Conor O Brien (1880-1952) – Sailor, Mountaineer, Patriot, Architect, Author

Conor O Brien was the greatest seaman of his era, a universally acknowledged pioneer of international ocean sailing. His voyage in 1923-25 round the world south of the great headlands of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 42ft ketch Saoirse set new standards of seagoing competence for amateur sailors in small ships, achievements which continue to be recognised as a worthy benchmark for deep sea skills.

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School
Portrait of Conor O Brien by Kitty Clausen | Cahermoyle House, Ardagh, Co Limerick

Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien was born in 1880, a son of Edward William O’Brien was born in 1880, a son of Edward William O’Brien of Cahermoyle House at Ardagh in County Limerick, and a grandson of William Smith O’Brien of Young Ireland and 1848 fame. He was related to the many landed O’Brien’s of the Shannon Estuary area, including the family of Lord Inchiquin, as well as being a cousin of the Spring Rice family of Foynes, holders of the title of Lord Monteagle.

Although schooled in England at Winchester, his enthusiasm for the outdoor life derived from the places of his childhood in Ireland. In addition to properties on the Shannon Estuary including a house on Foynes Island, his family spent their summers at the lovely harbour of Derrynane in Kerry, the home of The Liberator Daniel O’Connell.

Other summer residents at Derrynane included the Dunraven Family, the O’Briens’ County Limerick neighbours from Adare, whose enthusiasm for sailing led to Lord Dunraven’s challenges for the America’s Cup in 1893 and 1895. With Derrynane and the Shannon Estuary playing such an important role in his childhood, young O Brien was naturally also interested in sailing, but his inclination was to cruising rather than racing.

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School, Ireland
Yacht Saoirse anchored off Foynes, County Limerick, Ireland in the 1920s

As well, he was a very keen mountaineer. Thus the land of his childhood and youth nurtured his two great passions, for the spectacular Atlantic seaboard which runs from Derrynane to Limerick City gives splendidly challenging sailing along a coastline which can also readily provide interesting mountaineering.

The O’Briens of Cahermoyle were a creative family. Conor’s brother Dermod was a noted artist who in 1910 was elected President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. After his schooling at Winchester young Conor went to University at Oxford. He qualified as an architect, and always retained his interest in the subject, but his greatest work was a naval architect with his designs for the Saoirse and the Ilen, while his creativity was best expressed in his books, of which he wrote 14 in a vigorously flowing style.

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School, Ireland
(l-r) Yacht Saoirse at the start of the 1927 Fastnet Race, with her distinctive ocean rig | Saoirse cruising on England’s south coast, sometime in the 1920s

Conor O Brien was an Irish patriot very much of his time. By adulthood he was a fluent Irish speaker, an early member of Sinn Fein, and an outspoken Home Ruler. In 1928 he married the artist Katherine Clausen, and in the early 1930s they spent an idyllic time cruising with Saoirse in the Mediterranean, working together on books and articles which he wrote and she illustrated.

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School, Ireland
(l-r) Saoirse running before the Portugese Trades 1922 | Illustration by Kitty Clausen of Conor O Brien typing on Saoirse in Ibiza 1933, the illustration appeared in ‘Voyage and Discovery’ | Kitty and Conor hauling the mail sail on Saoirse 1934

Kitty Clausen’s tragically early death in 1936 ended his happy partnership after just eight years, and by 1940, Saoirse was sold. Conor O Brien, who had served with the Royal Navy throughout World War I, was too old for active services when World War II broke out in 1939, but he served the allied cause as a skipper for the small Ships Pool, delivering support vessels across the Atlantic. After the war he returned to Foynes Island where, aged 72, he died in his sister’s house in 1952.

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School, Ireland
(l-r) View of Barneen House on Foynes Island | Barneen on Foynes Island where Conor wrote many of his later books and designed the good ship Ilen