Monday, October 28, 2013

2013 Shackleton School and Joseph Lyons Australian Prime Minister

The Shackleton School has become a fixture in Athy's October bank holiday weekend and brings a cosmopolitan feel to the town with different nationalities both attending and lecturing. This year we will welcome to our town visitors from the USA, Norway, France, Spain, Australia, Italy, the UK, Germany and of course from all over Ireland. Among the lecturers is a man who has been to the Antarctic in each of the last eight decades. This extraordinary record is held by Charles Swithinbank who, after service in the Royal Navy at the end of World War 2, joined the 1948 Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition as a glaciologist. Now in his 87th year he will lecture at the Shackleton School on his life as a scientist in the polar regions.  Another interesting talk on the subject of explorers’ food and their diet will be given by the American author Jason Anthony.

The School will be opened by the Australian Ambassador Dr Ruth Adler who will also launch the exhibition 'Mawson's men'.  This is on loan from the Australian Antarctic Division which is responsible for Australian scientific research in the Antarctic.

The exhibition focuses on the Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition to the Antarctic. Mawson first went there in 1907 with Shackleton and his companions on that trip including Frank Wild who would later serve with Shackleton on the Endurance expedition.

Interestingly the exhibition was previously on show in the Australian Parliament buildings in Canberra where the Australian Parliament was once presided over by Joseph Lyons, the son of an Athy woman.  Joseph Aloysius Lyons was born in 1879 in Stanley, Tasmania to Michael Lyons, son of a Galway emigrant and Ellen Carroll from Forest, Athy, Co. Kildare.  Ellen was the youngest daughter of John and Catherine Carroll and she had two sisters, Letitia and Mary and a half brother John, all of whom were born in Ireland.  Her father John Carroll emigrated to North America in December 1848 and was last heard of in St. Louis from where he wrote a letter to his wife on 3rd June 1849.  Catherine, encouraged by her brother-in-law Denis Carroll, who with his wife and three children had arrived in New South Wales in 1842, sailed to Tasmania with her three daughters and arrived in Hobart on the ‘Sir W.F. Williams’ on 18th August, 1857.  Ellen, the mother of the future Prime Minister, was 11 years of age, her sister Mary 14 years, Letitia 17 years of age.  Ellen Carroll married Michael Henry Lyons on 7th September, 1870 and had 8 children including Joseph, their 4th child, who was born in Stanley, Tasmania.  Joseph’s parents had a small farm but when he was 9 years of age his father’s ill health forced the family to move to Ulverstone.  Young Joseph had to leave school and take odd jobs to support the Lyons family.  After three years one of his spinster aunts came to the family’s aid and Joe returned to Stanley to live with his mother’s two sisters.  There he completed his education and at 17 years of age Joseph Lyons qualified as a teacher. 

His membership of the Worker’s Political League, the forerunner of the Australian Labour party, was not approved of by the Department of Education and Joseph Lyons resigned his teaching position and stood for election to the Tasmanian Parliament.  At 30 years of age he began a 19 year membership of the Tasmanian Parliament, five years of which he was State Premier.  In 1915 at 36 years of age he married 18 year old Enid Burnell who was to play a very significant part in his political life, as well as being mother to their 12 children.  Always conscious of his Irish background, Joseph Lyons became Vice President of the Hobart United Irish League following the Easter Rising of 1916.

In 1929 he left the Tasmanian State Parliament for Federal politics and won a seat in the Labour government as Acting Treasurer.  In 1931 he broke away from the Labour party and formed the United Australian party which won a clear majority in the December 1931 General Election. 

Joseph Lyons came to power as Prime Minister of Australia during the years of the Great Depression.  He was described by Robert Menzies who was later Prime Minister as ‘the best parliamentarian I have ever known’.  Joseph Lyons’s chief success as Prime Minister was to restore stability to the government following the Great Depression.  Indeed President Roosevelt expressed desire to meet Lyons whom he described as ‘the man who brought a Western country out of depression quicker than anyone else.’ 

He had considerable popular appeal but by 1938 began to lose control of the United Australian party.  His health began to fail and he died of a heart attack in Sydney on 7th April, 1939.  He was buried in Davenport, Tasmania.  Joseph Aloysius Lyons was the only Tasmanian to have been Prime Minister of Australia and the only Australian to have been both premier of his home state and Prime Minister of Australia. 

With the arrival of the Mawson Exhibition from Australia the link between Athy and the land down under brings to mind the man whose mother in the middle of the 19th century set out from Forest to make the long journey to Tasmania.  Everyone is welcome to attend the opening of the Shackleton Autumn School in the Heritage Centre on Friday 25th October at 7.30 p.m.

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