Ireland’s Conor O’Brien was the first amateur skipper to circumnavigate the globe by the classic sailing ship route south of the great Capes, running down his easting in the big winds of the Great Southern Ocean which blow unhindered round the globe. But although his 42ft ketch Saoirse – which he’d designed himself – was often described as a “little ship”, she was tiny by comparison with the enormous square-riggers which regularly plied this route.
Those majestic wind-jammers were already in decline as a commercial and maritime force by the time Saoirse and her owner-skipper from Limerick achieved their clear-cut “first”, with the smallness of the vessel adding to the lustre of its unique glory. And now the Centenary is approaching, for Saoirse took her departure from Dun Laoghaire on the 20th June 1923, and returned on 20th June 1925, with a whole new generation of O’Brien admirers emerging to emphasise the importance of marking this very special achievement in as many appropriate ways as possible.
It is a real curiosity of Conor O’Brien’s unique place in Irish life – and in our own and world maritime history – that enthusiasm for his achievements seems to come in such distinct generational waves. Every so often, somebody “discovers” O’Brien all over again, and the rest of us – who are already quietly but fully aware of the exceptionality of his achievement – get berated for not honouring his memory as it should be. So maybe the best thing at this stage is to attempt a timeline-factsheet to put some sort of Conor O’Brien memory structure in place.
Why do we remember Conor O’Brien?
In 1923-25, he became the first amateur skipper to circle the world south of the Great Capes.
What was his family background?
He was from a County Limerick land-owning family whose main home was the mansion of Cahirmoyle at Ardagh, 15 kilometres inland from the port of Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, and now better known as the place where the Ardagh Chalice was found.
His immediate family history?
His grandfather was William Smith O’Brien, the Young Ireland leader. His father – who rejected the Young Ireland policies – was married twice, and Conor O’Brien’s older half brother was the artist Dermod O’Brien (1865-1945), who was President of the Royal Hibernian Academy from 1910 to 1945.
When and where was Conor O’Brien born?
He was born on 3rd November 1880 in his mother’s house in Kensington in London. His mother, of the Marshall family of Yorkshire, had a house in Kensington and a country place in Surrey, so Conor’s boyhood saw winters in England and summers in Ireland, the Irish summers being spread between Cahirmoyle in Ardagh, a family property on Foynes Island, and summer holidays staying at Keatinge’s Hotel at Derrynane in West Kerry where he learned to sail, though for many years his main sport was mountaineering, but he did compete successfully in rowing at school
Which school did he attend?
Winchester College in England – he seems to have been a diligent enough pupil, but although he’d gone there as a scholar, he did not emerge with any special awards.
His university career?
Trinity College, Oxford, where he did a four-year course in chemistry, which he seems to have found increasingly uninteresting as he graduated with a Fourth Class Degree.
A long-established interest in architecture was growing, and in 1903 he was apprenticed to a conservation architect in London, but somehow seems have been able to spend expanding amounts of his time in Dublin, where his brother has set up his increasingly successful artist’s studio in 1901.
What did he work at in Dublin?
He did some architectural work for the Co-Op movement, mostly on new creameries, but was also involved in projects for St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick, where he was home as often as possible.
What was his Dublin life like?
It was one of contrasts, as he moved in artistic and creative circles, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arts & Crafts Movement. He was a founder member in 1907 of the United Arts Club, along with WB Yeats, George Russell, Constance Markievicz and many others in an eclectic group.
Yet at the same time, he was much involved in mountaineering, particularly in North Wales with a group that occasionally included Mallory and Irvine of Everest fame.
Holidays in Derrynane now included the 27ft former naval whaler Mary Brigid, which he sailed one summer round the coast to Dublin Bay, and then returned west via the Grand Canal and the Shannon.
When did he buy his first proper seagoing cruiser?
In 1910 he sold the Mary Brigid and a share in a house he had in Dublin, and bought the 17-ton 1871-built gaff cutter Kelpie, a hefty 46-footer, in Dun Laoghaire. In order to give himself a proper grounding in navigation, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and in 1911 he cruised Kelpie round Ireland.
The boat’s enormous cutter rig had been problematic, so by the 1911 cruise he’d reduced it to ketch rig, and by 1913 he preferred to keep her if at all possible in Foynes, which he reckoned to be his true home.
How did he get involved with the gun-running with Erskine Childers and Asgard in 1914?
