Thursday, November 8, 2001

Inaugural Shackleton Weekend / Remembrance Sunday

The inaugural Shackleton Autumn School was a rip-roaring success. Last weekend Athy’s Heritage Company played host to a lot of visitors, many of whom were spending their first time in the South Kildare town. All had arrived, some from as far away as Scotland and England, others from Kerry, Galway and Wexford, to participate in the events planned for the October Bank Holiday weekend. I have to say that all those involved with the Heritage Company were more than pleasantly surprised at the widespread response to the programme prepared in connection with the Shackleton School.

Right from the official opening on Friday evening it became apparent that there would be a large attendance at the various lectures on Saturday and Sunday and so it proved to be. Frank O’Brien’s was the scene of a unique coming together of local talent in the person of Brian Hughes, tin whistle player and Michael Delaney, balladeer on that Friday evening. The venue was packed to the rafters and both artistes performed to an appreciative audience. The next morning saw the lecture hall attached to the Library full to capacity as John MacKenna spoke on the Shackleton quaker legacy in South Kildare, while Jonathan Shackleton dealt with his relation’s early life and Kevin Kenny unraveled the story behind the arrival of a polar sledge harness in the Athy Heritage Centre. Dr. Bob Headland of the Scot Polar Research Institute of Cambridge was the first speaker in the afternoon when he lectured on Shackleton’s expeditions to the Antarctic. He was followed by Dublin man Frank Nugent who three years ago was part of the team which set out to retrace the famous journey of the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Frank ended his lecture with a lovely rendition of a ballad written to commemorate the exploits of Kilkea-born Ernest Shackleton. The first day of lectures drew to a close when the audience dispersed to prepare for the concert in St. Dominic’s Church on Saturday night. For the first time ever, Ireland’s foremost uileann piper, Liam O’Flynn and his colleagues in the Piper’s Call Band, played in Athy and a great night was had by the large attendance.

More than 60 persons travelled on Sunday morning to various sites associated with Ernest Shackleton, including Ballitore Village, Moone High Cross and Kilkea House where he was born in 1874. Thanks are due to Mary Malone, Librarian, Ballitore, Eamon Kane of Castledermot, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Greene and Michael Delaney of Kilkea and Dún Chaoin, Co. Kerry for their contribution during that trip. The Shackleton Autumn School concluded on Sunday afternoon with an exceptionally finely delivered lecture by Michael Smith, a London journalist and recent biographer of Tom Crean. Understandably his subject was Tom Crean, the Annascaul, Co. Kerry man who had accompanied Shackleton on a number of his expeditions and whose story remained untold until taken up in Michael Smith’s recently released book.

The Ernest Shackleton Autumn School was a unique event representing the first time that the Kilkea-born explorer was honoured in this way in his own country. Everyone who attended had nothing but kind words to speak of Athy, a town which many of them had never previously visited. It is obvious that this is a venture which can and should be repeated in the future years. In the meantime congratulations are due and are extended to Margaret O'Riordan, Manager of the Heritage Centre who put an enormous amount of work into organising the event. Well done also to the local businesses and associations who provided sponsorship for the weekend.

Next Sunday, November 11th, is Remembrance Sunday, the one day which each year is set aside to remember the dead of World War I. No doubt you will recall my many previous references to the men of Athy and District who died tragically and needlessly in the bloody conflict which changed the world order. What did a man like James Dunne who lived with his father Peter Dunne at 3 Offaly Street, Athy expect to achieve when he enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers. He went to France and died aged 20 years on Monday, 13th November 1916. His name is to be found on the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme in France which is a memorial to the missing soldiers of the Battle of the Somme and includes the names of more than 72,000 officers and men who have no known grave.

What did Frank Fanning of Convent Lane hope to achieve when he enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers to fight in the war described as ‘the war to end all wars’. He took part in the landing at Cape Helles on 25th and 26th April 1915. He died on 12th July 1915 and is buried in Twelve Three Copse Cemetery which was opened at the end of the war when remains were brought in from isolated burial sites and small burial grounds on the neighbouring battle fields. There are 3,360 World War I soldiers buried or commemorated in the cemetery, but sadly 2,226 of those burials are unidentified.

These are two of the many local men who were destined never to return to their homes at the end of World War I. James Dunne and Frank Fanning have no known graves, unlike their six colleagues who are buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery. Michael Byrne, James Dwyer, Thomas Flynn, Martin Hyland, John Lawler and Michael O’Brien in a sense represent the 188 men from Athy and District who died during the 1914-1918 War. Next Sunday at 3.00pm we can pay our respects to the forgotten men of another time who once walked the same roads we now travel.

Another man who lived in Athy during the 1930’s and 1940’s died last week in England. He was Br. John Keane of the Christian Brothers who taught in the local CBS from 1935 to 1948. He was last in Athy in September 1994 when the townspeople celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edmund Rice, which celebration coincided with the departure of the Christian Brothers from Athy after a period of 132 years. Br. Keane who was based in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham came back to Athy for the celebrations and renewed acquaintances with some of his former pupils including Cha Chanders and Denis Smith. His death severs another link between the Irish Christian Brothers and the town of Athy.

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