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Another “First” For Conor O'Brien: His Alternative Image of An Unknown Ibiza

14th February 2024
Saoirse by moonlight off Ibiza at New Year, 1932. Saoirse was rigged as a brigantine when she sailed to Ibiza, but thanks to Conor O’Brien’s willingness to have a notably long main gaff boom aloft on the aft mast, the rig change had been done using the same compact ketch masts that sailed her round the world
Saoirse by moonlight off Ibiza at New Year, 1932. Saoirse was rigged as a brigantine when she sailed to Ibiza, but thanks to Conor O’Brien’s willingness to have a notably long main gaff boom aloft on the aft mast, the rig change had been done using the same compact ketch masts that sailed her round the world

Conor O'Brien’s outstanding pioneering achievement was in demonstrating that a sailing vessel as small as his own-designed 42ft Baltimore-built ketch Saoirse could complete a global circumnavigation through the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean, south of the Great Capes. The voyage’s unique and epic nature is somehow accentuated by the otherworldly neatness of its timing - Dun Laoghaire to Dun Laoghaire between June 20th 1923 and June 20th 1925.

It means that we’re plumb in the middle of its Centenary, and this has meant that nowadays, when people think of O’Brien and his gallant Saoirse, they understandably think first of the courageous and tidily-timed circumnavigation, and of little else - if anything – concerning this sometimes obtuse character.

The new version of the 1933-published Voyage & Discovery gives us a historically fascinating guide to the Ibiza of that timeThe new version of the 1933-published Voyage & Discovery gives us a historically fascinating guide to the Ibiza of that time

In entirely another area of blinkered vision, the popular modern perception of the small Balearic island of Ibiza is of Disco Central – the venue for an informal season-long annual Olympics of the up-market rave.

WHEN IBIZA WAS LITTLE KNOWN

Yet once upon a time – and it’s not so very long ago – Ibiza was known, if at all and only to a discerning few, as a relatively primitive yet unspoilt island of great charm, whose rugged landscape of just 220 square miles provided ample evidence of its long and varied history, with a relatively recent period including interaction with the piratical Barbary corsairs of North Africa.

In the challenging financial times of 1933, the cover of the 1933 edition was produced as economically as possibleIn the challenging financial times of 1933, the cover of the 1933 edition was produced as economically as possible

In the early 1930s, much of Ibiza was simply awaiting electricity rather than anticipating heavy electronic entertainment. And as for Conor O’Brien, after the success of Across Three Oceans - the book telling the story of his great voyage – and other spin-offs, he was simply thinking of a way to provide a living for himself and his new wife, the artist Kitty Clausen.

Conor O’Brien and Kitty Clausen hoisting sail on board Saoirse – and yes, he did believe in using chain for the key halyardsConor O’Brien and Kitty Clausen hoisting sail on board Saoirse – and yes, he did believe in using chain for the key halyards

They’d been contemplating for some time the idea of finding a base of sorts for Saoirse in a characterful harbour on a picturesque Mediterranean island, and Ibiza best fitted their requirements. They’d live economically on board, Kitty could paint each day, and Conor could get on with writing articles and the occasional book based on his unmatched seafaring experience. Then from time to time, they could move on if they wished to broaden the scope of their material.

The dream fulfilled – Kitty’s impression of Conor in Saoirse’s homely saloon in IbizaThe dream fulfilled – Kitty’s impression of Conor in Saoirse’s homely saloon in Ibiza

AUTUMN DEPARTURE

But it was into the Autumn of 1931 before they finally got away from Falmouth in Cornwall, sailing south into often adverse and sometimes exceptionally rough sea conditions. And it wasn’t until the first week of 1932 that they finally made the port of Ibiza itself, which made them feel doubly welcome after some unpleasant experiences in other larger ports on the way. Thus the island became central to the next book in the Conor O’Brien collection, Voyage & Discovery published in 1933, written by Conor, and extensively illustrated by Kitty.

