IF you happen to be contemplating a global circumnavigation by yacht, there are not many better places to consider the fascinating journey than Foynes Island, Co Limerick.
Situated in the River Shannon estuary, the casual observer will notice a variety of pleasure craft including yachts, ribs, fishing boats, and ocean-going cargo ships where the mighty Shannon disgorges into the Atlantic.
The ocean heaves and rolls downstream from the island’s leafy shores.
Its very leafy shores, for aside from a few beautiful Victorian houses at the shoreline, its sizeable interior is largely impenetrable, with thickets of deciduous trees, conifers, furze, and ferns. The houses have their own small piers and some have their own boathouses.
For anyone with an insatiable curiosity about the world and its wonders it is a perfect starting point for a global discovery. The world beckons. And, for a young Irishman called Conor O’Brien in 1923, it did just that.
He first sailed to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, before setting sail in the 42ft Saoirse, which was built in Baltimore, Co Cork, in 1922.
He proceeded to sail around the world in the boat with a crew of two or three. O’Brien remarked of the purpose-built Saoirse that “he wanted everyone to fall down and worship her, and those who were looking for new designs to copy her”.
Writing on O’Brien’s life, Judith Hill noted that “it was a period of spectacular physical feats and the inauguration of world records”.
Aided by his small crew, he was the first in a small boat to go around the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Horn, and Cape Leeuwin in Australia.
To achieve this without any means of communications elevates his accomplishment to that of a great explorer and one of Ireland’s greatest, up there with Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean. Francis Chichester in 1967 achieved the circumnavigation feat alone but O’Brien paved the way, as it were.
O’Brien wasn’t just an accomplished sailor. He was an architect and rubbed shoulders with Yeats and Lady Gregory in Dublin literary circles. He also ran guns with Erskine Childers in 1914 to aid Ireland’s independence efforts. He climbed mountains, including Mount Brandon in Co Kerry in the company of George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924.
On his return from the Saoirse voyage, O’Brien set his mind to the design of another vessel, the Ilen. This craft was commissioned by the Falkland Island Company in London, where O’Brien had gone to change a Falkland pound. The Ilen was built to service the agricultural sector in the Falkland Islands.
After construction of the 56ft boat he hired two Cape Clear seamen, Con and Dennis Cadogan, and with them achieved the audacious feat of sailing the north and southern Atlantic.
Fast-forward 93 years and the very same boat, having lain in a state of disrepair for decades, has just made a triumphal return trip to Baltimore as part of this weekend’s Wooden Boat Festival in the village.
The project to restore the Ilen has taken over 10 years and was carried out at the Ilen Boat-building School of Limerick as well as at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard just up the road from Baltimore at Oldcourt.
After O’Brien’s extraordinary feat the village of Foynes expanded its global vision with the arrival of flying boats in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which linked the area to New York, Montreal, and Lisbon among others. Conventional aircraft at the time were incapable of transatlantic flights.
Foynes is an anglicisation of Oileán Fainge or circular island.
The British situated a gun battery there in the early 19th century to thwart a feared French invasion.
Another illustrious resident of the island was Murrough V O’Brien, nephew of Conor, whose watercolours of ships and charts can be seen in the National Gallery. After a compelling and fascinating life, Conor O’Brien returned to Foynes Island to see out his days on the island he loved. He died there in 1952.
How to get there: Foynes Island is privately owned.
Other: ‘Across Three Oceans: A Colonial Voyage in the Yacht Saoirse’, Conor O’Brien, Edward Arnold; ‘In Search of Islands: A Life of Conor O’Brien’, Judith Hill, The Collins Press; ilen.ie, baltimorewoodenboatfestival.com.