Two cruising Conors

December 21 2008

Conor Cruise O’Brien (1917-2008):




Conor Cruise O’Brien was described as Ireland’s leading public intellectual. There is no equivalent in the UK. Among many things, he was a historian (Burke, Jefferson, Parnell). He was sometimes called the Cruiser, but one of his godfathers, named Conor O Brien (1880-1952, no Cruise and, according to his preference, no apostrophe), was a real yachtsman and, in 1914, a gunrunner. I can claim a family connection with the older Conor: he married my grandmother’s sister.

Here is what Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biographer Donald Harman Akenson has to say about Conor O Brien (he keeps the apostrophe):

“It was intended that Conor [Cruise O’Brien] should be christened Donal Conor Cruise O’Brien. Donal is a traditional O’Brien name. The ‘Conor’ was in honor [Canadian edition] of one of his two godfathers, Conor O’Brien, who was himself a grandson of William Smith O’Brien, one of the leaders of the 1848 uprising. As mentioned earlier, Conor O’Brien was a good friend of Francis [Conor Cruise O’Brien’s father] and they had worked out that they were some kind of blood relations (the exact details of which have been lost). Conor O’Brien was one of the Foynes O’Briens, who were also the Inchiquin O’Briens and the Monteagle O’Briens, very wealthy Protestant families. Conor O’Brien, like so many of Francis’s friends, was a man of character and also a Dublin character. He was a wonderful sailor and later wrote a brilliant book about his long-distance cruise from Dublin to Melbourne and back. [Endnote: Conor O’Brien, Across Three Oceans: A Colonial Voyage in the Yacht Saoirse (London, Edward Arnold, 1926).] In Dublin folklore, he was known for his patriotism (he had landed arms at Kilcoole in 1914) [I think Conor actually landed at Howth rather than Kilcoole] and for his vile and violent temper. He looked rather like a large member of the monkey family, which makes his most famous outburst appropriate: incensed by a visiting English journalist who referred to the simian appearance of the Irish people, he ambushed the man and horsewhipped him on the steps of one of Dublin’s most exclusive addresses, the Kildare Street Club.”

The landing of arms was part of Erskine Childers’s (and, indirectly, Roger Casement’s) operation to arm the Irish Volunteers. Conor’s boat then was the Kelpie.

What Akenson describes as a “long-distance cruise from Dublin to Melbourne and back” was, in fact, a voyage round the globe. In 1923-5 Conor became the first man to circumnavigate the world south of Cape Horn skippering his own yacht. The Saoirse (pronounced Sirshay) flew the new flag of the Irish Free State, though Conor, like Casement and Childers, not to mention Parnell, had belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy. He returned an Irish hero.

A couple of people are trying to write the life of Conor O Brien. I have done some research, but have now missed the chance to consult Conor Cruise O’Brien. I suppose the biographers spoke to him. A Shannon estuary sailor whom I was hoping to interview a couple of years ago, who remembered the older Conor, has probably now died.

Conor’s next yacht was the Ilen, which he built and delivered to the Falkland Islands in 1926-7, where it became the service vessel for the Falkland Islands Company. The Ilen was brought home to Ireland on a Russian cargo ship in 1997.

In 1928, he married my grandmother’s sister, Kitty Clausen, the English daughter of the painter Sir George Clausen. She softened him. They spent some years in the Mediterranean on the Saoirse, based in Ibiza, Iviza as they called it. He was a talented writer (sometimes overly technical) and wrote a book about this period, Voyage and Discovery (William Blackwood, 1933), one of his many books. Kitty did the illustrations. In 1936 she was taken ill and they had to sail home. She died (perhaps of leukaemia) soon after they landed in Cornwall. The Saoirse eventually passed into other hands and was destroyed in a hurricane in Jamaica in 1979.