His cousin Mary Spring Rice was a participant in the pro-Home Rule gun-running planning by Alice Stopford Green, Erskine Childers and others in response to the industrial-scale gun-running by the Ulster Volunteers into Larne in April 1914, and she had hoped to bring her Foynes-based former sailing trawler Santa Cruz in support of Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard to collect the German arms shipment at a rendezvous at the Ruytigen Lightship at the south end of the North Sea.
But her vessel was unready and probably unsuitable, and knowing that Conor O’Brien was now strongly sympathetic to the Home Rule movement, she asked if he would like to get involved with Kelpie. His reply was that he always got special enjoyment out of a cruise with added purpose, and as a result, in July 1914, Kelpie and her skipper waited with increasing (and noisy) frustration for the delayed Asgard to make the rendezvous in Cowes.
Eventually, they met up, then despite fog, the lightship was found, and the two gun-laden vessels headed for Ireland. But although Asgard was able to make her famous entrance to Howth on Sunday, July 24th and unload all her guns in two hours, it was reckoned that the other landing on the beach at Kilcoole in County Wicklow would benefit from the services of a yacht with an auxiliary engine, and thus the Kelpie’s guns were transferred to Sir Thomas Myles’ auxiliary cutter Chotah in the shelter of St Tudwal’s island on the Welsh coast, and successfully landed at Kilcoole next day.
The Great War broke out almost immediately, and the leading players in the gun-running went straight into service with the allies, Conor O’Brien getting through the war in mine-sweeping with the RNVR, with his unconventional attitude to life in general occasionally ruffling feathers.
What’s the story about Conor O’Brien working for Michael Collins?
O’Brien returned from war service to find Ireland in increasing turmoil after the Easter Rising of 1916, and particularly after the massive pro Sinn Fein vote in the General Election of 1918. This led to the meeting of the First Dail, and the establishment of an alternative Irish government which ran in opposition yet parallel to the British administration headquartered in Dublin Castle. O’Brien offered the services of himself and the Kelpie to this alternative Government in which Michael Collins was the administrative and financial mastermind, and in 1919-1920 Conor O’Brien patrolled with Kelpie as a Fisheries Inspector & Advisor off the northwest and west coasts.
What happened to Kelpie?
With the War of Independence being fought with increasing violence as 1920 drew on, O’Brien had mixed feelings about the way things were going, yet in 1919 despite the turmoil, he had managed to get himself elected a member of the Royal Cruising Club, proposed by the very unionist Commander Frank Gilliland of Derry, whom he’d met through the RNVR, and seconded by Erskine Childers, who was by that time a total independence republican.
The RCC membership was subsequently to serve O’Brien very well, and as a keen new member at a loose end when everyone in Ireland seemed to be on one side or another in a sort of war, he went cruising such that, in the summer of 1921, Kelpie was to be seen of the coast of Scotland while her owner and some mountaineering friends conquered every significant peak and cliff face in the Cuillins of Skye.
The Mountaineers weren’t sailors, and anyway their leave had run out, so having departed towards Scotland from Dublin Bay at the beginning of the cruise, O’Brien decided to return to Foynes single-handed via Ireland’s west coast. But persistent headwinds made him change plan and head for Dublin Bay instead.
However, the wind headed again and lightened, and in beating slowly through the North Channel at night, he set an alarm clock to allow himself a brief sleep, but managed to sleep right through the alarm. In classic O’Brien style, he subsequently placed all blame on the German-made alarm clock. But either way, while her exhausted skipper slept deeply, the poor old Kelpie came gently ashore in the dark and fog on the rocky Scottish coastline close south of Portpatrick, and with the tide ebbing, Conor O’Brien realised he was watching the slow death of his ship. At dawn, he put everything he could find space for into Kelpie’s dinghy while leaving just enough room for himself, and rowed away into the fog towards Portpatrick’s little harbour.
If you were making a movie about Conor O’Brien’s great round the world voyage, this would be where you’d start. Early morning. The fog still heavy on the calm sea, though with the first hint of sunlight. The only noise the sound of rowing. Out of the fog appears a man on his own in an incongruously over-laden dinghy. He rows past, and heads into the barely visible harbour entrance. We see him clamber ashore in the harbour, and walk up the quayside and on past the Portpatrick Inn. Conor O’Brien’s life, though he doesn’t quite realize it at the time, has changed in a way that will ultimately make him a legend among sailors.
What did the loss of Kelpie ultimately mean for Conor O’Brien?
With landed family fortunes declining as a result of the actions of the Land League and the Land Commission, he only had a very small private income, and little or no personal property. By the summer of 1921, Kelpie had become in effect his home. But in time he secured the insurance money for her loss, and he retreated to Foynes Island where he’d the use of a cottage, Barneen. There, he designed his ideal for an ocean-going long-distance vessel, and this was to become the 42ft Saoirse.
