Irish boats come, Irish boats go. And while some will always be remembered, others leave barely a twirl of wake in the communal memory. The best-remembered has to be Conor O’Brien’s world-girdling Saoirse. Yet it could reasonably be claimed that Harry Donegan’s Gull was the boat that made the difference, for she was there in Ireland when it mattered, whereas Saoirse was away, performing on the global stage.
In 1921, the Donegan family of Cork bought Gull, an 1896 Charles E Nicholson-designed and Camper & Nicholson-built 18-ton gaff cutter, with a notably large jackyard topsail. The patriarch of the family, solicitor Harry Donegan (1870-1940) sailed her until his death on St Patrick’s Day of 1940, which came after a sublime 1939 end-of-season sail from Schull back to Cork Harbour, the perfect final passage for a great sailor.
During his time with the well-loved boat, he was soon busy with Gull in the final stages of the Civil War in 1922, carrying a messenger (Michael Collins’ sister, as it happens) with dispatches for the Pro-Treaty Government from Cork for eventual delivery to Commander-in-Chief Collins in Dublin, a task made necessary by the Anti-Treaty rebels destroying all other means of communication – road, rail, whatever - between the two cities.
After peace of sorts had broken out in 1923, in addition to a programme of cruiser-racing in and from Cork Harbour, Harry Donegan was soon back to his hobby of surveying popular cruising anchorages for his privately-circulated cruising guide to southwest Ireland. And then when the call came for entries for the novel Fastnet Race of 1925, despite the fact that Ireland’s Fastnet Rock was only a mark of the course with the start eastward out of the Solent from Ryde, and the finish at Plymouth in Devon, he willingly entered Gull to be one of the seven starters. She was in the lead overall at one stage, and at the finish she placed third.
Thus Gull was present at the foundation of the Ocean Racing Club - soon to be the RORC – in Plymouth in 1925, and four years later she was present at the foundation in Glengarriff in 1929 of the Irish Cruising Club, a project which had long been dear to Harry Donegan’s heart.
During the eleven years he had with the ICC (of which he was Vice Commodore), Harry Donegan was one of the club’s keenest active members, regularly bringing his demanding cutter round to the Irish Sea for ICC East Coast events, while at the same time playing the leading role in Cork Harbour, and somehow finding space for the occasional RORC racing foray as well.
In his latter days, his son Harry Jnr was an active partner on the boat, but after Old Harry died, things weren’t quite the same, Young Harry was interested in trying other boat types, and as soon as World War II was over, Gull was sold – now considered quite old by the standards of the time – to the south of England. The word is that she ended her days in the 1950s in a mud berth in Poole Harbour, gradually mouldering away into the bottomless sludge.
Yet it seems that while the corporeal Gull may have disappeared into Poole Harbour’s primaeval ooze, her friendly ghost was soon haunting the place, quietly looking for an opportunity to resume sailing the sea with the gift of fresh youth. But it wasn’t until 1998, when the noted local boatbuilder Ken Latham was commissioned to build the hull of a classically proportioned 50-footer, that Gull’s necessary opportunity presented itself, and somehow her spirit became successfully enmeshed in the style and appearance of a dreamship which was supposed to represent a miniaturised version of the very Scottish Alfred Mylne-designed 120ft gaff ketch Thendara from the 1930s.
Certainly, this had been the design brief for the late Jeremy Lines, who was a startling example of nominative determinism, for what could somebody called Lines possibly be, other than the in-house yacht designer for Camper & Nicholsons in their final glory days?
It was after his retirement that he was given the commission in his own right as a yacht designer for this meticulously-detailed 50-footer. And while he may have conscientiously tried to re-create Alfred Mylne as asked, the shadow of the genius of Charles E Nicholson was at his shoulder, and Gull emerged again – fresh and new and exquisitely built - beside Poole Harbour.
