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Donegal man keeping ancient art of boat building alive

Inishowen man Élan Broadley with mascot Luna. He named the Valentine punt he built from scratch after the energetic little pooch.

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now”
Martin Luther King Jr

ESCAPING into a boat and disappearing on the ocean is something we have all dreamt of at one time or another.

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For Donegal man Élan Broadley it is more than a dream, it is a way of life.

Now living in Limerick, Inishowen born Élan is helping keep alive a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years but is in real danger of dying out – the ancient art of boat building.

Élan is currently front and centre of efforts to restore the Ilen, the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore, Cork, in 1926, the Ilen spent 70 years on the distant shores of the Falkland Islands.

It was not until 1998 that she returned to Ireland and since then, volunteers have been working to resurrect the once mighty ship.

But the collective passion to see the Ilen sail again has become much more than a sporadic woodwork project.

Today the Ilen is an entire community geared towards keeping the art of boat building alive.

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And right there in the middle of it all is Donegal’s Élan Broadley.

Recently Élan put to sail Luna, the Valentine Punt he built absolutely from scratch. And among those standing on shore at the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival to witness Luna’s maiden voyage was none other than Hollywood legend Jeremy Irons, himself a keen exponent of wooden boat making.

It has been an interesting couple of years for Élan who readily admits that his recently discovered career chose him rather than the other way around.

“I was studying product design at LYIT and coming to the end of my course, a lot of people above me were going into designing for mass production. But I felt personally that I would rather learn to do something that involved using my hands. So after three or four months, I was still looking for a niche because I didn’t want to go into an office and start pushing paper. And that’s when I stumbled upon the Ilen Project,” Élan explained.

Élan and pal Matthew give the Luna her first inspection.

Rather than the romanticised notion of boat restoration – think Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the closing scene of Shawshank Redemption – Élan quickly found himself involved with a financially challenged charity in Limerick hell-bent on piecing back together, one plank at a time, a 60 foot trading vessel.

For various reasons though, it quickly became a labour of love.

Élan’s family do have links to the sea, most notably through his grandfather who was a merchant navy seaman and it was that connection that spurred the 28-year-old on. That and the fact he is a dab hand when it comes to all things engineering and designing.

“I’ve studied design so I know how things come together and how to handle the various components. My background in engineering did give me an advantage too and I have a fair understanding when it comes to metalwork. With the woodwork, I was a complete virgin though.”

Midway through the planking process.

Élan has been settled in his adopted home for two years and has been volunteering with the Ilen Project throughout. He hopes that one day it will lead to full-time employment but says that whatever happens, he has, at last, found his niche.

“It is my intention to keep practising the craft and hopefully in a few years gain some employment out of it,” he said.

“There is something very satisfying about taking a piece of wood, shaping it and seeing the finished product. With the Ilen, we are hoping to get it into the water some time next year but obviously we are dependent on funding down here. But if the money comes in, then we will have it in the water.

“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn the skills I have and it is important that those skills are passed on.

“My intention is to keep on this path because I have the skills now to build a boat and my dream would be to design some sort of vessel that I can sail back to Donegal and maybe sail across the Swilly.

“I’m only 28 so the way I see it, in my lifetime I could build at least 20 boats and I want to see that through,” Élan added.

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