Kitty was over forty when she married Conor. She had been engaged before, to Second Lieutenant Charles Geraint Christopher Payne of the Highland Light Infantry, previously of the Artists’ Rifles, killed in action at Neuve Chapelle on March 12 1915. Geraint was the maternal uncle of the writer Jan Morris, who recently sent me a fine photograph of a drawing Kitty had made of him in 1914.


you-can-see-the-sierra-nevada nightmares-of-houses

Two drawings by Kitty for Voyage and Discovery; the captions are You can see the Sierra Nevada (showing Conor) and Nightmares of houses (Algiers); click to enlarge

17 Responses to “Two cruising Conors”

  1. Anthony OBrien Says:

    I was delighted to find this short entry on my great-uncle Conor. I Googled him to see if he had a Wikipedia entry comparable to that of Joshua Slocum. If you’re interested, I have a considerable collection of Kitty’s watercolours, and some interesting photos of Conor, as well as copies of four of his books on sailing. I know Foynes Island well from visiting my cousins (Murrough and Suzanne) there. I live in the west of Ireland, in Co.Mayo, working, in semi-retirement, as a potter/painter.

    • davidderrick Says:

      And delighted to find you through this. I hope to be in touch soon by email.

    • Nando Fernandes Says:

      Would Anthony O’Brien know where I can get the plans for the Conor O’Brien 12′ foot dinghy written about in his book entitled, Sea-Boats, Oars and Sails.
      Thank you,

      Nando Fernandes

      • davidderrick Says:

        Perhaps, but this is fairly technical. I will let him know about your question. I would also see whom you could contact via What is the name of this dinghy?

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I see that one of the biographers (not one with whom I had been in touch) has finished her work: Judith Hill, In Search of Islands, A Life of Conor O’Brien, Collins, February 2009.

    Amazon’s blurb says: “Others had circumnavigated the world in small boats, but Conor was first to sail the clipper route and brave the screaming fifties despite difficulties with crew, desertion, robbery and hardship, [and] no radio or electronic devices. After Joshua Slocum’s epic voyage of the 1880s, it was the most noted sea journey of the time, not repeated until 1969.”

    Slocum had sailed through the Strait of Magellan, but not the clipper route south of the Cape.

  3. […] The clipper route March 16, 2009 Two cruising Conors […]

  4. Nando Fernandes Says:

    Hello David,

    There is no name to the dinghy as far as I can tell. Said boat is described in the book I mentioned before and it is one of 13 drawings in that same volume I have by Master O’Brien.
    Thank you,

    Nando Fernandes

  5. […] the Frisian Islands. The plan is casually foiled by some English yachtsmen. I mentioned Childers here. The novel was a vision of two nations about to fight the First World […]

  6. paddy O'Leary Says:

    Does any of Conor O Brien’s descendants have deatails of his mountaineering/hillwalking trips? I understand that some of these of these were undertaken from one of his yachts, presumably the Saoirse. This query is in connection with a history of Irish mountaineering.

  7. davidderrick Says:

    Thank you. Unfortunately, I have no information. If you would like to email me (myname at yahoo dot com), I’ll be able to find you in case I learn anything. I hope to write more about Conor here.

  8. Seán Says:

    Does anyone know if any plans, pictures of the Kelpie exist, I have tried searching everywhere and have not come across anything?

    • davidderrick Says:


      Thanks. I am sure the answer is Yes and want to write more on Conor soon. I will contact you when I get to this.


      • Seán Says:

        Thanks very much. Hoping to get a pic of all boats used in gunrunning and can’t get hold of anything about Kelpie. I have a lead for the plans but could be a dead duck.

        Greatly appreciated.

  9. re Paddy O’Leary’s request, I understand Conor OBrien climbed extensively in Snowdonia, with his sisters Kate (Kitty) and Margaret. I have a Kitty Clausen cartoon of them climbing. Conor liked to climb in bare feet. There is a good account of his gun-running into Kilcoole in ‘Remembering Limerick’s gun-runners’ published in 2014 by the Mount Trenchard Memorial Committee.
    Julian Reynolds

    • davidderrick Says:

      Thank you. Just a correction: Kitty was his wife and Margaret his sister-in-law (and my grandmother). I would love to get hold of the 2014 article and to see the cartoon. Is there any chance of your emailing me a photo of it? davidderrick at

  10. Rebeca Haselgrove-OBrien Says:

    I married one of Conor’s Australian descendants who also refused to use the apostrophe. Hence one of my daughters has it and one not according to who filled in the paperwork. Now I know where it came from. Ken was also a keen sailor and sailmaker, being chief sailmaker foe Australia II’s 1983 win.

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