Menu
Allianz and Afloat - Supporting Irish Boating

Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

Conor O’Brien Circumnavigation Centenary Commemoration Postage Stamps Proposed

23rd April 2022
Gentle start to a great voyage – Saoirse getting under way in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923
Gentle start to a great voyage – Saoirse getting under way in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923

Barry Keane and Tony Doherty of Mountaineering Ireland have formally proposed that commemorative postage stamps be issued to celebrate the up-coming Centenary of Conor O’Brien’s pioneering voyage round the world south of the Great Capes with his Irish-built 42ft ketch Saoirse. Their involvement stems from the fact that it was a voyage which included a strong mountaineering element, a dynamic interaction of interests which Tony Doherty from Cork personally combined for many years with his 26ft sloop Bali Hai, even if now at the age of 76 he finds that his most enduring enthusiasm is for “being in the hills”.

One hundred years ago today, Conor O’Brien’s 42ft ketch Saoirse – to his own designs - was in process of construction by master shipwright Tom Moynihan and his team in Baltimore, West Cork. Before the 1922 season was out - and despite West Cork being one of the more active theatres of the Civil War - Saoirse was sailing, and the following year on June 20th 1923, she departed from the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, ostensibly on a voyage to facilitate a mountaineering expedition in New Zealand.

Conor O’Brien as sketched by his wife Kitty ClausenConor O’Brien as sketched by his wife Kitty Clausen

The then-extraordinary voyage which resulted is a familiar part of the long story of Irish sailing for those who are aware of our nautical history’s many aspects, which go back into the mists of time and further with the achievements of St Brendan the Navigator, and beyond that to the suggestion of maritime wonder and awareness in The Song of Amergin. 

75TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATED IN 1998

But while Amergin and Brendan are big on mythology, the precisely two-years voyage of the Saoirse a hundred years ago between 1923 and 1925 is very real indeed, and in October 1998 there were celebrations and presentations in the Royal Irish Yacht Club to mark its 75th Anniversary.

Thus the O’Brien achievement is very much part of the bigger picture, with its significance fully recognised by those who realise just what a remarkable breakthrough it represented. And not just in its unrivalled place in global maritime history, but in the national story - it was the first major voyage made by a vessel flying the tricolour ensign of the new Irish Free State.

For the 75th Anniversary of Saoirse’s voyage in 1998, this bust of Conor O’Brien – sculpted within the vertebrae of a blue whale by Danny Osborne - was presented by members of the Royal Cruising Club to the Royal Irish Yacht ClubFor the 75th Anniversary of Saoirse’s voyage in 1998, this bust of Conor O’Brien – sculpted within the vertebrae of a blue whale by Danny Osborne - was presented by members of the Royal Cruising Club to the Royal Irish Yacht Club

This underlying awareness and enthusiasm for the unique nature of Conor O’Brien was already much in evidence in the Autumn of 1998, for a year earlier Gary MacMahon of Limerick – who made a significant input into the RIYC celebrations - had organised the return to Ireland from the Falkland Islands of the 1926 Baltimore-built 56ft trading ketch Ilen, which had been built to O’Brien’s designs, and which he’d sailed south to her lifetime of work among the Falkland Islands.

Ilen has since been superbly restored in a joint venture by boat-builder Liam Hegarty of Oldcourt near Baltimore with the Ilen Marine School of Limerick, and today she departs from Limerick with a fair wind for a 700-mile voyage to St Katherine Dock in the heart of London, where she’ll be based from May 1st to 7th for a series of cultural events to celebrate her own remarkable history and the ancient links between the two great river ports.

The restored Ilen at her birthplace of Baltimore.The restored Ilen at her birthplace of Baltimore

NEW SAOIRSE UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Meanwhile, in Ilen’s former restoration berth in the top shed at Hegarty’s Boatyard, work has been in progress on a re-creation of Saoirse herself for noted Hong Kong offshore racing enthusiast Fred Kinmonth. It has been possible to do this with considerable precision, as the hull lines of the original were taken off by Uffa Fox in Cowes in 1927 before Conor O’Brien took part in that year’s Fastnet Race, and thus when the Saoirse replica sails again, she will be as authentic as possible.

