Maritime Cork: The voyage of the restored Ilen to the Arctic Circle

Maritime Cork: The voyage of the restored Ilen to the Arctic Circle
The restored Ilen in the waters off Greenland. Pic: Gary McMahon.

There is a network of adherents of wooden boats, vessels of classic and traditional designs, intriguing boats which provide big challenges in maintenance, preservation and restoration. 

These enthusiasts are incredible people. Professionally there are the specialists – the skilled boat builders and shipwrights.

Keeping these skills alive is essential to maintaining the beauty and sustainability of boats made from wood.

These skills, professional and amateur have been used to revive the historic Rankin dinghies in Cobh, the restoration of the last of the Cork Harbour T-Boats, the on-going restoration of the gaff/cutter in Lady Min in West Cork and the successful restoration of the 93-year-old ILEN, the last Irish trading ketch, which was carried out at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Skibbereen.

That project drew together wooden boat enthusiasts and specialists from several countries, North America, Scotland and England amongst them and had support from other countries as well. It also joined the West Cork yard with the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick, where the traditional skills are being taught to young people so that they can be preserved for the future. Now that classic vessel has reached Greenland.

Originally built in Baltimore, then sailed to the Falklands where it traded for over 70 years before being shipped back to Ireland and restored, the voyage to Greenland is a testament to the skills of those who restored her.

Gary McMahon who led the restoration and is Skipper on the voyage, told me this week from Greenland that is was “an amazing journey for the vessel which was built in 1926.

Called the ‘Salmon’s Wake Educational Voyage’ it is tracing the migratory path of salmon between Greenland and Ireland. ILEN stood up to what sailors call “a bit of a hammering” from the weather, “an arduous passage of 1,200 nautical miles in constant fog and one serious gale,” he said. 

“It was quite challenging, finding ourselves amid the seas and winds which we had hoped we would have had the good fortune to avoid."

Such is ocean sailing and one must be prepared. Not a little of prayer was heard amongst the mumblings of ILEN’S crew in a dark gale while rounding Cape Farewell in Greenland, a most vivid experience! We held together nicely and survived on dry biscuits for a day or two.”

Legendary Galway hooker sailor, Paddy Barry, well-known in Cork’s traditional boat circles, is one of the leaders of the voyage and aboard were Kerry musician Breandán Ó Beaglaoich, Mike Grimes, Mantas Seskanskis, James Madigan, Ronan Ó Caoimh, Mick Ruane, Seamus O’Byrne and Justin McDonagh. Most of the population of Greenland live in the port town and capital of Nuuk, where there was a great welcome for the West Cork-built boat and the ILEN crew entertained locals with Irish music.

This week ILEN is sailing in the Arctic Circle.


A replica model of the Lusitania will be unveiled at the entrance to Courtmacsherry village on Bank Holiday Monday at 7.30pm. 

The rowing and sailing lifeboat then based at Courtmacsherry went to the rescue when the liner was torpedoed by the German submarine U20. In 2015, Courtmacsherry St Patrick’s Day Committee marked the centenary of the sinking by including a 19-foot long plywood model of Lusitania in the village parade. 

Constructed by local builder and carpenter Richard O’Sullivan, in response to local requests, it was then put on display at the entrance to the village where it became a tourist attraction and remained for almost three years until the weather took its toll and it had to be removed. In a €7,500 project, a local committee is erecting a new model made of long-lasting sustainable accoya wood and super-elite plywood for the hull/superstructure.


This Friday night at the Firkin Crane Theatre I’m joining international maritime lawyer, Michael Kingston at the annual “Spirit of Mother Jones Festival” to discuss the Betelgeuse disaster in which his father was killed. Forty years after the 1979 Whiddy Island disaster the families of the 50 who died “are still seeking answers, so it remains an important maritime issue,” the organisers say.


Currachs have been included in the first-ever register of ‘National Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Martin O’Donoghue of the Currach Association of Ireland tells me. “We are delighted. It is a further step in the national recognition of these iconic boats.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content