With autumn upon us and winter fast approaching thoughts turn to events planned for the October Bank Holiday weekend to celebrate the life and achievements of Kilkea born Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Now in its fifth year the Shackleton Autumn School together with the Canal Festival held in May and the July Bluegrass Festival provide a trio of cultural events, the equal of which would be hard to find in any other Irish town of comparable size. Athy has done itself proud with the continuing success of these three festivals which provide a much needed impetus to the social and cultural life of the town.
This year the Shackleton School takes place from 28th to 31st October and commences on the Friday evening with the official opening in the Heritage Centre. An added feature of this years school is the inaugural Shackleton memorial lecture which will be delivered on the Friday evening by Brian Keenan. You may recall Keenan was the man who with John McCarthy and Terry Waite spent four years in captivity after being abducted in Baghdad. That ordeal was the subject of a book written by Keenan which he called “An Evil Cradling”. Keenan, who is a writer and a poet, has also published a number of other works including the novel “Turlough” and “Four Quarters of Light” which is an account of his journey across Alaska. I first came across Brian Keenan, not in person, but his image as captured by Athy photographer John Minahan when he photographed Belfast poet Padraig Fiaic many years ago. Fiaic, a fine poet, whose work does not always receive the public recognition it deserves, was captured on film with his friend Brian Keenan, then a young and unknown writer. Keenan’s lecture on the opening night of the Shackleton School will be one of the highlights of the weekend. There is no charge for admission on the Friday night and indeed I am told that those attending the Heritage Centre that Friday will not only hear a great lecture delivered by Brian Keenan, but also share a glass or two of wine courtesy of our sponsors.
Lectures on the Saturday commence with a contribution by Joe O’Farrell, a man who has attended all of the previous Shackleton Schools. A lifelong student of polar exploration, Joe has conducted research at the Scott Polar Institute and has visited the Antarctic, following in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton. His lecture entitled “Legacy of the frozen beards” will be his personal commentary on books written by or about polar explorers. It promises to be a fascinating journey of literary discovery.
Later on Saturday morning, Dr. David Murphy, Author whose publications include “Ireland and the Crimean War” and “The Arctic Fox - Francis Leopold McClintock” will give a talk on McClintock. Dr. Murphy is part of the team presently compiling the Dictionary of Irish Biography which promises to be the greatest publishing event in Irish book history.
David Tatham, former member of the British Diplomatic Service with responsibility for the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, will follow Dr. Murphy’s lecture with his presentation on “South Georgia” which is commonly referred to as Shackleton’s Island. South Georgia is where Shackleton was buried following his untimely death in January 1922. Rounding off the programme for Saturday is writer Michael Smith whose publications include biographies of Kerry’s own Tom Crean and Captain Oates, the Northern Ireland man who courageously gave up his life in a generous attempt to save Captain Scott and his colleagues. His latest book, “Polar Crusader” is a life of James Wordie who served on polar expeditions with both Scott and Shackleton.
On Saturday the Shackleton School continues with lectures by Grania Willis, that engaging personality who opened the school last year and who in the meantime became the first Irish woman to summit Mount Everest from the North side. Grania will give an illustrated talk of her journey to the top of the world’s highest mountain. Robert Burton, a natural history writer, will bring the formal lectures to a conclusion on Sunday with his talk on “Shackleton and the Norwegians”. On Sunday afternoon there will be a showing of the film “Scott of the Antarctic” followed at 4.30 p.m. by an open forum with Alexandra Shackleton, grand-daughter of Ernest Shackleton. This will be a question and answer session to give everyone an opportunity to contribute in one way or another to the Shackleton story.
Other events over the weekend include a trip to places associated with Shackleton, an exhibition of contemporary newspaper reports of Shackleton’s expeditions and a display of postage stamps relating to Shackleton and polar exploration. We are delighted to have for the second year the English based Antarctic Adventurers whom you will recall last year re-created an Antarctic base camp in Emily Square. With “authentic” equipment of the great age of exploration the adventurers group will provide a rare insight into the hardships endured by the courageous men who braved the Antarctic elements.
Sunday night concludes with a repeat performance of John MacKenna’s new play, “Breathless” performed by the Mend & Makedo Theatre Company. The play will also be put on on Friday night following Brian Keenan’s lecture but while the Keenan lecture will be in the Heritage Centre, the play will be performed in the Town Hall. John MacKenna is a wonderful writer who has written a number of successful novels, as well as a growing body of dramatic work, some of which have been premiered at previous Shackleton weekends. He is currently involved in attempts to get a theatre and an Art centre for Athy, a much needed facility in the town whose population has greatly increased in recent years. There is now more than ever before a pressing need for such a community based facility in Athy.
The musical highlight of the weekend will be on Saturday night when the well known Cork songwriter and singer, Jimmy Crowley, will be performing in the Town Hall. Jimmy will give us an evening of sea shanties and folk songs and never before having performed in Athy this is a rare opportunity to hear one of Ireland’s great troubadours.
A programme with details of all the events for the weekend is available from the Heritage Centre. Call in and collect a copy or telephone Margaret Walsh at (059) 8633075 to have one sent to you. Early booking is suggested if you want to attend any of the events but do remember that for the official opening and the Brian Keenan lecture on the Friday night there is no charge and all are welcome to attend.