The new Saoirse at an early stage of construction in OldcourtThe new Saoirse at an early stage of construction in Oldcourt

All these things are steadily taking shape as a reflection of the Conor O’Brien voyaging awareness in a significant group of longtime enthusiasts. Yet as is the way of things, every so often someone unacquainted with the broader picture and the historical context stumbles upon the Conor O’Brien story in isolation, and almost immediately announces that the “neglect” of O’Brien’s greatness is a national disgrace, and Something Must Be Done.

Thus there are at least three different Saoirse Voyage Centenary commemoration plans taking shape, and the laudable addition of the postage stamps possibility adds a further element to the festivities. Nevertheless, there are those who are extremely wary of anything that hints at re-enactments, as we sense that they cheapen the purity of the original magnificent achievement. But doubtless there will be acceptable re-enactments of various episodes, even if any attempt at a re-enactment of the complete original voyage would feel distinctly tacky.

Straightforward celebration – the Irish nautical stamps of 1982 honoured (left to right), a currach, the Galway Hooker St Patrick, the Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II, and the Howth 17s of 1898 vintageStraightforward celebration – the Irish nautical stamps of 1982 honoured (left to right), a currach, the Galway Hooker St Patrick, the Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II, and the Howth 17s of 1898 vintage

Be that as it may, the fact that people are yet again “discovering” the voyage of the Saoirse for the first time forcefully illustrates the notion that popular memory has to be reinforced with every new generation, in other words every 25 years or so, and thus a brief refresher on the basic story of the skipper of Saoirse seems to be required.

Conor O’Brien (1880-1972) was the scion of a landed family from the south shores of the Shannon Estuary, a family which had direct family links to the Earls of Inchiquin of Dromoland Castle, who in turn claimed descent from the medieval High King Brian Boru. O’Brien had long been an enthusiastic mountaineer and occasional inshore and inland waterways sailor before he added offshore voyaging to his interests in 1911.

When the Tall Ships came to Dublin in 1998. An Post responded with this memorable stamp of Asgard II at full speedWhen the Tall Ships came to Dublin in 1998. An Post responded with this memorable stamp of Asgard II at full speed

Though largely reared in England, Ireland was his spiritual home, and regular family holidays in Derrynane in Kerry strengthened his love of the sea and sailing, while he was already into mountaineering through youthful initiation in Snowdonia in Wales. He qualified as an architect and settled in Dublin, where he was one of the founders of the United Arts Club, and was drawn into the circle which included Erskine Childers and favoured Home Rule for Ireland.

THE HOWTH GUN-RUNNING

With his interest in seafaring increasing, he joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1910 mainly to obtain formal training in navigation, and by 1911 he was cruising offshore – including in time a round Ireland venture – with the veteran ketch Kelpie. As the Gun-Running Scheme for the Irish Volunteers developed during 1914, O’Brien with Kelpie was detailed to collect the guns off the Belgian coast in company with Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard, and while it became known as the Howth Gun-Running thanks to Asgard’s successful discharge of her cargo at Howth on July 26th 1914, Kelpie’s cargo was subsequently successfully landed at Kilcoole in Wicklow after being transferred aboard the auxiliary yacht Chotah, owned and skippered by Sir Thomas Myles (RIYC).

Conor O’Brien with his sister aboard Kelpie off Ireland’s West Coast in 1913Conor O’Brien with his sister aboard Kelpie off Ireland’s West Coast in 1913

The Great War - World War I - broke out almost immediately, and many of the main actors in the gun-running played roles of varying distinction in the British forces, with Erskine Childers – an officer in the RNVR – somehow finding himself navigating the aircraft which made the first successful bombing raid into Germany. As for the more volatile Conor O’Brien, while his sometimes awkward personality provided an uneven history mostly mine-sweeping with the RNR for the duration, after war’s end in 1918 he had a sufficiently clear record with the RNR to subsequently stand him in good stead.