When and where was Saoirse built?
She was built by Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights and trainees in the Fisheries School Boatyard in Baltimore, West Cork in 1922. O’Brien had experience of the high quality of Moynihan’s work through repairs made to Kelpie in his Fisheries Inspector days.
Was Ireland not engaged in Civil War in 1922?
Yes, and West Cork was one of the more active theatres, yet the boat-building continued, and after Saoirse was launched and sailing, O’Brien claims to have carried the mails for the Irish Post Office as their links ashore had been broken.
Was there anything seen by the sailing community as unusual about Saoirse’s appearance in 1922?
Just about everything. O’Brien deliberately went for an archaic hull and rig using long-proven equipment. But the accommodation was ahead of its time. While he once claimed that Saoirse was in effect a seagoing Art & Crafts cottage, she certainly was cosy down below, and he ensured that unlike Kelpie, the galley was right aft in the location of minimal movement at sea, very much ahead of the times in 1922.
Had Conor O’Brien any significant ocean-voyaging experience under sail before he created Saoirse?
No. But he reckoned his time with Kelpie on Ireland’s west coast – week in, week out – had taught him much about the needs of a vessel suitable for many ocean conditions, and this experience had been augmented by his time mine-sweeping with trawlers on a year-round basis during the Great War. In addition, the hugely experienced Tom Moynihan quietly persuaded him to make design modifications which improved Saoirse in many ways.
How long had he had the notion of a Round the World Voyage in mind?
We don’t know, for initially, he would only admit that he was voyaging to New Zealand to join a climbing expedition. But he didn’t deny the logic of coming home by way of Cape Horn.
Why did his voyage start from the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire?
He’d been associated with the club since at least 1910, and knew that it would provide the ideal setting for the highly-publicised departure of the first vessel to undertake an ocean voyage under the Tricolour ensign of the Irish Free State, with the name Saoirse celebrating both the freedom of the seas, and the new independence of Ireland. But in his heart of hearts, he reckoned all his voyages ultimately began and ended at Foynes.
Did Saoirse’s departure garner significant attention?
Yes. The going-away party seems to have begun at the United Arts Club in Dublin, and then became a moveable feast to the RIYC in Dunleary (as O’Brien called it), and then on to Saoirse herself before she finally managed to getaway.
How was public interest maintained?
One of his crew members for the early stages was contracted to file reports to the Irish Times from each port visited, and O’Brien himself had a natural talent for writing. Thus while Saoirse was away for only two years, he managed to get extensive logs into three consecutive annual editions of the Royal Cruising Club Journal, which in a sense gave his voyage official sailorly approval at a very senior level.
What were Saoirse’s crewing arrangements?
Difficult. O’Brien was notorious for his impatient and outspoken bad temper. He only settled down as he got far out to sea, and in some ways was the living embodiment of Dr Johnson’s comment that when a man gets to like a sea life, then he is not fit to live on land.
It’s reckoned that he’d got through something like 18 different crew-members by the time Saoirse returned to Dublin Bay, and when he got a compatible and able shipmate, events conspired to make it a short relationship.
The classic instance of this was in the Southern Indian Ocean, which – like many others subsequently following the same route – O’Brien found to be the roughest part of the entire voyage. Saoirse was running before “a moderate gale”, and to his satisfaction, this excellent shipmate was making as good a job of the helming as O’Brien would have expected of himself.
Then they both noticed that somewhat over a mile away, a pinnacle wave was forming, with the three-way ocean swell building into an Everest of the ocean which eventually collapsed on itself in an enormous roar of hundreds of thousands of tons of breaking water. Neither of the two on deck said anything, but O’Brien was soon noting in the log that if Saoirse had been caught up in that, she wouldn’t have had a chance. As for the highly-regarded sailor, when they reached Adelaide in Australia, he simply disappeared ashore with all his belongings and papers, and wasn’t seen again.
When did Saoirse round Cape Horn?
“On the evening of Tuesday, December 2nd 1924, a small bluff-bowed 42ft gaff-rigged ketch of antique appearance approached Cape Horn from the west. The weather had been unsettled with winds from several directions, and two days previously, squalls from the northeast had brought flurries of snow, despite it being early in the southern summer. But conditions were improving as the Horn came abeam around 2200hrs in the last of the daylight.
