In the depths of this winter, traditional boat enthusiasts worldwide were thinking of Oldcourt in West Cork, where the traditional ketch Ilen, having completed her basic restoration, had to be moved in difficult and cramped conditions out of her building shed, using only minimal resources, in order to create space so that re-construction could begin on her more famous older sister, Conor O’Brien’s world-girdling Saoirse.
Many people have been involved in this project, both directly and in a supportive role. But the man who fulfilled the dream of bringing the retired Ilen home from the Falklands for restoration is Gary MacMahon of Limerick, and he has kept the flame of hope alive for twenty years through times thick and thin – sometimes very thin indeed.
Despite the many challenges, the Ilen Project has developed to become a boat-building school in the heart of Limerick which has become part of an international craftsmen and student exchange network, while in its workshops instructors and trainees have built Shannon gandelows and several other traditional craft, as well as the novel CityOne sailing dinghies designed specially for the school by the late Theo Rye. In addition, they built new deckhouses and many other items for Ilen herself.
Meanwhile, in a co-ordinated operation at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard in Oldcourt, the restoration of Ilen’s hull had progressed to its final stages, and by January – with space cleared for the Saoirse and Ien safely re-positioned – it was evident that a new era had begun, a very timely reminder to celebrate and honour what Gary MacMahon and his supporters have achieved.