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06 Oct 2022

Then & Now: It’s a sailor’s life these Limerick men

Then & Now: It’s a sailor’s life these Limerick men

Conor O’Brien and Tongan mate Kiao on the final leg of their circumnavigation; and the Saoirse departing Dun Laoghaire, Dublin in 1923

PAT LAWLESS, the Limerick-born sailor is currently taking part in the Golden Globe race non-stop around the world in his 36-foot racing yacht Green Rebel. The 16 competitors set out from Les Sables d'Olonne in France on Sunday, September 4. The 3,000-mile race will take about nine months to complete. The race is called the 'Journey of Madness' and Pat is wished a safe journey. He is following in the footsteps of his father Pat who in 1996, at the age of 70 was the first Irishman to do a solo circumnavigator of the globe. Nearly 100 years ago another Limerick man made history after sailing around the world in a small boat.
Conor O'Brien who was born in 1880 lived on Foynes Island across from the village situated in the River Shannon Estuary. He was educated at Winchester and Oxford in England and was an architect by profession. He was a member of Sinn Fein and an enthusiastic supporter of Home Rule who spoke and promoted the Irish language. He was involved with Mary Spring Rice and Erskine Childers in the 1914 Howth gun running to aid Ireland's independence cause. He rubbed shoulders with Yeats and Lady Gregory in Dublin literary circles. He climbed mountains , including Mount Brandon in Kerry in the company of George Mallory, who died on Mount Everest in 1924.
During World War I he served with distinction in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. When the Free State government was inaugurated in 1922 following the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, Conor was to serve this authority as a Fisheries Inspector, using his yacht Kelpie in the course of his employment.
Conor circumnavigated the globe in another yacht of his own named Saoirse between June 1923 and June 1925. The boat was built in Baltimore in 1922 and was 42 feet long. He sailed from home to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire Dublin, before setting out with a small crew. He was the first Irishman to perform such a sailing feat and he flew the Irish tricolour on board all the way. It was a time of great achievements for him and his small crew. Conor 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 achieved the circumnavigation feat alone in 1967 but O'Brien paved the way for him. On his return from the famous voyage Conor turned his talents to the design of another vessel, the Ilen. This craft was commissioned by the Falkland Island Company in London, where he had gone to change a Falkland pound.
The Ilen was built to service the agricultural sector in the Falklands Island. After construction of the 56-foot boat he hired two Cape Clear seamen Con and Denis Cadogan and with them achieved the risky feat of sailing the north and southern Atlantic. This boat after decades out of circulation was restored at the Ilen Boat Building School of Limerick over the past 10 years or so and returned to the water.
In 1925 Conor married Catherine Clausen the artist, and during the 1930s they spent a heavenly time cruising with their Yacht Saoirse in the Mediterranean , collaborating on articles and books which he wrote, and Catherine illustrated. Sadly, their marriage was short lived for she died in 1936.
On the outbreak of World War 2, Conor was to serve the Allied cause as a captain in the Small Ships Pool, delivering support vessels across the Atlantic. He reached an advance age, before dying at his island home at Monare Foynes Island in 1952. He was buried in the family plot, within the Protestant burial ground at Mount Trenchard.

By the boat load
THE SUEZ Canal blockage in March 2021 for six days took some of the spotlight away from the Covid-19 ongoing pandemic and restrictions. Ever Given, the Panama-flagged cargo ship got wedged across the crucial waterway, and salvage teams were involved in attempts to get in afloat. The canal is one of the world's busiest waterways, and almost 400 vessels were waiting for the blockage to be cleared. The good news was the ship was freed and the global supply chain resumed to European and Irish consumers importing products via the Suez Canal.
The picture of the Dockers Monument in Harvey's Quay in Limerick shows how goods were unloaded from ships to shore up to the 1970s. The hard-working stevedores are now a thing of the past. Their jobs have disappeared, and world trade has been drastically changed by the use of the steel container.
The Scottish American, Malcolm McLean was born in the town of Maxton, North Carolina, USA in 1913. His education finished after high school, and he worked as a petrol-pump attendant. After saving some money and getting more financial help from his brother and sister, he bought a second-hand truck. He began moving goods for farmers living nearby. Gradually he bought more trucks and built up a large haulage business.
One day, in 1937 while delivering bales of cotton to the port of Hoboken, New Jersey, Malcolm had to wait his turn to have his truck unloaded by the stevedores. He was struck by the fact that while all the bales, were stored together in his truck, they were unloaded and then reloaded into a ship separately, a process which was slow, labour-intensive, expensive and unsafe. This gave him the idea of the steel container.
It was many years later before he put this idea into practice but when he did, he caused a revolution in world transport. By the early nineteen fifties Malcolm Mc Lean had the fifth largest trucking fleet in the USA. At that stage he began work changing the way cargo was transported, and he redesigned trucks into two components, a truck bed with the engine, and an independent steel container.

He put the design of the steel containers in the public domain so that these containers became the standard around the world. Goods became less prone to damage and pilferage, and costs were reduced dramatically. The electronics industry also gave containerisation a boost.
In modern container ports, the derricks which move the containers around, and load them onto the trucks, are computer controlled. Today 90% of world trade is done using steel containers. It is said that when an article like a television or radio, is manufactured in China, it is less expensive to move it from there to Dublin, than it is to move it by lorry to say to Galway, Waterford, or Limerick.
Malcolm McLean saw this revolution in world transport before he died in 2021. But would he have guessed that in 2014 a Chinese container vessel called the Globe would be able to carry 20,000 containers? The containers were a wonderful invention and old ones can be seen serving different purposes around the country. Could they be an answer to the housing crisis?

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