Meanwhile the Easter Rising of 1916 (using some of the Howth guns) led on to the Sinn Fein’s sweeping victory in the 1918 General Election, and the establishment of a provisional government in Dublin, an extraordinary parallel administration for which O’Brien worked as a Fisheries Inspector on the west coast, with his patrol vessel being the gallant old Kelpie.

An unlikely Fisheries Inspector – Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie. He preferred to sail and go mountaineering in his bare feetAn unlikely Fisheries Inspector – Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie. He preferred to sail and go mountaineering in his bare feet

But while former sailing acquaintances such as Erskine Childers and Diarmuid Coffey became increasing involved with the developing situation of a War of Independence and then a Civil War over the Treaty agreed by the new Free State, O’Brien increasingly returned his attention to his other interests of sailing and mountaineering, and 1921 found him in Skye on the west coast of Scotland with Kelpie and some English friends, climbing extensively in the Cuillins.

Returning single-handed towards his then home port of Dun Laoghaire, he failed to be woken by an alarm clock as Kelpie went slowly to windward south through the North Channel, and the old boat came gently but permanently ashore in the night on some rocks on the Galloway coast and started to break up. Conor O’Brien appeared out of the early morning mist in the harbour of Portpatrick, rowing Kelpie’s dinghy and surrounded by all his worldly goods.

Eventually, he got back to one of his family’s places on Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, and there in the final months of 1921 he developed the plans for Saoirse. The political and guerilla warfare situation was restless, to say the least, and yet by 1922 Saoirse was under construction with Tom Moynihan and his boat-building team in the Fisheries School – now an establishment of very mixed memories - in Baltimore.

Conor O’Brien’s drawings for the homely accommodation of Saoirse – unlike most yachts of the time, he insisted on having the galley well aft in a position of seagoing comfortConor O’Brien’s drawings for the homely accommodation of Saoirse – unlike most yachts of the time, he insisted on having the galley well aft in a position of seagoing comfort

By the late Spring of 1923, Saoirse was ready, and though she officially departed for New Zealand from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th, as far as O’Brien was concerned her voyage had already started – as did all his major ventures – from his beloved Foynes.

Yet although some mountaineering did take place in New Zealand, it was known that ultimately O’Brien hoped to continue to run down his easting in the big winds and enormous seas of the Great Southern Ocean, and return to Ireland via Cape Horn, thereby becoming the first small boat to circumnavigate the world south of the Great Capes. 

ROUNDING THE HORN 

With Cape Horn safely astern on December 4th 1924, Saoirse made on for the Falklands, where she stayed for six weeks, and so impressed the locals that, in time, her larger sister the Ilen was commissioned by the Falkland Islands Company to be the inter-island freight and passenger service vessel.

But in 1925, Saoirse returned to Dun Laoghaire on June 20th, two years to the minute – or so some claimed – after her departure. She had been through something like 18 different crewmembers, as O’Brien was not the easiest of skippers. But all was now conviviality, and it being a Saturday, Dublin Bay Sailing Club cancelled their day’s racing in order that their fleet could properly provide a welcome home for Conor O’Brien and his remarkable little ship.

Then there was a well-attended parade into Dublin, and a gala dinner at the United Arts Club. But subsequently, while he had plans for a book of the voyage, events conspired to delay it as the contract for the Ilen had been signed, and work was soon under way back in Baltimore, with the new Ilen departing on 31st August 1926 for the long voyage to the Falklands under O’Brien’s command. She sailed as a yacht of the Royal Irish YC, as he had been unable to get insurance as a commercial skipper.

That mission accomplished, work could finally get properly under way on finishing “Across Three Oceans”, Conor O’Brien’s very readable if sometimes decidedly quirky account of Saoirse’s circumnavigation, which was soon published in 1927 to become something of a best-seller while he became - for a time - a celebrity.

But then, although he manifested a disdainful attitude to the trappings of celebrity, he had known how to put its foundations in place. Thus at the time of his voyage, the world “governing authority” on amateur cruising was the 1880-founded Royal Cruising Club. So in 1919, despite the developing ambiguities of his position in working with the Provisional Government, he had persuaded a former RNR shipmate Frank Gilliland of Derry, and his former gun-running colleague Erskine Childers, to support his successful election as an RCC member.

