Remembering the sailor who took on the world

Barelegged and shoeless, an Irishman set sail 75 years ago and wasn't seen by friends and family for 24 months to the day

Barelegged and shoeless, an Irishman set sail 75 years ago and wasn't seen by friends and family for 24 months to the day. Conor O'Brien had 30,000 miles under his hull when he returned, having taken his small boat, Saoirse, right around the world.

His achievement was unique, and not just in national terms. The Limerick man did not choose the usual route. In typical idiosyncratic fashion, O'Brien sailed east to west against the trade winds. Sadly, his achievement still gets little recognition outside maritime circles. His vessel, which should be a national monument, was lost off Jamaica some 18 years ago.

Now, on the 75th anniversary of his departure, there is an opportunity to honour him. In a couple of months the Saoirse's sister ship is to be returned to O'Brien's native west coast. The Ilen, as it is called, has been "rescued" from the southern ocean by Limerick's Hunt Museum, and the plan is to berth it on the 18th-century Custom House Quay.

In fact, the physical work was undertaken by a fellow Limerick man, Gary McMahon. A graphic artist, McMahon is a keen sailor and has had an interest in Conor O'Brien for about 10 years. He has collected most of his 14 books, including the log of his circumnavigation, Across Three Oceans. Not only has he traced the Ilen, which is named after the west Cork river, to the Falklands, he has also bought it and spent a five-figure sum from personal funds to pay for its return.


Why the Falklands? A good question, but one which might puzzle the southern islanders a little. O'Brien might not have been appreciated here, where he was dismissed as a cantankerous "West Brit" because of his public school education and as a "gunrunner" because of his Childers-associated foray in the Kelpie in 1914, but down south he received much acclaim.

His yacht was recognised as eminently suitable for the southern ocean, according to maritime historian and yachting writer, Winkie Nixon. When he dropped anchor there, he was asked to design a similar vessel for the Falkland Islands Company.

The 56-foot Ilen was drawn up by him in 1926 and was built at the Baltimore fisheries school in Co Cork. O'Brien then sailed it to Port Stanley himself. Nixon, who has written a fascinating account of O'Brien's life, says there is still debate as to why his hull lines should be so effective. The cod's head and mackerel tail of Saoirse were traditional, but also fast and comfortable down-wind.

A few fairy stories still surround the circumnavigator, Nixon adds. He did not sail solo: he had up to 18 different crew at various stages, including a Tongan taxi-driver recruited in New Zealand.

A grandson of William Smith O'Brien of 1848 repute, Conor qualified as an architect, but his passion was the outdoors.

Another biographical account has already been published in Irish by Padraic de Bhaldraithe, entitled Loingseoir na Saoirse (Coisceim, 1996). There are other stories about the Limerick man, which will emerge as interest in him spreads.

He was known for his short temper and his nationalism. Enraged by a visiting English journalist, who had referred to an "ape-like" appearance of Irish people, he ambushed him and horsewhipped him on the steps of the exclusive Kildare Street Club in Dublin.

O'Brien's Ilen spent most of its years in Falkland waters, and was often used for transporting sheep. Since its shipment to Dublin Port last year, it has been stored in Ringsend's Grand Canal Basin. is expedition which plied the southern ocean over 12 months ago in the wake of Shackleton's wake.

The vessel is in fairly good condition but still requires some sponsorship to finance restoration work. Come midsummer, however, McMahon and hooker skipper Paddy Barry will set sail for the west coast, barefoot and in shorts perhaps, to mark the 75th anniversary of O'Brien's departure. It is a fitting time to mark Ilen's own journey home.