Not that anybody noticed at the time. In fact, it was upwards of twenty years later, at Mullaghmore on the Sligo coast, that a photo taken by Race Officer Brian Mathews at Mullaghmore Regatta 2019 rang a bell. And it wasn’t until a week or so ago, when were assembling a few photos to back up the Mullaghmore Regatta 2020 poster, that the mysterious ketch re-appeared, when it immediately clicked that regardless of the rig - which is indeed a quirky miniature of Thendara’s sail-plan – we were looking at the sweet sheerline and restrained stem of Gull all over again, even if they’re set in a beamy shoal-draft centreboard-carrying hull, whereas Gull was slim and deep.
Be that as it may, now we hear that not only is this cleverly-disguised Ghost of Gull haunting the Irish coast, but she has found herself a long-term mooring in Glengarriff, where Harry Donegan’s most-cherished dream of an Irish Cruising Club became reality ninety-one years ago.
It’s all a bit too much, but then a state of things being just a bit too much seems to be normality when you get into the orbit around Ed Maggs, who has owned this “genuine fake” (his own words) with his wife Frances since 2011. The ketch is now called Betty Alan after his parents, and somehow he finds the time to use her as she should be used, despite the attention-consuming occupation of being a Maggs brother in the almost absurdly blue chip antiquarian booksellers Maggs Brothers in the fashionable part of London. There, they’ve been selling rare or very rare or indeed invisibly rare books at splendid prices since 1853, while additionally purveying some extremely odd items of exceptional historic interest which, alas, we cannot specify in a website with a family readership.
Be that as it may, Ed’s talents and endeavours as an antiquarian bookseller are no more than a displacement activity. For his real calling – would he but allow it - is as a sailing writer, and more specifically a cruising writer. It may be a good old reliable cliché, but his quirky take on the things that happen in and on and around the Betty Alan to himself and Frances and their friends (a credibility-stretching lineup of characters in themselves) is what Myles might have called that familiar inhalation of clear oxygen and nitrogen and some spots of hydrogen and other gases, best known as a breath of fresh air if that’s what you’re having yourself.
But as the very special bookshop is there to keep the show on the road, Ed has no need to turn himself into some sort of internet star or performance artist, which is the only way a modern cruising writer could afford a boat like Betty Alan. So instead, his fans can enjoy his works in semi-private club and association publications with words and thoughts to be savoured in leisurely style, instead of having your head blown off and your mind melted by electronic overload.
Thus we’ve been catching up in recent weeks through various sources on the great adventure, which was meant to be a two years (or thereabouts) circuit cruise round Britain and Ireland from Betty Alan’s home port of Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex, which is about as different a place from Glengarriff as you’ll find on this planet.
On this planet, misplaced or displaced intentions often produce the best cruise yarns. Betty Alan got as far as southwest Ireland, and then began significantly slowing down. When she got as far as Donegal, she came to a stop with a stay-for-a-while mooring at Teelin, and then laid up for the winter with the excellent services of Mooney Boats at Killybegs. And when she launched again, it was irresistible to revisit places back south, which may explain that star turn at Mullaghmore. But what with one thing and another, she now has a fulltime mooring in Glengarriff, and Ed and Frances have found themselves spending the Lockdown in the latest bright idea.
It’s a little old farmhouse that they’ve bought, with a bit of land - most of it heavily wooded - hidden away in the Roughty Valley midway between Kenmare and Kilgarvan. Thus they’ve the remarkable yet smooth life force of the Brennan brothers at Kenmare and Drumquinna to the southwest, and the forces of nature in the raw in the rugged frontier village of Kilgarvan, Kilgarvan of the Riding Clans, to the northeast, where ordinary folk run the danger of becoming the hyphen in Healy-Rae.
It is in the little farmhouse during this Lockdown that Ed Maggs has been writing for a select few of the woodlands and oddities of this place called Kilgortaree, and he does it with the same lively and totally frank frame of mind that he brought to describing the joys and hazards of cruising the coasts of Kerry and Connemara in detail.
And it all seems part of a perfectly natural and sensible process, when set in the story of how the Ghost of Gull has come to be happily haunting Glengarriff in recent weeks.