Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shackleton Autumn School 2008

The celebrations which marked the 50th anniversary of Scoil Mhichil Naofa went off with wonderful aplomb last weekend.  Great credit is due to all concerned, teachers, pupils and parents alike.  The emphasis on the 50th anniversary of what was essentially the opening of the school building probably obscured for many parents the longer history of national schooling in Athy.  Scoil Mhichil Naofa, opened in 1958, merely reflected a name change.  Where before its predecessor went under the name St. Michael’s School, the new building, blessed and opened by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin on 23rd October of that year was to be home to Scoil Mhichil Naofa.  The use of the Irish version of the school name did not mean that its previous history stretching back to 1852 was to be disregarded, or thereafter to be ignored.  There is a danger that in celebrating the 50th anniversary the previous 106 years would be submerged and overlooked.  How nice therefore to see that the Sisters of Mercy, now retired, participated in the celebrations.  Their involvement was a reminder, if same was ever needed, that the legacy of the followers of Catherine McCauley is one which adorns the history of education in Athy.  The Sisters of Mercy share with the now absent Christian Brothers our town’s gratitude for their magnificent contribution to the education of several generations of young Athy folk.  If nothing else the Scoil Mhichil Naofa celebrations remind us yet again of our debt to both the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers.

The last weekend in October has for the last eight years occupied a special place in the cultural life of our town.  For some, the SHACKLETON AUTUMN SCHOOL holds little or no interest, but for others, thankfully, the October bank holiday weekend offers a unique opportunity to see some of the world’s best polar experts take to the podium in the local Town Hall.  That same room which in the past echoed to the sound of dance bands or provided theatrical space for touring fit up companies will this year host speakers from America, England and Ireland.

This year the 8th Autumn School is hosting a major exhibition of photographic portraits being part of an exhibition coming to Athy from the Museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England.  After Athy, the exhibition will travel to the Exployers Club in New York and later to the Royal Geographical Society in London.  The South Kildare town will be the only Irish venue to feature this important exhibition.  In addition to the portraits the exhibition will also include unique polar photographic equipment.  This exhibition is a not to be missed and the fact that Athy has been able to secure it is an indication of the high standing of Athy Heritage Centre in the world of polar exploration.

The Autumn School opens on Friday, 24th October with the launch of the second volume of ‘Nimrod’, the Journal of the ERNEST SHACKLETON AUTUMN SCHOOL.  This will be followed by the opening of the Polar Portraits Exhibition, during which Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones, Curator of Art at the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge and editor of ‘Face to Face’, an account of pioneering photography, will give a talk on the exhibition.  Events on Friday commence at 7.30 p.m. and an invitation is extended to all to come along to the Heritage Centre.  There is no cover charge on Friday night.

Saturday sees the first of four lectures starting at 10.30 a.m.  The lecturers that day include Dr. Jim McAdam of Queens University in Belfast whose chosen topic is ‘Shackleton and Chile’.  From England comes Kari Herbert, daughter of the distinguished polar explorer, Sir Wally Herbert who at 12 noon will speak on ‘The Hero’s Heart – the women behind Polar Exploration’.  Saturday afternoon is given over to E.C. Coleman who has published two volumes on polar exploration and whose lecture at 2.30 p.m. will deal with ‘The Royal Navy and Polar Exploration’.  He will be followed at 4.00 p.m. by Dr. Stephanie Barczewski, currently a professor of history in America and the author of several books including ‘Titanic – Night Remembered’.  Her topic, ‘Antarctic Destinies – Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism’ will no doubt attract a lot of interest.

The Autumn School dinner will take place on Saturday night in the Clanard Court Hotel at 8.00 p.m.  It promises to be an enjoyable evening as one of Ireland’s foremost traditional musicians Brian Hughes will be making an appearance and playing at the end of the meal.

Sunday morning will be graced with the final two lectures, the first starting at 10.30 a.m. when Huw Lewis-Jones will give an illustrated talk entitled ‘Freeze Frame – Historic Polar Photography’, followed at 12 noon by Mike Tarver.  A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Vice President of the Captain Scott Society, Tarver’s subject is ‘The SS Terra Nova (1884-1943) and Other Polar Exploration Ships of the Heroic age!’.  The afternoon is given over to two films, ‘Foothold on Antarctica’ and ‘Antarctic Crossing’ which will be introduced by Peter Fuchs, son of Sir Vivian Fuchs who with Sir Edmund Hillary led the successful transantarctic expedition of 1958. 

On Sunday evening at 9.00 p.m. Cliff Wedgebury, the Cork born musician and balladeer will present his one man show in music and in words on the life of Ernest Shackleton.  This promises to be a musical evening which should appeal not only to polar enthusiasts but to a wider audience also.

All events take place in the Town Hall and further information as regards tickets, times and admission prices can be obtained at the Heritage Centre, Tel: (059) 8633075, Email:

The twelve page programme produced by the organizers of the weekend, which programme is freely available, is in itself a first class production with several superb photographs.  It will probably be a collectors item at some time in the future.  Make sure to pick up your free copy in the Heritage Centre while supplies are still available.

I forgot to mention the bus trip on Monday morning at 10.00 a.m., guided by John MacKenna whose biographical study of Shackleton published a few years ago in conjunction with Jonathan Shackleton, is regarded as one of the best books in recent years on the South Kildare born explorer.  As in previous years this trip promises to be an enjoyable experience.

Finally a book appeared on the shelves of Dublin book shops during the week.  Titled, ‘Ireland through the Looking Glass – Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate’, the hardback published by Cork University Press was written by my daughter Carol.  It was the result of several years of in depth research conducted into the writing of Flann O’Brien, alias Myles na gCopaleen, who during the 1950s wrote for the Nationalist and Leinster Times under the pseudonym George Nowall.  It’s a wonderful achievement to see one’s work in print and Carol’s book prompted a family member to claim that it was ‘the first real book written by a Taaffe since the volumes produced by Fr. Denis Taaffe over 150 years ago’.  So much for the ‘Eye on Athy’s Past’ volumes!  However, congratulations to Carol Taaffe on a wonderful achievement which I can only aspire to emulate at some time in the future.

No comments: