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Limerick Ketch Ilen's "Wild Ride" from West Cork Home to Shannon Estuary

5th October 2021
The way of a ship at sea….
"The way of a ship at sea….". With sheets eased after putting Dursey Island astern last Thursday, the Limerick ketch Ilen is making rapid progress on the homeward passage to the Shannon Estuary Credit: Gary Mac Mahon

While everyone else was staring goggle-eyed at rapidly-changing and decidedly hostile weather charts last Thursday, and wondering whether the weekend's racing was going to be possible at all, in typical style the always-amazing Gary MacMahon was at sea off our most exposed southwest coast in the lovingly-restored 56ft Conor O'Brien ketch Ilen, homeward bound to Limerick after the annual overhaul with Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt above Baltimore.

Since her very special Limerick to West Greenland voyage in 2019, the pandemic has meant the Ilen has been largely Kinsale-based in summer, sailing as much as was permissible for the Sailing into Wellness programme and other worthwhile causes. And her passage home after the annual check-up at Oldcourt – where she was painstakingly restored – has tended to involve freakishly gentle Autumn weather.

When the going was gentler, and full sail could still be carried. Photo: Gary Mac MahonWhen the going was gentler, and full sail could still be carried. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Weathering Cape Clear, with the end of the Mizen Peninsula fine on the starboard bow. Photo: Gary MacMahonWeathering Cape Clear, with the end of the Mizen Peninsula fine on the starboard bow. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But this year, needs must when the devil drives. For whatever reason, the enigmatic Director of The Ilen Marine School found he was obliged to make the passage in the latter half of last week, and come hell or high water – literally – he did so. He admitted to it being a "wild ride", but the gallant 1926 Conor O'Brien creation – Ireland's only surviving traditional trading ketch – came through it with style, arriving into the Ted Russell Dock in Limerick without a feather out of place.

The highest ocean swells on the West Coast of Ireland come in to the north of the Dingle Peninsula. Photo: Gary MachonThe highest ocean swells on the West Coast of Ireland come in to the north of the Dingle Peninsula. Photo: Gary Machon

Gary is a very visual person in his way of thinking, and we've received a sheaf of un-captioned photos and a couple of anonymous vid clips sent to tell the story. Thus we're winging it with the captions, but so what? – he and his shipmates did it, and did it with style. And there's a special unity to our Great Southwestern Seaboard which makes precision of location of secondary importance,

The Ilen sailing well in more sedate conditions. Photo: Gary Mac MahonThe Ilen sailing well in more sedate conditions. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

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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Ireland's Trading Ketch Ilen

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.

Wooden Sailing Ship Ilen FAQs

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

The Ilen was designed by Conor O’Brien, the first Irish man to circumnavigate the world.

Ilen is named for the West Cork River which flows to the sea at Baltimore, her home port.

The Ilen was built by Baltimore Sea Fisheries School, West Cork in 1926. Tom Moynihan was foreman.

Ilen's wood construction is of oak ribs and planks of larch.

As-built initially, she is 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes.

Conor O’Brien set sail in August 1926 with two Cadogan cousins from Cape Clear in West Cork, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 and handed it over to the new owners.

The Ilen was delivered to the Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500.

Ilen served for over 70 years as a cargo ship and a ferry in the Falkland Islands, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties. She stayed in service until the early 1990s.

Limerick sailor Gary McMahon and his team located Ilen. MacMahon started looking for her in 1996 and went out to the Falklands and struck a deal with the owner to bring her back to Ireland.

After a lifetime of hard work in the Falklands, Ilen required a ground-up rebuild.

A Russian cargo ship transported her back on a 12,000-mile trip from the Southern Oceans to Dublin. The Ilen was discharged at the Port of Dublin 1997, after an absence from Ireland of 70 years.

It was a collaboration between the Ilen Project in Limerick and Hegarty’s Boatyard in Old Court, near Skibbereen. Much of the heavy lifting, of frames, planking, deadwood & backbone, knees, floors, shelves and stringers, deck beams, and carlins, was done in Hegarty’s. The generally lighter work of preparing sole, bulkheads, deck‐houses fixed furniture, fixtures & fittings, deck fittings, machinery, systems, tanks, spar making and rigging is being done at the Ilen boat building school in Limerick.

Ten years. The boat was much the worse for wear when it returned to West Cork in May 1998, and it remained dormant for ten years before the start of a decade-long restoration.

Ilen now serves as a community floating classroom and cargo vessel – visiting 23 ports in 2019 and making a transatlantic crossing to Greenland as part of a relationship-building project to link youth in Limerick City with youth in Nuuk, west Greenland.

At a mere 56ft, Ilen is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

©Afloat 2020

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