Conor OBrien and Saoirse – report

Club night talk by Vincent Murphy

CAI Zoom, Wednesday 23 November 2022

Conor OBrien (1880-1952) was a sailor, mountaineer, patriot, architect and author.

His early years in Limerick instilled a love of outdoor life and sailing. He spent summers in Derrynane and later climbed with George Mallory. He spoke Irish and supported Home Rule. He was educated at Winchester school and studied architecture at Oxford university. He viewed the apostrophe in his name as inappropriate and never used it himself.

His first cruising yacht was Kelpie, bought for £10. He made many improvements, developing the philosophy: “When I see nothing to improve in my boat, I shall take it as a sign of senility”. Kelpie was involved with gun-running in 1914 with Asgard and sailed for years in Irish waters. Eventually she was wrecked in Scotland in 1921, and he designed her successor Saoirse himself. She was built in 1922 at Baltimore by master shipwright Tom Moynihan (LOA 42ft, LWL 38ft, Beam 12ft, Draft 6.75ft). She was designed for an extended cruise around the world, and she set out from Dun Laoghaire in June 1923 with a crew of three men, sailing under the Irish tricolour.

OBrien exchanged flags with the British ambassador in Funchal, Madeira then sailed via the Azores across the Atlantic. The main mast split, and before the long passage to Cape Town they stopped in Recife, Pernambuco in Brazil for repairs that took three weeks.

After a mixed passage of calms and storms they reached Cape Town. Leaving his crew to supervise preparations for the Southern Ocean he went climbing with friends. The work was not well done, and they had to stop at Durban for more work and a change of crew.

On arriving in Melbourne Saoirse was celebrated as the smallest vessel that ever made the passage. The crew deserted and OBrien recruited three Tasmanians for the next leg. With more bad weather, injuries, crew changes and boat work Saoirse spent seven months in New Zealand. OBrien accepted money from a friend and took paying passengers on a mail delivery trip to Tonga and back. With a Tongan crew he eventually embarked on the next leg to Cape Horn.

The rugged lee shore northwest of the Cape is a dangerous place and OBrien gave it a berth of two hundred miles, a prudent decision in a sailing vessel in unpredictable weather and sea state. They rounded safely and made for the Falkland Islands to replenish supplies including potatoes. OBrien complained that the place had no soil, no warmth in the sun, no trees and only the hardiest of weeds. He must have found some pleasure there, for he stayed three months and later designed a coat of arms for the settlement’s centenary. He took a trip to the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica aboard the mail boat and declared that the desolate place had ‘no excuse for existing’.

One of the crew met a girl and stayed in the Islands, and Saoirse continued up the Atlantic without him. At Ilha Trinidade she crossed her outbound track and completed the circumnavigation. Another crew member left in Recife, but one of the Tongans stayed with him to the end of the voyage.

Saoirse sailed into Dun Laoghaire harbour on the second anniversary of her departure, 20 June 1925, to a rapturous welcome from a fleet of yachts and 10,000 people ashore at Victoria Wharf. There was a procession into Dublin and the papers reported that OBrien had “brought the tricolour to places where it was unknown”.

The Falkland Islands Magazine also reported his homecoming, and later asked him to design a boat for inter-island traffic, so he designed the Ilen and sailed her to the South Atlantic himself. She worked there for sixty years, despite OBrien’s misgivings about installing the ‘wrong engine for the boat’.

OBrien stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in 1926 but was not elected. He lived with his wife Kitty in Ibiza for many years and later retired to Foynes Island where he wrote many books. In 1979 Saoirse foundered in a hurricane in Jamaica but Ilen was still afloat. Jim McAdam brought her back to Baltimore to be refurbished.

Fred Kinmore acquired Saoirse’s remains and commissioned a replica or restoration in the Ilen boatyard. He hopes she will be complete next year, and shares Vincent’s aspiration to bring her to Dun Laoghaire in June with a parade of sail to mark the centenary of the beginning of that epic circumnavigation.

We thank Vincent Murphy for his illuminating and entertaining talk, and we appreciate the effort he has put into the research and preparation of the slideshow. Thanks also to Pat Egan who coordinated the event. The presentation was recorded and will be available to members on the website in due course.

Read more about the Ilen boatyard, Conor OBrien, Kelpie, Saoirse and Ilen here: