Following the salmon trail from Limerick to Western Greenland

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The AK Ilen under sail. Photo: Dermot Lynch
The AK Ilen under sail. Photo: Dermot Lynch

THE last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships set sail from Limerick Docks this week to ride the waves of the North Atlantic once again.

The nation’s sole surviving ocean-going wooden sailing ship, the ‘Ilen’, which was re-built through a community educational programme in Roxboro, will now follow the migratory journey of salmon in the Shannon River to West Greenland.

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Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, the ‘Auxiliary Ketch Ilen’ was first delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for 70 years.

The Ilen is today setting off for its longest voyage in decades. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work by so many in our community who helped us realise our vision of reimagining this impressive ship.

After being returned home to Limerick and given a new breath of life with powerful ribs of grown Irish oak, and long planks of European Larch, the 56-foot vessel was readying herself this Monday to take to the high seas for this historic 1,200 nautical mile voyage.

Skipper for the nine-week educational-expedition is Polar yachtsman Paddy Barry. The crew will also include Limerick graphic artist and director of the Ilen Project, Gary McMahon, who spearheaded the community project to rebuild the trading ketch in Limerick and West Cork.

“The Ilen is today setting off for its longest voyage in decades. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work by so many in our community who helped us realise our vision of reimagining this impressive ship. Throughout this journey, participants in the project have shared and learnt skills through the build which will remain with them for a lifetime. It is a symbol of what can be achieved when people work together and it is fitting therefore that our ‘Salmon Wake’ journey is highlighting the decline in salmon populations,” Mr McMahon commented.

Atlantic salmon populations are widely distributed throughout Irish freshwaters with over 140 such systems designated as salmon rivers. While in the 1970s, the number of Atlantic Salmon returning to Irish waters peaked at 1,800,000, the numbers returning have decreased by 70 per cent in recent decades.

‘Salmon Wake’ is the Ilen Project’s Community and Schools Education Programme which is highlighting the decline of salmon during International Year of the Salmon.

The rebuilding of the Ilen and her preparations for sea were completed in June and the crew from all parts of Ireland are looking forward to her longest ocean voyage since 1926.

The voyage follows a creative programme which saw building workshops and community days take place at multiple locations across the city with local schools, artists, craft makers and institutions all playing a role in bringing this majestic ship back to sea. Young people from Limerick and West Greenland are participating in this project and discovering what both communities share as North Atlantic maritime island peoples.

“We know that for every 100 salmon that leave Ireland to go out to sea, 95 don’t make it back due to a range of challenges which they face at sea. The Ilen Project’s ‘Salmon Wake’ programme is a timely tribute to this iconic species during International Year of the Salmon and it is hoped that it will help create awareness around their decline in Ireland and across the northern hemisphere.” Dr Ciaran Byrne, CEO of Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) explained.

Kerry musician Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich, Mike Grimes, Mantas Seskanskis, James Madigan, Ronan Ó Caoimh, Mick Ruane, Seamus O’Byrne, and Justin McDonagh are also on board the Ilen, which is destined for Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city.

The Captain of the Ilen will provide updates on the ship’s progress as it follows the route of salmon migration to West Greenland as a guest blogger on IFI’s blog www.fishinginireland.info.