Ilen Sails Again
The 2019 recipient of the prestigious Irish Sailing President’s Award is Limerick City man Gary Mac Mahon. The award acknowledges his work, over 20 years, in founding and leading the Ilen Project - a community educational organisation which is mostly recognised for its rebuilding of the sailing vessel Ilen and her subsequent voyaging.
To get a sense of what the Ilen Project is all about I felt a one-to-one conversation with Mac Mahon might be best, and I quickly discovered it was.
In 1997 he travelled to the Falkland Islands to explore the possibility of acquiring the wooden sailing ketch Ilen - miraculously by late 1998 the Ilen appeared in Dublin Docks carefully discharged from a freighter, on who deck she had hitched a long 8000 nm ride up the South and North Atlantic.
Who is the Ilen?
The ketch Ilen is Ireland's sole remaining ocean-going wooden sailing vessel, built-in 1926 by the Baltimore Fisheries School, West Cork – Ireland’s first vocational school. Ketch Ilen, a commission from the Falkland Islands Company, London was custom-designed to serve as an inter-island cargo vessel under-sail and auxiliary power for the Falklands. She was delivered to the Port Stanley, by three Irish sailormen, arriving there in January 1927; from where she quickly commenced a very successful 50-year operational life, amid the island farms of Lafonia, East Falkland. Today she is remembered fondly and still followed by those antipodal island communities.
Mac Mahon had repatriated the Ilen in the full knowledge that she would require if returned to full operational mode once again, a ground-up rebuild. But as he now readily admits – the boundless youthful enthusiasm, of that time, only took him so far. And after those initial bursts of adrenalin began to wear off, the magnitude of management task that surrounded the rebuilding of this traditional wooden sailing ship, at home in Ireland, quickly stopped him dead in his tracks.
What condition was she in when you found her?
“She was ‘Shook’, Gary told us, But her unique copper sheeting on the hull is what kept her together for so long."
How does one man restore such a vessel?
So in a sort of tactical retreat, he abandoned her for a few years and began to create a service industry to support the build. He created a workshop in Limerick and set up a community educational programme teaching carpentry, joinery skills, boat building and more.
Mac Mahon’s project approach is to "stand on the shoulders of tradition”. In other words - by simply following the formulaic process of building a traditional big timbered wooden boat the Ilen Project could advance through a procession of manageable tasks. Knocking them off one by one in terms of materials, labor, funding and community participation.
While he puts the project approach across so plausibly, as to make it seem simple, he does stress that the real cultural energy for an enterprise like this is ultimately drawn from the deep well of community spirit.
For the Ilen Project it seems collaboration is its lifeblood – it happily celebrates that it does not have all the skill required to operate its community educational mission alone. Furthermore, it sees this deficiency as a compelling motivator for exploring new ways to engage with individuals and the communities they comprise. The Ilen Project is open to all who wish to experience the joy of sailing a big beautiful traditional boat off the magnificent coasts of Ireland and beyond.
Sailing again soon
All going well the Ilen will finally escape her winter berth at Kinsale - to ride the Atlantic waves once again - when the seas reopen for all us sailors.
For the curious
The graphic style of the symbol carried on Ilen’s square sail is a blend of ancient Irish and Inuit folk motifs. It depicts a wild migratory salmon amid the North Atlantic and is the logo for last year’s Ilen Project – Salmon’s Wake, an educational programme and voyage to Greenland. It was designed to celebrate that great mythic North Atlantic sea creature the salmon – regretfully now in fast decline.
Something for the children
A children’s boat craft competition is running to bring children on board the Ilen from home.