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Historic Ketch Ilen’s Restoration Moves on From Broad Strokes to Detail Work

19th September 2017
In time-honoured style, Liam O’Donoghue in the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick parcels and serves the final pieces of Ilen’s wire rigging using his traditional serving board In time-honoured style, Liam O’Donoghue in the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick parcels and serves the final pieces of Ilen’s wire rigging using his traditional serving board Photo: Gary MacMahon

With the hull of the 56ft 1926-built Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen now restored and painted in the building shed in Oldcourt near Baltimore, attention shifts increasingly to the long list of detail work that is needed to complete the project writes W M Nixon.

Much of this is ideally suited to the facilities available in the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick, where director Gary MacMahon and his team have assembled a group of all the talents for teaching and learning. These days, the evocative aromas and sounds of traditional ship-building and its associated tasks permeate both the school in the city, and the building shed beside the Ilen River.

ilen sept2In the Old Cornstore on the River Ilen near Baltimore, Matt Dirr works towards a perfect fit for the classic chainplates (above and below). Photos: Kevin O’Farrellilen sept3
Conor O’Brien’s global circumnavigation in the 42ft ketch Saoirse in 1923-25 inspired the Falkland Islanders to ask for a larger sister-ship to the same concept for their inter-island communications vessel, and the resulting Ilen was able - among other things - to transfer up to 200 sheep on the inter-island channels.

ilen sept4In Limerick, James Madigan shapes a new Douglas Fir cathead Photo: Gary MacMahon

With her larger size, she also enabled O’Brien and master shipwright Tom Moynihan of Baltimore to give more space to the steering gear. As O’Brien later admitted, they’d tried to pack so much into Saoirse’s compact 42ft hull that her steering wheel was awkwardly placed for long spells at the helm, so in Ilen they made a point of installing a more substantial arrangement which can now be seen re-created in Limerick.

In both the school in the city and the Old Cornstore in Oldcourt, it’s an immersive maritime experience of being transported back in time to the 1920s and far beyond.

ilen sept5Four angles on the re-created steering gear Photo; Gary McMahon
ilen sept6Molly MacMahon with the new steering wheel. In his subsequent books about seagoing gear and equipment, Conor O’Brien stipulated that the ideal size for a steering wheel is 42 inches. This is a “thin” 42 inches – as big as can be fitted. Photo: Gary MacMahon

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