Edward Conor Marshall O'Brien

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Edward Conor Marshall O'Brien (3 November 1880 – 18 April 1952)[1] was an Irish aristocrat and intellectual. His views were republican and nationalist. He was also owner and captain of one of the first boats to sail under the tri-colour of the Irish Free State.

O'Brien was a grandson of the Fenian William Smith O'Brien, and learned Irish. He was a ship builder and designer, and his notable boats include the Kelpie (used for gun running in 1914), the Saoirse (in which he circumnavigated the globe) and the A. K. Ilen (a Falkland Islands service ship, undergoing restoration).

Early life[edit]

Edward Conor Marshall O'Brien was born in Limerick on 3 November 1880. His grandfather was William O'Brien who was a member of Young Ireland; his grandfather and his aunt Charlotte Grace O'Brien both played roles in social reform. Robert Donough, his uncle, was an architect, and the painter Dermod O'Brien was his brother. O'Brien was educated in England at Winchester College and Oxford, and in Ireland in Trinity College.[2] After his education he came back to Ireland and started practicing as an architect in 1903. According to the 1911 census he lived at 58 Mount Street, south County Dublin.[1]


O'Brien was credited with two buildings in his lifetime: the Co-operative Hall in Co. Donegal and the People's Hall in Co. Limerick.[3] He was also known as a naval architect, having designed two ships, the Saoirse and the llen. He would later captain both of these ships himself.

Across Three Oceans[edit]

Cover of O'Brien's book Across Three Oceans

O'Brien's boat Saoirse was reputedly[4] the first small boat (42-foot, 13 metres long) to sail around the world since Joshua Slocum completed his voyage in the 'Spray' during 1895 to 1898. a journey that O' Brien documented in his book Across Three Oceans. O’Briens voyage began and ended at the Port of Foynes, County Limerick, Ireland, where he lived.[5]

Saoirse, under O'Brien's command and with three crew, was the first yacht to circumnavigate the world by way of the three great capes: Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin; and was the first boat flying the Irish tri-colour to enter many of the world's ports and harbours. He ran down his easting in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties between the years 1923 to 1925. Up until O'Brien's circumnavigation this route was the preserve of square-rigged grain ships taking part in the grain race from Australia to England via Cape Horn (also known as the clipper route).

O'Brien's priority claim is contentious: Joshua Slocum, a Bostonian, was a single-handed yachtsman took that route, in 1895. Extreme weather forced Slocum to use some of the inshore routes between the channels and islands of Cape Horn and it is believed he may not have actually passed outside the Horn proper.

Restoration of the Ilen[edit]

O'Brien's seagoing experiences were put to use in his design of the A K Ilen which was built for the Falkland Islands as a service boat. In 1998 the Ilen returned to the site where it was first built, on the river Ilen near Baltimore in south-west Ireland, where it is currently undergoing a full restoration (expected to be completed by 2017). This task provided work-based learning for the students of the Ilen School.

Gun running[edit]

O'Brien had some involvement with gun running in 1914 on behalf of the Irish Volunteers, for political reasons (he was a home ruler) and because he had experience in sailing. He joined the Irish Volunteers on the boat the Kelpie, with George Mallory and Geoffrey Winthrop Young. On 26 July 1914, 900 guns were brought to Howth harbour.[6] He was also involved in bringing guns to Kilcoole beach on the Wicklow coast. After the gun running incidents, O'Brien served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.[7]


O'Brien authored a number of books which document his experiences of sailing, from which he distilled advice for other boat designers, builders and sailors. He also wrote novels on the nautical theme.

  • Across three oceans
  • From three yachts - a cruiser's outlook
  • The small ocean-going yacht
  • Yacht gear and gadgets
  • Sea-boats, oars and sails
  • The practical man's cruiser
  • On going to sea in yachts
  • Deep-water Yacht
  • Sea-boats, oars and sails
  • Voyage and Discovery (1933)
  • The Castaways
  • Two Boys go Sailing


  • O'Brien, Conor (1926). Across Three Oceans. London: E.Arnold. ISBN 0-246-12309-5.
  • Hill, Judith (2009). In Search of Islands, A Life of Conor O'Brien. Cork: The Collins Press. pp. viii, 126. ISBN 9781905172658.
  • de Bhaldraithe, Padraic (1996). Loingseoir na Saoirse - Scéal Conor O'Brien. Baile Átha Cliath: Coiscéim.
  • Life and ships of Conor O'Brien - documented on the A K Ilen restorer's website.
  • Conor O'Brien: Life, Works, Criticism, Notes
  • Foynes Yacht Club - History (paragraph 2 on Conor O'Brien and the Saoirse)