Auxiliary power – Conor O’Brien moves Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza using the 28ft yuloh. But after a season or two in the Mediterranean, even he was persuaded that an auxiliary engine was needed for accessing the increasingly complex and more crowded harboursAuxiliary power – Conor O’Brien moves Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza using the 28ft yuloh. But after a season or two in the Mediterranean, even he was persuaded that an auxiliary engine was needed for accessing the increasingly complex and more crowded harbours

IBIZA’S FIRST ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TRAVEL BOOK

It would have been of interest for enthusiasts of O’Brien’s sailing stories, and for those who enjoyed his opinionated attitudes to just about everything, provided that he personally was kept at some distance while delivering them. Yet what was generally over-looked was that this was the first English-language travel book in which Ibiza played the leading role. And being a small and relatively unknown place, that’s how it continued to stay for some decades.

“Sunshine and Almond Blossom, Ibiza (1932)” by Katharine Clausen – featured on the outside back cover of the new edition, this example of Kitty Clausen’s work in colour is courtesy of Charlotte O’Brien Delamer“Sunshine and Almond Blossom, Ibiza (1932)” by Katharine Clausen – featured on the outside back cover of the new edition, this example of Kitty Clausen’s work in colour is courtesy of Charlotte O’Brien Delamer

Voyage & Discovery - while a modest success – initially had only that one 1933 edition, and then the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and World War II from 1939-1945 put any possible increased awareness of Ibiza and other subsequently appreciated Mediterranean islands onto the back burner.

In recent years, however, as O’Brien’s place in world voyaging’s story has become better recognized, the other aspects of his life have come into clearer focus, and his rising star has now crossed paths with the soaring if not always appealing image of modern Ibiza.

FINDING O BRIEN’S PLACE IN THE IBIZA STORY

An English academic living on the island for 20 years and more, Martin Davies has recently been ensuring – with the agreement of the O’Brien family - that the proper place in the Ibiza framework for the sailor from County Limerick is better defined with a new and more Ibiza-oriented edition of Voyage & Discovery, a process that in turn reveals that he and others who cherish the true Ibiza can show that it is still there for the discerning visitor - a complex place, a little world of its own.

In Conor and Kitty O’Brien’s time there, it was just beginning to interact more dynamically with modern life, such that they were able to record ancient ways and the traditional local dress while at the same time being present – with Saoirse putting on the full flag display – for the official opening of the new Club Nautico on the Ibiza harbour waterfront in September 1932.

Saoirse’s crew were there for the opening of Ibiza’s new Club Nautico in 1932, and found it a congenial establishment throughout their visitSaoirse’s crew were there for the opening of Ibiza’s new Club Nautico in 1932, and found it a congenial establishment throughout their visit

In order to provide more space for the Ibiza aspects, the early chapters about the outward voyage have been compressed, but sailing enthusiasts need not feel hard done by, as the outward voyage story has been included as an Appendix, and in this re-shaped new edition O’Brien is allowed full rein in the main part of the book to enthuse about the local working sailing craft.

CLASSICAL TRADITIONAL SAILING CRAFT

Some are decidedly odd with extreme lateen rigs that locals like to claim were the basis for the sails-inspired Sydney Harbour Opera House, as its architect Jorn Utzon spent some time on the island. But beyond that, O’Brien’s greatest enthusiasm was for the local trading schooners, so elegant they were yacht-like or better, with particularly attractive counters finishing in sweetly-angled oval transoms.

The local fishing boats in Ibiza in 1932 were felucca-like with their long lateen booms, and a local eccentricity was having the masts permanently canted to starboard, shown here with a classic Ibiza schooner in the backgroundThe local fishing boats in Ibiza in 1932 were felucca-like with their long lateen booms, and a local eccentricity was having the masts permanently canted to starboard, shown here with a classic Ibiza schooner in the background

As for Kitty Clausen’s charming illustrations, they are well-placed in the text to provide a smooth read, and the only regret is that nearly all are monochrome – the new paperback’s cover has just two in colour to give us a tantalising taste of what she could create.

This second edition Ibizan edition has also been given a Spanish translation as Viaije y descubrimiento by Eva Maria Rios Castillo, and as Martin Davies is an Oxford history graduate with an additional qualification in Librarianship and Information Studies, this new edition of an O’Brien story with informative footnotes brings the same rigour and depth that we found with Judith Hill’s excellent O’Brien biography In Search of Islands (Collins Press 2009), which was created with a major input from Ilen restorer Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick.

