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The Saoirse in Dun Laoghaire (1923)
conor O'Brien

It's 100 years since Limerick man Conor O'Brien's historic round-the-world voyage

O’Brien’s boat Saoirse, named for the new Free State, was the first yacht to circumnavigate the three Great Capes

SINCE 2016, THE country has been celebrating various anniversaries of historical events from 100 years ago.

As the end of the Civil War is celebrated in May of the coming year, centenary celebrations for Irish history will likely be wound down for the foreseeable future.

However, there is one event approaching its 100th anniversary that many Irish people aren’t even aware of.

On 20 June 1923, Conor O’Brien, an architect educated in England’s prestigious Winchester College and Trinity College Dublin, set sail from Foynes, Co Limerick on the trip that would make him the first amateur Irish sailor to lead a circumnavigation of the world.

Although he was an aristocrat and received a private education, the Limerick native was also a grandson of the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien, and took part in 1914 gunrunning with the Irish Volunteers.

O’Brien’s yacht, the Kelpie, collected a small cargo of 1,500 rifles off the Belgian coast before transferring them to a boat that landed them at Kilcoole in Wicklow.

However, his most significant achievement for Ireland took place when the new state was less than a year old and involved him sailing his small boat, the Saoirse, more than 30,000 miles across the world’s southern oceans.

Gary McMahon, a Limerick sailor who has bought and restored one of O’Brien’s later boats, said that O’Brien’s design for the Saoirse reflected his appreciation of craftsmanship and a traditional “medieval” style of boat.

“The Saoirse would have been the first pleasure boat flying the tricolour to enter these ports and it was the first yacht to circumnavigate the world by way of the three Great Capes,” McMahon explained.

The yacht sailed south into the Atlantic, westward towards Brazil and then back across the ocean towards South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

Due to the fact that his yacht was a sailboat, O’Brien had to follow the indirect pattern of the ocean winds and even if he had wanted to use a boat with an engine, a boat of the Saoirse’s size couldn’t have carried enough fuel for the long distances he was crossing.

“They didn’t have space to spare for lifejackets and they would have seen it as un-seamanlike. But they knew their boat well and it was a good one. The boat was only a year old at the time,” McMahon continued.

Forgotten from history books

O’Brien sailed with several different crews on his two year-long journey, however he never mentioned any of his crew members by name in the written account of his journeys Across Three Oceans, which became a popular book.

Despite the history-making voyage and O’Brien’s own documentation, his story hasn’t made much of an impact in Irish legend.

According to McMahon, the complex social issues of O’Brien’s time meant that he was effectively without a place in the history of either Ireland or Britain.

“He had no legacy as such, because like a lot of Irish aristocratic families, he was between a rock and a hard place with the rise of nationalism and the breakaway from England.

“When the history of Ireland, the new revolutionary Ireland, began to be written he was not included, because he just didn’t fit the narrative which was very black and white.”

O’Brien was more culturally nationalist than politically nationalist, McMahon explained, and was involved in the Arts movement of the time.

And despite his gunrunning past, O’Brien apparently had no particular dislike for Britain, as evidenced by his enlistment in the British Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War and in the Royal Navy’s Small Vessels Pool in the Second World War.

As to why his achievement is not particularly well-known today – outside sailing circles at least – McMahon speculated: 

“Unlike our neighbours to the east we don’t have a big maritime or seafaring culture so it wasn’t an achievement that, in Irish eyes, would have compared to a big sporting figure of the time. 

Grand send-off

Although O’Brien set sail from Limerick, most accounts from the time describe the journey as beginning from Dun Laoghaire, due to the fact that he wanted a grand send-off from the harbour where the Royal Irish Yacht Club was located.

During the circumnavigation, the sailor went east from South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to Cape Leewuin at the tip of Australia, before heading towards New Zealand.

O’Brien, who was also a mountaineer known for climbing barefoot, had hoped to do some climbing there but arrived there too late in the year due to a delay with his sea voyage.

After crossing the Pacific and passing through iceberg-filled Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America he stopped in the Falkland Islands before arriving back to Limerick.

The Ilen

While in the Falklands, locals were impressed with the craftsmanship of the Saoirse which led to O’Brien designing and selling a similar boat for use in the islands as a service vessel in 1926.

The Ilen, constructed in Baltimore, West Cork and named after a local river, remained in the Falklands until 1997 when McMahon bought it and returned it to Limerick.

He’s currently the director of the Ilen School which specialises in traditional boatbuilding crafts and restoration.

The 97-year-old boat, which is the last of Ireland’s traditional timber sailing boats, remains in use.

“You keep the boat sailing and maintained. It’s a process. You don’t need to have the sensitivity of a preserver. It was built for sailing so let it do that,” McMahon explained.

This is in stark contrast to the Asgard, the Norwegian yacht used by O’Brien’s fellow gunrunner, Erskine Childers, which now sits on display in Dublin’s Collins Barracks.

“You can you can end up with the Asgard, a boat inside a museum. A museum is only a mausoleum to the past. And who wants that? You should maintain the flame rather than valourize the ashes.”

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