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Historic Ketch Saoirse’s Re-birth Starts to Take Shape

6th February 2018
With the re-building of Saoirse now under way in Oldcourt, for the time being the easygoing open-house atmosphere which prevailed during the restoration of Ilen – as seen here in 2011 – has been put aside as the serious new project is set firmly in place. Photo shows (left to right) Leo McDermot, Nick Cotter, Pierce Ryan, Brendan Lennox, Fachtna O’Sullivan, and David Vurdett, with yard cat Joe keeping a wary eye on Jasper the dog. With the re-building of Saoirse now under way in Oldcourt, for the time being the easygoing open-house atmosphere which prevailed during the restoration of Ilen – as seen here in 2011 – has been put aside as the serious new project is set firmly in place. Photo shows (left to right) Leo McDermot, Nick Cotter, Pierce Ryan, Brendan Lennox, Fachtna O’Sullivan, and David Vurdett, with yard cat Joe keeping a wary eye on Jasper the dog.

West Cork may have the image of an easy-going paradise where life proceeds at a leisurely pace writes W M Nixon. And maybe that is indeed the case in summer, when there are more people around determined to keep things gentle and slow.

But it seems that by contrast, in winter it’s all bustle and productivity. As regular readers of will be aware, while the rest of us were snuggling down to get through the depths of the festive season with occasional bursts of good news from the Irish-dominated Sydney-Hobart Race as our only contact with the world of sailing, down in West Cork around Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt there was a flurry of activity when conditions suited.

These bursts of skilled co-ordinated work were to take advantage of the brief daylight and narrow weather windows for the delicate job of moving the 30-ton newly-restored trading ketch Ilen. The 1926-built 56ft vessel had to vacate the building shed in order to provide space for work to begin in January on the re-building of Conor O’Brien’s historic world-girdling 42ft ketch Saoirse, built in Baltimore in 1922, and by 1925 a global circumnavigation veteran and pioneer of the challenging route south of the Great Capes.

saoirse lines uffa fox2The lines of Saoirse as taken off by the international designer Uffa Fox at Cowes in 1927

saoirse keel3Who could have believed we’d ever see it happen? Ninety-one years after the lines were recorded by Uffa Fox, Saoirse is being re-built in Oldcourt. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Although Conor O’Brien’s subsequent writings on seamanship and the special demands of ocean voyaging were influential, he was directly involved in the design and of building only two vessels, Saoirse in 1922 and the Falkland Islands trading ketch Ilen in 1926. Both were built in the Fisheries School boatyard in Baltimore in West Cork under the direction of Tom Moynihan. And if Conor O’Brien was listed as the designer, nevertheless Tom Moynihan was known to have improved on O’Brien’s ideas when he thought it necessary.

But while Baltimore was where the two ocean-going craft were built, O’Brien himself was very much a sailor of the Shannon Estuary. His family were associated with the lands along the south shore of that mighty waterway, and with Limerick city itself. Yet there were many in Limerick – and throughout Ireland too – who felt that Conor O’Brien never really received the recognition he deserved in his own country.

Many may have thought it, but only one took action. Twenty-one years ago a young Limerick man, Gary MacMahon, decided that the best way to begin to remedy the situation was to bring the recently-retired Ilen home from the Falklands to Ireland for a full restoration.

It says everything for Gary MacMahon’s dogged persistence that despite a lack of practical official interest in Ireland – other than some general goodwill - not only has Ilen now been restored, but in Limerick the Ilen Project has spawned a successful city-based boat-building school. This has links to international artisan boat-building networks, while at the same time working a successful co-ordination with the Oldcourt boatyard for the Ilen restoration.

saoirse keel stern4The profile of Saoirse’s distinctive stern re-appears – Tom Moynihan and his men ensured that her appearance was improved by a short counter stern, which was not originally envisaged by Conor O’Brien Photo: Gary MacMahon

Meanwhile, as all this was steadily developing, MacMahon was continuing to enlarge his substantial Conor O’Brien archive, and always in the background there was the idea that Saoirse herself could be re-born. A widely-accepted narrative had it that she had come ashore to destruction on Negril Beach in Jamaica in 1979 in the aftermath of a hurricane. But until he had actually visited the area and talked with locals himself, Gary MacMahon had an open mind on whether or not enough of Saoirse still existed for a re-build.

His hunch proved sound. An extended visit to Negril and relevant areas of Jamaica in July 2015 provided both significant parts of Saoirse herself, and sufficient documentation to ensure that any project would be recognised as a re-building.

It had been a couple of months earlier, at the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival in May 2015, that Gary MacMahon and Liam Hegarty had found they both passionately believed to the point of total agreement that Saoirse should be re-built to become a full sea-going vessel again. As to the means to do it, at that time it was a matter of faith. But as they had already found sources of good timber for the restoration of Ilen, they also began ordering wood which could be used in a re-building of Saoirse.

It was all still a vague and benevolent notion in the background of the Ilen project until, in September 2016, noted Hong Kong-based sailor Fred Kinmonth stepped into the old shed where Ilen was being restored, and the entire project took on a fresh direction. There are special Kinmonth family connections to West Cork, and in due course, Fred Kinmonth confirmed that he wished to support the re-building of Saoirse as a two year project, beginning January 2018.

It was a decision both inspiring and demanding. It set a deadline. And like all deadlines for worthwhile projects, it was close enough in the end, but it was met. By January 2018, Ilen was gone from The Old Grainstore to a new berth in the yard where her commissioning continues, while in the shed the space was cleared and re-organised, and now Liam Hegarty’s team, with master shipwright Fachtna O’Sullivan the most experienced, have already created the basis of the backbone for re-building Saoirse.

saoirse keel5Saoirse’s forefoot re-emerges, both in massive timber and as a template. Photo: Gary MacMahon

The atmosphere is almost reverential, for it’s very seldom that such a remote dream can be brought to fulfillment in the one place where it can be validly created. In time, the re-building of Saoirse will develop its own routine, and the colourful camaraderie of the top shed will brighten the work on its way. But for now, in the first weeks of this very special project, we’re at the serious stage where everything has to be just right. For the time being anyway, the open-door policy is no longer operational - the days of anyone just dropping in and hoping to engage the team in friendly chat are on hold. There is only one genuine opportunity to re-build the Saoirse. This is it. It’s a serious business.

Published in Historic Boats Team

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