“Silks and satins, ribbons and lace” – getting dressed up to go out in 1930s Ibiza was not something to be undertaken lightly“Silks and satins, ribbons and lace” – getting dressed up to go out in 1930s Ibiza was not something to be undertaken lightly

CORSAIR LINKS

Martin Davies’ specialist Ibizan-based publishing company is Barbary Press, as he finds the island’s links to North Africa a matter of continuing fascination. Those who would find links every which way would point out that Saoirse was built in 1922 in Baltimore, which itself has more than a few links to the Barbary Corsairs, such that Sherkin Island on the west side of Baltimore Harbour was at times a proper Corsair base, and at the very least a regular re-victualling centre. And that’s before we talk of the Sack of Baltimore.

In winter, the real Ibiza emerges. The recent launching there of the new amplified editions (English & Spanish) of Conor O Brien and Katharine Clausen’s 1933-published Voyage & Discovery was undertaken by (left to right) Martin Davies of Barbary Press, noted local author Joan Cardona, and Fanny Tur, former Culture Minister for the Baleric Islands. Photo: Daniel Erasmus-EsterhazyIn winter, the real Ibiza emerges. The recent launching there of the new amplified editions (English & Spanish) of Conor O Brien and Katharine Clausen’s 1933-published Voyage & Discovery was undertaken by (left to right) Martin Davies of Barbary Press, noted local author Joan Cardona, and Fanny Tur, former Culture Minister for the Baleric Islands. Photo: Daniel Erasmus-Esterhazy

In some ways, communications in those days worked better within their limits than supposedly sophisticated modern electronics, as Martin tells us when we asked how best to get a copy of this inspired and very welcome new version of Voyage & Discovery. He writes:

To customers of the new edition of Conor O'Brien's Voyage and Discovery (Barbary Press, Ibiza, 2023)

As a local publisher on a small island, Amazon.co.uk has been my main outlet abroad for many years. Their software, however, has recently made it almost impossible to add new titles, perhaps due to the fact that my company is based in Spain. I would be very happy to provide bank and PayPal details for those interested in placing an order – please contact me first with your mailing address. Voyage and Discovery costs €17 plus €6 postage & packing (Total €23) to UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. (£14.75 + £5.25 = £20), and packages usually take between one and two weeks to reach Ireland/UK. This edition is also available in Spanish (Viaje y descubrimiento) for the same price. If you wish to order more than one copy or are based outside Europe, I will be happy to provide postage rates. Thank you.

Martin Davies
Barbary Press
c/. Murcia 10, 5º 1ª
07800 Ibiza
Spain
Tel. +34 609 875 689
[email protected]

THE FINAL WORD

A deterioration in Kitty’s health and the worsening political situation in Spain meant that Saoirse returned to Cornwall in 1935. But even as the shadow of Civil War darkened across the country and its islands, a gleam of light from 1937 reveals that Conor and Kitty O’Brien and their little ship had made a modest but enduring impact.

In the island newspaper Diario de Ibiza on 8th April 1937, leading local writer Alejandro Llobet expressed the effect of this with elegance:

“He reached our shores aboard his yacht Saoirse and was immediately struck by the tranquillity of the island, the benevolence of its soil, the allure of its landscapes and the charm, fast disappearing, of its unusual peasant dress. His book Voyage and Discovery (1933), with pen drawings by the author’s wife, has a favoured place on our shelves. Should God grant us sufficient years we would translate the most interesting chapters so that we Ibicencos, who have a moral debt to settle with this globetrotter, should know and cherish an inheritance whose underlying value we rarely appreciate.” (Alejandro Llobet, Diario de Ibiza, 8 April 1937).

It may have taken 86 years for that Spanish translation of Voyage & Discovery to appear. And it has taken other hands to produce it. But the significance of Conor O Brien seems more relevant across a wider range of interests than ever before, and Martin Davies has done everyone a considerable service.

Published in Conor O'Brien
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).

At a Glance - Conor O'Brien's Circumnavigation 

In June 1923, Limerick man Conor O’Brien set off on his yacht, the Saoirse — named after the then newly created Irish Free State — on the two-year voyage from Dun Laoghaire Harbour that was to make him the first Irish amateur to sail around the world.

June 1923 - Saoirse’s arrival in Madeira after her maiden passage out from Dublin Bay

2nd December 1924 - Saoirse crossed the longitude of Cape Horn

June 20th 1925 - O’Brien’s return to Dun Laoghaire Harbour

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