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Historic Ketch Ilen’s Story is at Heart of Limerick Museum’s New Exhibition

17th September 2018
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The restored Ilen looking well at Oldcourt, with some final trimming still needed to bring her to her marks The restored Ilen looking well at Oldcourt, with some final trimming still needed to bring her to her marks Photo: Ilen Network

The successful ten-year restoration of the 1926 Baltimore-built 56ft trading ketch Ilen, originally constructed by Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights in West Cork to designs by pioneering global circumnavigator Conor O’Brien of Limerick, has been a continuing story in Afloat.ie writes W M Nixon.

While the heart and soul of it is in Limerick, the ultimate focal point for the restoration work at its busiest stages was Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore. In recent months there, the detailed final work of the restoration has been coming to a conclusion with continuing finishing work on the accommodation and rig, while the painstaking and multi-facetted official process of surveying the ship in order to provide her with a Certificate as a Passenger Vessel has also been undertaken.

ilen oldcourt2Getting there – Ilen’s four lower sails have now been delivered to Oldcourt. All the hatchways and deckhouses were made in the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

ilen oldcourt3The staysail goes aloft for the first time. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

The Ilen restoration has reached this successful stage through a parallel work effort between the Oldcourt Boatyard in West Cork and the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick, a community project inspired and operated in the city by Gary MacMahon and several other dedicated supporters and helpers. They began by introducing hands-on training projects in the city such as building traditional Shannon gandelow workboats, and the CityOne sailing dinghies to a novel but very practical design by the late Theo Rye.

ilen oldcourt4Shipshape and Bristol Fashion – Ilen is developing a seamanlike look. Photo: Gary MacMahon

For the Ilen herself, the workshops in Limerick built many of the detailed features of the restored ship, notably the deckhouses and hatchways, while also shaping the massive new spars to re-create her rig as originally designed by Conor O’Brien. In addition, the school provided the focal point for the many marine engineering challenges which were integral to the project.

"a new Ilen Exhibition installation in the renowned Hunt Museum"

Now the Limerick element of the project has been brought centre stage, with a new Ilen Exhibition installation in the renowned Hunt Museum in its classic 18th Century former Customs House building on the waterfront in the heart of what was formerly the Shannon port’s centre of maritime trade.

hunt museum night5The Hunt Museum, the former Customs House in its elegant Shannonside setting in the heart of Limerick, is noted for the eclectic nature of its Exhibitions, and it provides the ideal setting for the new Ilen display.
The Shannon Estuary’s impressive and increasing levels of shipping may have moved downriver to nearby Limerick Docks, and further seaward still to Foynes Port, but at the old Customs House the Hunt Museum provides the ideal setting to display, study and celebrate Limerick’s many centuries of commercial interaction with the sea, and particularly the great days of sail. The new Exhibition, which was informally opened to the public on Friday (September 14th), is a self-contained unit in the Hunt Museum’s impressive Gallery Room, and will run until November 11th.

The restoration of the Ilen may have been a project of fascination to serious maritime historians and students, and indeed to anyone who is interested in traditional sailing craft. But one of the Ilen’s main functions in future will be as an important maritime educational focal point, particularly in bringing to life Limerick’s long and often colourful interaction with ships and the sea.

With this in mind, four large Limerick primary schools are already on board for close involvement with the interactive educational opportunities that the restored Ilen will provide, so visitors to the Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum will find it a fascinating mixture of Limerick-built local-style boats on display beside instructional panels which may be aimed at all levels of interest, from precise adult information on Limerick’s maritime history and the Ilen story, to a primary school child’s vision of Ilen’s prospective voyage back to her home port of Limerick.

ilen exhibition6Final stages of the installation of the Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum, with two products of the Ilen Boatbuilding school – a gandelow and a Valentine punt – in the foreground, while the wall display beyond focuses on Ilen’s history and restoration. Photo: Gary MacMahon

ilen exhibition7The other educational approach of the Ilen Exhibition, with the Ilen story as seen by young eyes for the wall display. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

It is a modern museum feature using several novel techniques, and as it was Gary Mac Mahon in his role with Limerick’s highly-regarded Copper Reed Studio who created it, we’ll let him have the final word on this very special display:

“It is a light and colourfully-styled exhibition, which draws upon many of Limerick cultural and historical elements; rich maritime elements which uniquely converge at Limerick’s Custom House building - home today to the Hunt Museum.

The Custom House riverside aspect is no accident of 18c urban planning - under its roof, the City’s vital activities of sailing ships, maritime trade and associated custom collections were regulated.

The exhibition takes as it central theme, the ten-year adventures of the Ilen community boat building project, and its chief prize the sailing ship ‘Ilen’, which sails beautifully rebuilt towards Limerick this October, after an absence of 92 years.

ilen exhibition8The fusion of adult of and junior images – the Ilen’s profile plan as visualised for young folk, seen along the length of a traditional Shannon gandelow. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Many of the maritime traditions of Limerick, which this exhibition seeks to explore through the work of the Ilen Project, are universally shared with many other riverine port towns.

Drawing upon humour, illustration and tradition, the exhibition offers the young and not-so-young among us a convivial opportunity to partake in a renewed awareness of Limerick’s age-old connectivity with the world, through the inimitable ways of river, sea and ocean, and the beautifully crafted wooden ships and boats which plied their trade upon them.

Integral to the exhibitions offering is the opportunity for hands-on engagement - learning the ropes, so to speak: visitors will be certain to depart with a new found aquatic awareness.”

ilen childrens panel9A new and youthful way of looking at the 92-year-old Ilen, as seen in the Hunt Museum in Limerick

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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