how close to that iconic Saoirse saloon the sailors of 2021 (or maybe 2022) can hope to reach.

Meanwhile, the name "Ilen Marine School" will ring bells for connoisseurs of the famous James Malton prints of Dublin in the 1790s, one of the most famous being his 1796 depiction of the impressive purpose-built Marine School on the south quays of the Liffey. The idealism of the city fathers in creating an educational establishment to produce competent seamen and ship's officers seems to have been an ambition which was too good to last, as the Marine School was to fade away over time.

the Marine School (left) in Dublin, as recorded by James MaltonAn idea ahead of its time – the Marine School (left) in Dublin, as recorded by James Malton

It continued for a while in replacement premises in Clontarf, and then it was subsumed into Mountjoy School for Boys, which in turn was amalgamated with Temple Girls School to become Mount Temple School in Clontarf, leaving only the faintest trace of memories of the old marine school. Nowadays, Mount Temple is best known as the alma mater of U2. We can only guess at what unexpected talent may emerge from the Ilen Marine School…….

The last traces of the Marine School in Dublin are now to be found in Mount Temple School, which has in recent decades encouraged some remarkable talentsThe last traces of the Marine School in Dublin are now to be found in Mount Temple School, which has in recent decades encouraged some remarkable talents

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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