Conor O’Brien in relaxed mood at the hem as Saoirse makes impressive yet comfortable knots far at seaConor O’Brien in relaxed mood at the hem as Saoirse makes impressive yet comfortable knots far at sea

In an unnerving illustration of the complexities of Irish life in that period, by the time Saoirse departed on her great voyage from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, Commander Frank Gilliland RN was in process of becoming Aide de Camp to the first Governor of the recently-established Northern Ireland. But Erskine Childers was dead, executed on November 24th 1922 by the new Free State government for his determinedly anti-treaty stance, and specifically for being illegally armed - when captured, he was carrying a tiny pistol once given to him for personal protection by Michael Collins at a time when they were allies.

In the confusion of the time, it may seem a miracle that Saoirse got away at all, but the ability of normal life to go on in Ireland in the early 1920s, despite wars and troubles, was remarkable. Thus as the voyage unfolded, O’Brien regularly submitted annual logs for what was then the world’s supreme voyaging trophy, the RCC Challenge Cup, and with Claud Worth the globally-recognised cruising guru adjudicating each time, he was awarded the Challenge Cup - three years on the trot - in 1923, ’24 and ’25.

O’BRIEN’S PLACE IN SAILING’S HALL OF FAME

This established O’Brien’s little place in sailing’s Hall of Fame, for of course it is the razzmatazz of racing – to which he was virtually a complete stranger – which sets the highlights in much sailing history.

Saoirse was quite the proper little ship – in lighter winds, she could set stunsailsSaoirse was quite the proper little ship – in lighter winds, she could set stunsails

But now with the Saoirse Centenary approaching, we’ll find all sorts of searchlights focused on his achievement, for of course we know that Joshua Slocum was first to circumnavigate in 1895-1898, and single-handed too. But he did it largely in more temperate zones, whereas O’Brien’s voyage had the raw simplicity of the Roaring Forties, and a straightforward passing clear south of Cape Horn.

Thus with recent Irish Centenaries inevitably involving historic violence, it will be a welcome change for the Centenary of something so fresh and free from bloodshed to be celebrated, even if O’Brien himself was a former gun-runner. It may become complex with various groups having their own ideas as to how it should be done. But as the nautically-themed postage stamps with this piece reveal, it’s an attractve form of recognition with its own straightforward simplicity.

That said, the voyage of the Saoirse is of sufficient strength and beauty to stand on its own. In his foreword to Across Three Oceans, the quintessentially English Claud Worth set Conor O’Brien’s achievement in timeless perspective:

“Mr O’Brien’s plain seamanlike account is so modestly written that a casual reader might miss its full significance. But anyone who knows anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realise 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 long 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.”

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

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.

We've got a favour to ask

More people are reading Afloat.ie than ever thanks to the power of the internet but we're in stormy seas because advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. Unlike many news sites, we haven’t put up a paywall because we want to keep our marine journalism open.

Afloat.ie is Ireland's only full–time marine journalism team and it takes time, money and hard work to produce our content.

So you can see why we need to ask for your help.

If everyone chipped in, we can enhance our coverage and our future would be more secure. You can help us through a small donation. Thank you.

Direct Donation to Afloat button

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

Featured Sailing School

INSS sidebutton

Featured Clubs

dbsc mainbutton
Howth Yacht Club
Kinsale Yacht Club
National Yacht Club
Royal Cork Yacht Club
Royal Irish Yacht club
Royal Saint George Yacht Club

Featured Brokers

leinster sidebutton

Featured Associations

ICRA
isora sidebutton

Featured Webcams

Featured Events 2022

Featured Sailmakers

northsails sidebutton
uksails sidebutton
quantum sidebutton
watson sidebutton

Featured Chandleries

CHMarine Afloat logo
osm sidebutton
https://afloat.ie/resources/marine-industry-news/viking-marine

Featured Marinas

dlmarina sidebutton

Featured Blogs

W M Nixon - Sailing on Saturday
podcast sidebutton
mansfield sidebutton
BSB sidebutton
wavelengths sidebutton
 

Please show your support for Afloat by donating