17th December

Ireland’s last traditional sailing ship tacks ever closer to the sea

Anthony Keane, Order of St Benedict

Plank by plank and celebration by celebration, Ilen inches ever closer to the sea. Built in Baltimore in 1926 and delivered to the Falklands by Conor O’Brien and Cadogans Denis and Con, she felt the Furious Fifties for seventy years, telling to the Southern Cross her sad tale of woes, until brought back to Ireland by Gary McMahon in 1997.

Ilen

Official hammering: Rear Admiral Mark Mellett DSM and Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, secure the whiskey plank. Photo Anne Minihane

Regaining her strength and waxing fat in the Corn Store in Liam Hegarty’s boatyard in Oldcourt, her shivered oak frames replaced and newly planked with magnificent Bavarian larch fixed with bronze from Pete Langley’s Port Townsend Foundry, she moves again irresistibly to the sea. Whiskey plank in place The final bronze fastening was driven home, the final whiskey plank secured, and the deal sealed by marine minister Simon Coveney on February 16 2015.

What lies between now and open water is finishing the deck. In the meantime, in association with completing the work, other smaller craft are born: a new fleet of nine Gandelowes for the Shannon Estuary and elsewhere, and a set of four newly-designed Limerick City 1 sailing dinghies already stir the waters.

Within the shadow of the ship I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, they coiled and swam; and every track was a flash of golden fire

The task on hand, the on-going play, is a perennial one, that of celebrating the magnificence of the ocean and the beauty of the stars at night: Some sailed to the sea in ships, to trade on the mighty waters; These men have seen the Lord’s deeds and the wonders He does in the deep, Tossing the waves up to Heaven and down into the deep. The ships are moving there and the monsters he made to play withPsalm 106

There is also the ongoing task and delight of developing and transmitting traditional ways of engaging with the sea, by building magic shaped shifting ships, by leading an essentially land creature like an oak tree to the water to transform it into a sea creature. Watching a sailing ship, we live a Trinitarian moment of creation and form interplay that unites sun and air; sea and sky, and plays on the surface of the deep.

Thus the song of Amergin ―one of Ireland’s early sea coming sailors ― delighted in the deep constancy that lurks beneath the surface of constant change.

I am Wind on Sea... Ocean Wave... Roar of Sea...Lake on Plain...

Voyages of discovery

The ongoing task, the on-going play, of giving expression in our own time to Ireland’s impressive remnants of boat building and boat handling traditions, and of giving them contemporary forms that will endure into the future, continues. The goal of rebuilding the cultural interface between the country and its marine environment comes, asymptotically ever nearer to realisation; the release of the magnificence and munificence of our natural and built navigational inheritance becomes ever more realisable.

Boats allow people to discover with piety the noble traditions of their forbearers, as well as opening them to the influence of the liberating and exhilarating elemental forces that surround us. Indeed, at Hegarty’s in Old Court, we have stumbled on an ancient cult. Working under the front of a commercial operation, Liam and John Hegarty, together with the brilliant Fachtna O’Sullivan, with blows swift sweet and true, transform dead materials into living beings, with all the delight and ease of those who have been here before and found the resonance of deep buried forces and powers of creation.

The future

Fully restored, Ilen will again sail the seas. Having gone nine waves and more from the shore, it will return to rediscover Ireland, retaking her in a remake and re-enactment of the Book of Invasions – Leabhair Gabhala Eireann. Ireland from the sea is so fatally beautiful that our noble ancestors fell for her, drawn by the magnetic fields of her shores. This is a beauty that Ilen hopes to share with many countless sailors, young and old, virtual and real, vicariously and directly, present and represented, at home and abroad.

The beauty of pre-Celtic and Celtic mythology, sung to the rhythm of tide and wave, stills the storms of the heart to a whisper till the roars of the sea are hushed. We shall visit the kingdoms of Niamh and Oisin; find the fifty splendid maiden companions of Cesair, granddaughter of Noah who arrived here with only three men between them, before two of those men died and the third fled in terror to Tonn Tinne near Loch Derg by Killaloe. We shall hear the thunder of Inish Glora and the Maelstroms of Moyle, and visit the Tower of Broegan among the wonders of the earthly world.

Which wonders? We shall raise her sails and let the winds blow as they will.

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