With the onset of the short southern summer night with its brief token darkness, the wind settled in the north, and the little ship made steady progress. By noon on Wednesday in fine conditions, she had made good 140 miles in 24 hours, aided by a favourable current of at least one knot.
Superb visibility enabled the ketch’s crew to admire the massive scenery along the rugged coast as they shaped their course to pass eastward of Staten Island. The wind then drew fresh and favourably from the southwest, and despite progress being slowed by their vessel’s fouled bottom – for they had been at sea for more than 40 days since leaving New Zealand – by Saturday, December 6th they were moored in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.”
Why did it take Saoirse nearly six months to finish the global voyage from the Falklands back to Dun Laoghaire?
They stayed for six very hospitable weeks in the Falklands, and finally departed with the possibility of two useful contracts. One of the crew had formed a close relationship with an Islands woman, and took his departure from Saoirse in a South American port to return to the Falklands and marry her. As for his skipper, the islanders were so impressed by Saoirse that they started planning how best to persuade the rather economically-minded Falklands Islands Company to commission Conor O’Brien to design and organize the building of a larger sister to serve as the inter-island ferry.
What happened when Saoirse returned to Dublin Bay on Saturday, June 20th 1925?
Dublin Bay Sailing Club cancelled their racing for the day so that their fleet could provide a Guard of Honour. There was a boisterous initial welcome at the Royal Irish YC, and then a public parade into Dublin – reputedly watched by at least ten thousand cheering spectators – with O’Brien travelling in a ceremonial pony-drawn carriage to the United Arts Club, which provided a Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.
What happened then?
Fortunately, O’Brien had much to keep him busy. Before the year was out, the contract for the building of a 56ft trading ketch for the Falkland Islands had been finalized. The Ilen was under construction in Baltimore by1926, and in late summer O’Brien himself – crewed by cousins Con and Denis Cadogan from Cape Clear – sailed her out to the Falklands, with the Ilen registered as a yacht in the RIYC listing, as that was the only way her delivery skipper could get insurance.
When did his major book of the voyage, Across Three Oceans, first get published?
Early in 1927, by Edward Arnold of London, and it was a publishing success. Apart from the engaging style of O’Brien’s writing, it showed how cleverly he had placed himself through his link to the Royal Cruising Club, set up in the unlikely year of 1919 by the even more unlikely combination of Frank Gilliland and Erskine Childers.
Joining the RCC meant he came to the notice of the Club’s Vice Commodore, Claud Worth. Worth was the undisputed guru of British cruising at the time, and his reach was such that his encouragement played a significant role in persuading Bill Nutting to bring the Cruising Club of America into being in 1922.
For much of the 1920s, Worth was the adjudicator for the Royal Cruising Club’s annual awards, and despite the fraught situation in relations between Ireland and England, he awarded Conor O’Brien the RCC’s premier trophy the Challenge Cup – which dated from 1896 – three years in a row in 1923, ’24 and ’25.
Subsequently, the ultimate supportive gift from Claud Worth was the foreword he provided for Across Three Oceans, in which two of his thoughtful paragraphs defined Conor O’Brien’s achievement:
“…anyone who knows anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance required to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul uncoppered bottom, at speeds of 150 to 170 miles a day, as well as the weight of wind and sea which must sometimes have been encountered…..
….. however common long ocean voyages in small yachts may become, Mr O’Brien will always be remembered for his voyage across the South Pacific and round the Horn.”
What happened to Conor O’Brien after 1927?
Buoyed by the success of Across Three Oceans and with additional funds from the fulfilment of the Ilen contract, he made a very clever job of converting Saoirse to set more canvas in a sort of schooner rig while still using the original masts, and he entered her for the 1927 Fastnet Race. He was feted in Cowes, with Uffa Fox slipping Saoirse in order to taking off her lines, while Maurice Griffiths, Editor of Yachting Monthly, joined the crew for a Fastnet Race which Saoirse didn’t actually finish as her new schooner rig didn’t suit the endless windward work which prevailed, but the experience of sailing with O’Brien was further immortalised by Griffiths.
Had he any family life after 1927?
Yes, on October 10th 1928, soon to be 48, he married the 42-year-old Kitty Clausen, daughter of the artist George Clausen. She looked younger then her years, and although not a sailor, she genuinely shared Conor’s enthusiasm for the nomadic lifestyle on Saoirse. Her family’s summer life was centred around Cornwall, and Conor was happy to be based there at St Mawes on the east side of Falmouth Harbour, as he was finding the new inward-looking Ireland which was emerging after Independence to be claustrophobic, something which was unpleasantly exemplified in his beloved Baltimore, where the Fisheries School – formerly an exemplary charitable institution – had been taken under the notoriously harsh remit of the Industrial Schools.
