Thursday, December 26, 1996

Sir Ernest Shackleton

He died early on the morning of 5th January, 75 years ago on board a ship anchored off a whaling station in the Antarctic. Ernest Shackleton, Edwardian hero, whose life and achievements are currently being reassessed, was on his fourth journey of exploration to the Antarctic when he died. He had first set foot on that forbidden uncharted area as a member of Scott's expedition during 1901 to 1903 when a young man of 27 years of age. Born in Kilkea House, Kilkea, Co. Kildare on 15th February, 1874, Ernest was the eldest son and second child of Henry and Henrietta Shackleton. His father was a fourth generation descendant of Abraham Shackleton who had founded the Quaker School in Ballitore in the 18th century. The Kilkea Shackletons, unlike their Shackleton ancestors, were Anglicans and they were to leave their large Georgian house and farm for Dublin in 1880 when Henry Shackleton resumed his studies in Trinity College. Immediately on qualifying as a Doctor, he and the entire family emigrated to England where Ernest, the future explorer, was to spend the rest of his life.

Another brother of the future explorer was Frank Shackleton who was to achieve certain notoriety as one of the chief suspects in the robbery of the Irish Crown Jewels in 1904. Sir Arthur Vicars who was murdered in April 1921 during the Irish troubles had always claimed that Frank Shackleton was the thief responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the jewels of which he, Vicars, was the official custodian.

Ernest Shackleton's greatest achievements were on his second and third attempts to reach the South Pole. He led his own expedition to the Antarctic on the whaling ship "Nimrod", which set out from London on 30th July, 1907. This was his most successful attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole when he came within 97 miles of his objective before having to give up the attempt. On his return to England he was feted and received a Knighthood in 1909, the same year that a book of his exploits titled "The Heart of the Antarctic" was published. The must sought after prize of first man to reach the South Pole was to fall to the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, who arrived there on 14th December, 1911.

It was Shackleton's third trip to the Antarctic for which he is now most remembered. This started on 1st August, 1914, just days before England declared war in Germany. The County Kildare man Shackleton accompanied by 27 men set sail on a boat which he had renamed "Endurance". The name had been taken from Shackleton's family motto, "By Endurance We Conquer" and as events were to prove, was a harbinger of what was to come over the next two years. The initial stages of the journey were uneventful and even when the boat stuck in ice on 19th January, 1915 there were little grounds for fearing the worst. However, the boat was still caught in the icy fastness of the Antarctic on the following 27th October when it was crushed and had to be abandoned. Shackleton now faced the daunting task of saving his men and he decided that they should travel across the ice floes to Elephant Island on the North West edge of the Weddell Sea. The journey was to take 5 months and near the end the men were confined to a single ice floe which had broken away and drifted on the seas. Conscious of the dangers of the floe cracking, Shackleton and his men were very low in spirit, existing as they did solely on seal meat. The 100 sledge dogs brought on the expedition were kept alive as long as possible, but eventually had to be shot on 30th March. Two weeks afterwards the expedition members reached the safety of land, while at the same time the London newspapers were carrying headlines announcing the loss of Shackleton and his men.

The immediate danger had passed now that the expedition had reached unpopulated land, but somehow or other Shackleton and his men had to get to the whaling station of South Georgia Island which was over 800 miles away. The courageous leader and 5 of his companions set off 9 days later in a 22ft. boat called "James Caird" to travel across 800 miles of rough seas. Two of his companions on that trip were fellow Irishmen, Tom Crean and Jim McCarthy. The story of that trip like that of the overland journey across the ice floes was one of amazing courage and on 10th May, 1916 six men reached land but then had to make a further overland trip lasting 10 days to reach the whaling station at Stromness. From there a relief expedition under Shackleton set out to rescue the men left behind in Elephant Island and after no less than 3 attempts these men were finally rescued on 30th August, 1916.

Shackleton and the members of his team returned to London to a heroes welcome and the story of that expedition was recounted in Shackleton's second book published in 1919 which he called "South".

Financial problems beset Shackleton and he was to spend the next few years on a tour of lecturing halls recounting his experiences in the South Pole. Almost inevitably, the attraction of the Antarctic drew back Shackleton yet again and in 1921 he set out on his 4th and final expedition. It was while on the early stages of that expedition that he died of a heart attack on South Georgia on 15th January, 1922. Shackleton's body was sent back to England for burial, but on his wife's instructions the remains were turned back at Montevideo and brought back for burial on South Georgia.

Shackleton, the man who created the image of the polar explorer as a hero, never received, until recently, the recognition that he deserved in this country. This is now changing, ever so slowly, what with the current Irish expedition to the Antarctic retracing one of Shackleton's journeys. The Athy Heritage Centre which will be opened during 1997 will also have as one of it's many attractions, an exhibition on Shackleton, the local man who may not have reached the South Pole, but who conquered the World of Polar Exploration with his courage and leadership.

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