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Limerick’s Trading Ketch Ilen Brings Christmas Lights With a Difference to Galway

6th December 2021
“Happy Christmas to Galway and Ireland” - the Limerick ketch Ilen brings festive cheer to Galway Docks on Sunday evening
“Happy Christmas to Galway and Ireland” - the Limerick ketch Ilen brings festive cheer to Galway Docks on Sunday evening

This spectacular Christmas lighting design on the historic wooden sailing ship Ilen may well be the greenest in Ireland. Ireland’s last surviving wooden cargo ship, as Limerick's ambassadorial vessel, has been illuminated on her seasonal visit to Galway Docks. And the lighting design - generously funded by Irish spring water company Ishka - sends out a fashionable and essential green message, as the lights arranged on Ilen's mast – a wooden spruce structure – transform it into a 70ft tall Christmas tree. 

“The spruce and the great fir tree, which has gifted Ilen much of her material structure and capacity to harness wind power, encourages our crew to cultivate a more ecumenical relationship with nature,” said Ilen’s skipper, Gary MacMahon, Director of the Ilen Marine School.

Mike Sutton of Limerick-based Ishka said the firm was delighted to have the opportunity to illuminate the vessel at Galway City, as the firm has deployed the Ilen on several occasions to transport its spring water under sail and sustainably. “Mitigating climate change and promoting sustainability is a duty, not an option, and we were happy to spread that message through the voyaging of the Ilen, along with a little Christmas cheer at the same time,” he said.

Seasonal reflections of hope and goodwill from the IlenSeasonal reflections of hope and goodwill from the Ilen

In June, Ishka sent Ilen to deliver the company’s spring water to a retailer at Kilronan, Aran Islands, loading at Limerick City and discharging at Kilronan on Inis Mór, before sailing onward for Galway City.

The wind-powered voyage followed the ancient sea route linking both cities, and was organised to highlight and explore eco-friendly alternatives which businesses can use to reach their customers. Designed by Limerick man Conor O'Brien in 1926, the Ilen - built in Ireland - served as an inter-island cargo trader for over 70 years, transporting sheep and goods around the Falkland Islands before repatriation to Ireland 21 years ago, and restoration by a team led by Gary MacMahon.

Captain Brian Sheridan, Harbour Master of the Port of Galway, Gary Mac Mahon, Director of the Ilen Marine School, and Mike Sutton MD of Ishka Spring Water, at Sunday night’s switch-on ceremonyCaptain Brian Sheridan, Harbour Master of the Port of Galway, Gary Mac Mahon, Director of the Ilen Marine School, and Mike Sutton MD of Ishka Spring Water, at Sunday night’s switch-on ceremony

Published in Ilen, Galway Harbour
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Ireland's Trading Ketch Ilen

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, she was delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for seventy years, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties.

Returned now to Ireland and given a new breath of life, Ilen may be described as the last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships, yet at a mere 56ft, it is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

Wooden Sailing Ship Ilen FAQs

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

The Ilen was designed by Conor O’Brien, the first Irish man to circumnavigate the world.

Ilen is named for the West Cork River which flows to the sea at Baltimore, her home port.

The Ilen was built by Baltimore Sea Fisheries School, West Cork in 1926. Tom Moynihan was foreman.

Ilen's wood construction is of oak ribs and planks of larch.

As-built initially, she is 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes.

Conor O’Brien set sail in August 1926 with two Cadogan cousins from Cape Clear in West Cork, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 and handed it over to the new owners.

The Ilen was delivered to the Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500.

Ilen served for over 70 years as a cargo ship and a ferry in the Falkland Islands, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties. She stayed in service until the early 1990s.

Limerick sailor Gary McMahon and his team located Ilen. MacMahon started looking for her in 1996 and went out to the Falklands and struck a deal with the owner to bring her back to Ireland.

After a lifetime of hard work in the Falklands, Ilen required a ground-up rebuild.

A Russian cargo ship transported her back on a 12,000-mile trip from the Southern Oceans to Dublin. The Ilen was discharged at the Port of Dublin 1997, after an absence from Ireland of 70 years.

It was a collaboration between the Ilen Project in Limerick and Hegarty’s Boatyard in Old Court, near Skibbereen. Much of the heavy lifting, of frames, planking, deadwood & backbone, knees, floors, shelves and stringers, deck beams, and carlins, was done in Hegarty’s. The generally lighter work of preparing sole, bulkheads, deck‐houses fixed furniture, fixtures & fittings, deck fittings, machinery, systems, tanks, spar making and rigging is being done at the Ilen boat building school in Limerick.

Ten years. The boat was much the worse for wear when it returned to West Cork in May 1998, and it remained dormant for ten years before the start of a decade-long restoration.

Ilen now serves as a community floating classroom and cargo vessel – visiting 23 ports in 2019 and making a transatlantic crossing to Greenland as part of a relationship-building project to link youth in Limerick City with youth in Nuuk, west Greenland.

At a mere 56ft, Ilen is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

©Afloat 2020

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