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The Spirit of Conor O'Brien’s Pioneering Saoirse is Afloat Again in West Cork

12th July 2022
The 42ft world-girdling Saoirse is re-born at Oldcourt near
Baltimore a Century after the original little ship first took to
the seas in West Cork
The 42ft world-girdling Saoirse is re-born at Oldcourt near Baltimore a Century after the original little ship first took to the seas in West Cork Credit: John Wolfe

Down in West Cork, they have a way of quietly getting on with things until a major waypoint is inevitably passed in the project, and then we’re into new territory. For two or three years now, Liam Hegarty and his team of master shipwrights at Oldcourt Boatyard on the River Ilen have been engaged in constructing a re-creation of the 42ft Baltimore-built Saoirse. Aboard her, Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary sailed round the world with several crew south of the great Capes and back to Ireland in exactly two years, between June 20th 1923, and June 20th 1925.

This means that Saoirse was being completed, commissioned and trial-sailed during the Civil War. While we don’t precisely know her launching date, it’s a fact that in August 1922 she was carrying passengers and mail out of West Cork, as the area’s road and rail communications had been cut off in the ongoing conflict.

 Despite the rugged challenge of her world-girdling voyage, Saoirse could provide homely comfort below – Conor O’Brien in the saloon as sketched by his wife Kitty Clausen in the 1930s Despite the rugged challenge of her world-girdling voyage, Saoirse could provide homely comfort below – Conor O’Brien in the saloon as sketched by his wife Kitty Clausen in the 1930s

A proper little ship. The skylight as seen in previous photo has been faithfully re-created, while the traditional arrangements of the foredeck have come back to life. Photo: John WolfeA proper little ship. The skylight as seen in previous photo has been faithfully re-created, while the traditional arrangements of the foredeck have come back to life. Photo: John Wolfe

It’s a side-story to an already extraordinary saga, and in retrospect it seems inevitable that the Centenary would be greeted with the appearance of a Saoirse replica, for the original – or most of her – was lost in a hurricane in Jamaica in 1979. But while virtually all of the fabric of the first Saoirse was gone, Gary Mac Mahon of the Ilen Project in Limerick has a very comprehensive archive of Saoirse data and drawings, including a set of hull lines take off by Uffa Fox in Cowes in 1927.

Thus with an extensive additional set of Conor O’Brien drawings and many photographs, it was possible to contemplate an authentic re-build, and in time the project was under-written - and the new Saoirse’s ownership with it - by Fred Kinmonth, a high-flying international corporate lawyer who has made his career in Hong Kong but has retained strong family connections with West Cork, where he has been increasingly resident in recent years.

 Happy at sea. Conor O’Brien relaxed on the helm as Saoirse makes knots in open water. With the raised after-deck, a special rail – “balustrade” almost - was fitted round the stern Happy at sea. Conor O’Brien relaxed on the helm as Saoirse makes knots in open water. With the raised after-deck, a special rail – “balustrade” almost - was fitted round the stern

Newly afloat, the re-born Saoirse awaits the fitting of the special rail around the raised afterdeck. Photo: John WolfeNewly afloat, the re-born Saoirse awaits the fitting of the special rail around the raised afterdeck. Photo: John Wolfe

For as long as the new Saoirse was under construction in the Top Shed at Oldcourt - where Ilen had been restored before her – there was a spiritually soothing dimension to the project, as the highly atmospheric Top Shed - or the Old Grain Store or whatever you want to call it - has the capacity to be an almost sacred space when a wooden vessel is under traditional construction.

 The sacred space. An early stage of construction for the new Saoirse in the unique atmosphere of the Top Shed at Oldcourt. Photo: W M Nixon The sacred space. An early stage of construction for the new Saoirse in the unique atmosphere of the Top Shed at Oldcourt. Photo: W M Nixon

Yet inevitably the waypoint is approaching where the project would be better served by having the little ship afloat, and that occurred with Saoirse a few days ago. In one fell swoop, she went from being sheltered and cloistered, unable to view in all her totality in the confines of the shed, to a sudden state of total public display.

And she looks marvellous. Gallant. Jaunty. And saved from an unseemly dumpiness by the fact that master-builder Tom Moynihan in 1922 insisted on O’Brien adding an extra 2ft to the stern to provide a transom of robust elegance.

“A transom of robust elegance”. Conor O’Brien masterfully using a yuloh to propel the engine-less Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza in 1932“A transom of robust elegance”. Conor O’Brien masterfully using a yuloh to propel the engine-less Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza in 1932

It is fascinating to compare the photos and plans from the original vessel with what we see now. The new ship has been built with such integrity by the Hegarty team that she is an artefact of significance in her own right. To that, we add her historic role. And it is a matter of note that the original was born in 1922, which also saw the birth of the Cruising Club of America. The founding Commodore of the CCA was Bill Nutting, who sailed across the Atlantic with his ketch Typhoon to get the blessing for his proposed club from Claud Worth, who in those days was the guru of world cruising, his thoughts on deep sea sailing seen as being in the realms of sacred scripture.

Thus in time, the definitive opinion on the world-girdling voyage of the Saoirse was given by Claud Worth in his Foreword to O’Brien’s classic book Across Three Oceans:

“Mr O’Brien’s plain seamanlike account is so modestly written that a casual reader might miss its full significance. But anyone who anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance required to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul uncoppered bottom, at speeds from 150 to 170 miles a day, as well as the weight of wind and sea which must sometimes have been encountered…..however common ocean voyages in small yachts may become, Mr O’Brien will always be remembered for his voyage across the South Pacific and round the Horn.”

For sure, we all carry an image of Saoirse in our mind’s eye. And some of us can remember the original when she made her last visit to Ireland, on a voyage to Iceland in 1974. But it would take a heart of stone to be un-moved by this living vision which is now afloat in West Cork, the vibrant re-created reminder of an extraordinary voyage.

The voyage begins. Saoirse getting underway in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923The voyage begins. Saoirse getting underway in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923

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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About Conor O'Brien, Irish Circumnavigator

In 1923-25, Conor O'Brien became the first amateur skipper to circle the world south of the Great Capes. O'Brien's boat Saoirse was reputedly the first small boat (42-foot, 13 metres long) to sail around the world since Joshua Slocum completed his voyage in the 'Spray' during 1895 to 1898. It is a journey that O' Brien documented in his book Across Three Oceans. O'Brien's voyage began and ended at the Port of Foynes, County Limerick, Ireland, where he lived.

Saoirse, under O'Brien's command and with three crew, was the first yacht to circumnavigate the world by way of the three great capes: Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin; and was the first boat flying the Irish tri-colour to enter many of the world's ports and harbours. He ran down his easting in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties between the years 1923 to 1925.

Up until O'Brien's circumnavigation, this route was the preserve of square-rigged grain ships taking part in the grain race from Australia to England via Cape Horn (also known as the clipper route).

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