Where did Conor and Kitty cruise in Saoirse?
For much of the early 1930s, they were in the Mediterranean, based for some time in the Balearics, and one year getting as far east as Greece. They wrote books together about it, Conor doing the writing and Kitty the sketches. But in time, Kitty was showing signs of developing illness, and they returned to Cornwall in 1935 and she died there in 1936, it is believed of leukaemia. Conor designed her headstone for a grave he and the Clausen family had managed to secure under an impressive pine tree in the beautiful waterside churchyard of St Just-in-Roseland – it is a peaceful place.
Conor O’Brien died in 1952 aged 72 on Foynes Island – what had he been doing since becoming a widower in 1936?
He continued to live on Saoirse in Falmouth, but his heart was no longer in sailing her, and an Irish crew who called there on a cruise in 1937 found Saoirse to be hauled into the shed in Falmouth Boatyard with Conor still living onboard, seemingly sustained largely by tins of baked beans. However, among those who appreciated it, his writings on voyaging were still appreciated, and small books about yacht design and equipment still appeared – published by Oxford University Press – together with magazine articles which added to a set of works which included a couple of adventure books aimed at a younger readership
How did he become involved with a World War II posting in New York?
He finally sold Saoirse to English owner Eric Ruck in 1940, thus although he is completely identified with the boat, he only owned her for 18 years. In 1940, through old RNVR contacts from World War I, he got a posting as Dispatch Officer in New York for ferry crews delivering American-supplied vessels for the Royal Navy across the Atlantic, and while this programme lasted until 1944, he enjoyed himself hugely, stimulated by the city’s new architecture and can-do attitude to life, and re-vitalised by having a clearcut job to do.
His final years?
In 1944, aged 64, he returned to Ireland and up-graded the cottage of Barneen at the west end of Foynes Island to be his home, though he shared the day’s main meal with relatives who lived in the island’s main house. He produced occasional writings and technical drawings and built at least one elegant clinker punt which he would row across to Foynes for some surprisingly convivial pints of Guinness.
He died on Foynes Island of congestive heart failure in 1952 aged 72, and after a well-attended funeral in Foynes, was buried at nearby Loghill Church, overlooking his beloved Shannon Estuary.
What has happened to Ilen and Saoirse?
Ilen was brought back to Ireland under the inspiration and hands-on leadership of Gary MacMahon of Limerick in 1997, and in 2018 a major restoration was completed in a joint project between the Ilen Boat-Building School of Limerick and Liam Hegerty’s boatyard at Old Court upriver from Baltimore in West Cork. In 2019 she voyaged to East Greenland, and has worked extensively with the Sailing Into Wellness programme, and several educational and environmental projects.
The Saoirse came ashore on a beach in Jamaica in the aftermath of a hurricane in 1979, but enough of her and her Ship’s Papers were saved for Gary Mac Mahon to buy the rights to the registered vessel, and she is now being re-built by Liam Hegarty in Old Court.
How has the memory of Conor OBrien and his achievements been commemorated?
In 1929 he as made the first Honorary Member of the newly-formed Irish Cruising Club, and attended some of its functions in the late 1940s. And there are several memorials in the Foynes area and a model of Saoirse.
In 1998, to mark the 75th Anniversary of Saoirse’s global circumnavigation, the Irish members of the Royal Cruising Club funded the sculpting of a bust of Conor O’Brien, carved by West Cork sculptor Danny Osborne (he created the Oscar Wilde reclining statue in Merrion Square) from a single vertebra of a giant blue whale which had been found on a beach on Ireland’s Atlantic coast.
The O’Brien bust was presented to the RIYC at a 75thAnniversary memorial lunch in October 1998, attended by many members of his family and others from Limerick and elsewhere who have kept the Conor O’Brien name and achievements prominent.
As it happens, there is a prominently-placed O’Brien statue in Dublin, but it is in memory of his grandfather William Smith O’Brien. Having originally been first placed on the South Quays in 1870, in 1929 it was moved to its current position of considerable honour in O’Connell Street. Yet even in this age when the political correctness or deeper significance of statuary can be a matter of heated debate, it is doubtful if many of those who hurry past the O’Brien statue in non-pandemic times have the slightest awareness of what it signifies. So in trying to provide a meaningful memorial to Conor O’Brien of Saoirse and what he achieved, perhaps the best place is right here, online.