Monday 1 June 2015

Limerick architecture on the sea

Conor O'Brien and the AK Ilen

On the 16 February 2015 I was honoured to be one of the people present at a Whiskey Plank Ceremony. The Whiskey Plank is the final plank required to complete the outer shell of a wooden hull considered to be a major milestone in the construction of a wooden boat. This was no ordinary boat. This was the AK Ilen, the last traditional Irish-built wooden boat and Ireland’s original sailing ship.Shipbuilders, sailors and well-wishers gathered inside Hegarty’s Boatyard in Skibbereen, West Cork. These men had brought back to life this piece of Irish history with their bare hands and a love for the tradition. I was invited to attend by one of the main driving forces of this project, the manager of the Ilen Boat School Gary MacMahon. This final plank marked a major milestone in the restoration of this boat. I do not belong to a family with any maritime connections. If anything a tragedy on my maternal side of the family had given every childhood trip to the seaside a nervous energy.Be careful of the waves. Nevertheless I have a respect for the sea and those who dedicate their lives to sailing her. Like a visitor to a foreign church I drank in all the strange, wonderful rituals. Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey had asked me to walk around the guests holding a wooden vessel he had carved containing burning incense. I was taking part in druidical magic wafting this sacred smoke. Minister for Agriculture, Food & the Marine Simon Coveney swung the hammer driving the last nails into the hull. BANG! BANG! BANG! went the birthing cries. The hushed crowd watched the delivery performance. As tradition dictates the owners were obligated to provide us all with whiskey to wet this giant wooden (re)born and the toasts to the shipwrights were made. We had all witnessed something very special. It was after this journey that I began to read up on this almost mythical man behind the Ilen, the naval architect Conor O'Brien. It wasn't difficult to see the connection Conor would've made between the beauty of a timber truss roof and the craftsmanship that goes into building the hull of a wooden boat. His life reads almost like a Homeric poem of sea voyages and ferrying battle weaponry. 

My first port of call was Judith Hills biography on O'Brien which I encourage anyone to read In Search of Islands: a Life of Conor O'Brien (2009) link. Edward Conor Marshall O'Brien was born on 3 November 1880, a son of Edward William O'Brien of Cahermoyle House of Ardagh in County Limerick (Building Record) and a grandson of William Smith O'Brien of Young Ireland and 1848 fame. A modern day Renaissance man Conor had an Ascendancy background, a love of art, sailing, mountaineering and from a politically responsible family. Social reform was obviously in his blood with his grandfather and writer aunt Charlotte Grace O'Brien. His uncle was architect Robert Donough O'Brien and his brother was well-known painter Dermod O'Brien. Educated primarily in England (Winchester College, Trinity College Dublin and Oxford) Conor moved to Dublin after graduation practicing as an architect in 1903. He was a founder member of the United Arts Club meeting W.B. Yeats, George Russell and George Bernard Shaw. O'Brien was an Irish patriot very much of his time. By adulthood he was a fluent Irish speaker and an outspoken Home Ruler. This nationalist began to be publicly manifested when in 1910 he was elected a council member of the Dublin Industrial Development Association, which promoted Irish manufactures and the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). In 1912 he presented a paper on 'The Development of a national style of Gothic architecture in Ireland' to the Architectural Association of Ireland. Conor would later espouse Arts & Crafts principles in his yacht design, attended exhibitions and visited studios in Ireland and England at this time, absorbing the ethos. Although only one work by him- the People’s Hall at Kilmallock, Co. Limerick (1914) he designed buildings for other rural co-operatives including the ‘Cope Hall’ at Dungloe, Co.Limerick[1] Conor was interested in historic buildings in Ireland particularly ruined castles and friaries associated with the O’Brien family who ruled Thomond in Limerick and Clare since the mid-tenth century. A natural architectural historian in 1905 he was drawing and measuring the ruins of Askeaton Castle and Franciscan Friary and the friaries in Ennis and Quin.[2] Conor used these measured drawings as a basis for three articles for the journal Architectural and Topographical Society which he founded. One of Conor's first architectural commissions was to design the reredos in the east wall of the sanctuary in St Mary's Cathedral in Limerick where his uncle was Dean and the O'Brien family were paying for the work. His ancestor King Domnall Mór Ua Briain was credited with founding the cathedral in the late twelfth century. 

Conor joined the Irish Volunteers and in 1914 his gun-running exploits on the Kelpie complemented Erskine Childers activities in the Asgard. During WW1 he served in the Royal Naval Reserve. He was too old for active service in the Second World War but he joined the Small Ships Pool as a skipper delivering support vessels across the Atlantic. On his return to Ireland he designed the yachts Saoirse and Ilen (the story behind the name can be found here) both built in Baltimore, County Cork. It was in Saoirse that he sailed round the world and lived on until 1940 based in Ibiza and Cornwall. Conor had designed the Ilen for the Falkland Islands Company in 1926 and was still in Port Stanley afloat and intact. Gary MacMahon decided to bring this boat, this treasure, back to Ireland. Conor married painter Kitty Clausen in 1928 (she sadly died in 1936) and was appointed to work for the fisheries in newly independent Ireland. He spent his later life on Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary writing adventure novels and well-received practical books on sailing. The life journey of this adventurer ended on 18 April 1952 on Foynes Island. Conor had lived physically, politically and metaphorically on the margins of society. His early privilege kept him separate from the mainstream. It is understandable why he found peace at sea. All men are equal on the undiscerning waters. There are questions in Irish history that would then hours, days, weeks to tease out; why didn't the Irish fish more, why isn't fish the main stable of this island but there's one major question I am left with. Why isn't the Ilen moored in her spiritual home of Limerick? Why aren't the powers that be doing something about this? So much money and effort went into restoring the Asgard by the Irish government. What drove Conor O'Brien was the love of the boats and this is carried on today with the Ilen School & Network for Wooden Boat Building. I hope anybody reading with the brain power, contacts or resources gets inspired to help get a permanent home for the Ilen in Limerick. For more information on the project and the work they do to keep this tradition alive check out

[1] Patrick Boner, The story of the Cope, (Templecrone Co-operative Society, 2009), 185-6. 
[2] Judith Hill, In Search of Islands: a Life of Conor O’Brien (Limerick, 2009), 13. 

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