On Friday 26th October President Michael D. Higgins will visit Athy to officially open the 12th Shackleton Autumn School. This will be President Higgins’ first visit as Uachtarain na hEireann to the south Kildare town and marks an important step in the short history of the Autumn School. Over the last 11 years the Town Hall venue has hosted an extraordinary variety of Antarctic experts who have travelled from America, Norway, England and elsewhere to address audiences interested in Polar history, Polar studies and research.
The Shackleton Autumn School has been one of Athy’s great achievements over the past decade. At a time when the recession is biting deep into the heart of the town’s economic wellbeing it is gratifying to acknowledge the voluntary workers who have brought the school to the preeminent position it occupies today.
This year the Shackleton Autumn School, in addition to welcoming the President of Ireland, will also play host to the grandsons and granddaughter of three famous Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Scott and Tom Crean. So far as I am aware the attendance of Alexandra Shackleton, Falcon Scott and Brendan O'Brien over the October Bank Holiday weekend marks the first occasion that these three distinguished families have come together to mark an Antarctic related event in Ireland. It will be a unique occasion and one which confirms the worldwide status which today attaches to the event which started in Athy in 2001. Athy’s Shackleton Autumn School is today widely regarded as the world’s most important annual Antarctic conference, a boast of which we can be justifiably proud.
President Higgins will arrive in Athy on Friday 26th October. The evening will commence with a wine reception in the Heritage Centre at 7.00pm, followed by the official opening by the President. There has always been a very good attendance on the School’s opening night and it’s expected that the people of Athy will come to the Heritage Centre to greet our President on the occasion of his first official visit to the town.
This year the School will host an exhibition on Captain Scott’s 1910-1913 expedition. The exhibition will tell the story of Scott, who reached the South Pole only to die while on the return trip. It will feature artefacts relating to Tom Crean and Patrick Keohane, two Irishmen who both served on that expedition. As always, there is a wide variety of lectures to choose from. Kari Herbert will talk about Shackleton’s wife Emily and the wives of other Polar explorers over the bank holiday weekend, while the distinguished scientist, Dr. Gabrielle Walker, familiar to many from her work with BBC television and radio, will talk about the scientific legacy of the heroic era of Polar exploration. Other lecturers will focus on the Irishmen who served with Captain Scott, a German expedition to the Antarctic in 1912 and many other aspects of Antarctic history. One unique event will be the launch of a reprint of ‘Antarctic Days’, a book, first published in 1913 about Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. On Sunday night, 28th October, Athy Community Arts Centre will host an exhibition of the Polar photography of the American artist J.J. L’Heureux, followed by a performance by the English folk singer Jake Wilson of his own composition ‘All’s Well’, inspired by the story of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition. Full details of the School are available from the website www.shackletonmuseum.com.
Earlier this month Eric Hobsbawm, widely regarded as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian died at 95 years of age. His membership of the Communist party no doubt prompted and guided his many publications on social history which commenced with his 1948 publication ‘Labour’s Turning Point’, an edited collection of documents from the era of the Fabian Society. He will perhaps be best remembered for his detailed and readable studies of social protest in the 19th century and his influential ‘Age of’ series which started with ‘The Age of Revolution 1789-1848’. It was followed by ‘The Age of Capital 1848-1875’ and by ‘The Age of Empire 1875-1914’. The last of the series ‘The Age of Extremes 1914-1991’ appeared some years ago, bringing to a close a defining work much admired for the quality of the writing as the depth of its social analysis. Hobsbawm was a regular attender at the Hay Literary Festival which takes place each year in the small Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye. Like Athy’s Shackleton Autumn School the Hay Literary Festival has become an annual event which has grown in importance year by year. Both have brought worldwide identification and recognition to two small urban areas, even if Athy must at this stage at least give way to the Hay festival as the premier festival of its type in these islands.